Mar 27th 2014

Mr. President, Time To Act On Syria

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

For better or for worse President Obama has not acted decisively with Western allies in an effort to end the horrific civil war in Syria. The tragic loss of nearly 150,000 Syrians, nine million internally displaced persons and refugees, and the massive destruction would still pale in comparison to the near-complete devastation of the nation if nothing is done soon.

Recent events in Ukraine and the Middle East provide Obama perhaps the last chance to contain and eventually end the conflict. The President must first save Syria from a ruthless tyrant who has demonstrated no qualms about destroying the whole nation only to maintain his reign. Acting now would also restore America’s credibility and send a clear message to friends and foes alike that the US will no longer sit idle in the face of this unspeakable calamity.

To begin with, it is time for Obama to recognize that he cannot count on President Putin’s help to end the bloodshed in Syria. Russia had vetoed several United Nations Security Council resolutions to punish Assad. It continues to supply him with weapons, refused to coerce or induce him to make any political concessions, and engineered the chemical deal to prevent an American strike, which has strengthened rather than weakened Assad.

Furthermore, Obama has allowed Russia to usurp the political initiatives on Syria by spearheading two bogus Geneva conferences, knowing that they would not produce a solution but rather give Assad more time to regroup and regain the upper hand. Finally, Putin has categorically refused to embrace any solution that will exclude Assad.

Now that the annexation of Crimea has soured US-Russia bilateral relations, the prospect of Russia becoming a helpful player is even dimmer than before. It would be naïve to assume that Putin will now convert and act against his own perceived interests.

Putin will maintain his position as long as Assad is part of Russia’s strategy to secure its interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin, however, knows his limits and recognizes that should the US decide to strike Syria, there is little he can do to challenge the US and its European allies. I believe that after much wrangling, he may well choose to play a positive role to protect Russia’s interests post-Assad.

Second, contrary to the view that taking military action against Syria would disrupt the ongoing negotiations with Iran about its suspected nuclear program, I maintain that the opposite is true. Iran may suspend the negotiations for a few weeks, but Tehran is still in dire economic straits and it can ill-afford to scuttle the talks while much of the sanctions remain in place.

To be sure, acting against Syria now would strengthen Obama’s hand in these negotiations, as it will send an unambiguous message to Tehran that the US will no longer buy into Russia’s or Iran’s mischief. Iran will more likely continue to adhere to the interim agreement and negotiate a long-term accord to further ease the sanctions and prevent an American or Israeli military assault.

Third, striking Assad could also enhance the prospect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations as the US will be in a stronger position to pressure both sides to make necessary concessions to reach, at a minimum, an interim agreement.

Renewed resolve by Obama would also restore his credibility among the leading Arab states, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who were extremely disappointed by Obama’s reversal of his decision to strike Syria following Assad’s use of chemical weapons. They want to feel confident that the US will uphold its commitment before they pressure Abbas to show more flexibility in the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Fourth, there are those who caution that an American strike could undermine the chemical deal; I disagree. Assad knows that he can no longer use or delay the transfer of chemical weapons, which would assuredly invite American military action. In this regard, Russia also, fearing that such weapons could fall into the hands of extremists inside the Russian Federation, wants to see all chemical weapons removed from Syria.

Fifth, others assert that widespread chaos would follow an American strike and make the situation even worse, and that Syria is be better off with Assad than without him. However, Syria is already disintegrating and the factional war is not likely to abate, but will worsen.

An American strike could strengthen the moderate rebels, led by the Free Syrian Army, and allow them to regroup and confront the extremist groups (whose strength is overly exaggerated) with the full backing of the leading Arab states and Western powers.

Finally, although the US should not undertake military measures solely for restoring its credibility, continuing lack of American credibility will only invite new challenges throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Countries like Iran and Syria would not fear crossing American red lines and states like Saudi Arabia and Israel would no longer fully rely on the US’ protection of their national security concerns.

Although there is nothing new in suggesting that the US must strike Assad, the circumstances now favor American military intervention to end the indiscriminate killings by changing the balance of power on the ground in favor of the rebels. Supplying weapons to vetted rebels, which could have helped in the past, will no longer in and of itself be sufficient or effective at this juncture.

An American military assault backed by Western powers should be preceded by a US demand that Assad immediately cease and desist the indiscriminate bombing of his civilian population or else suffer painful consequences, as was cogently put by Ambassador Frederic Hof, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:

“Unless the assaults on civilian populations by the Assad regime cease forthwith, the United States will take steps of its choosing at times of its choosing to bring relief to Syrian men, women, and – especially – children, being murdered, maimed, terrorized, and dispossessed by actions already defined as war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Independent Commission of Inquiry.”

Subsequent to that, the US must insist that Assad step down while leaving much of the bureaucracy in place to prevent the chaotic conditions that were created in Iraq.

Given his belief of Obama’s lack of resolve, Assad will likely ignore such a warning. Assad’s anticipated rejection should immediately be followed with military strikes to be limited in scope and duration, without a single American soldier on Syrian territory. It should entail the imposition of a no-fly zone, surgical attacks on some military installations and air defenses, and the destruction of runways and infantry hardware.

It is true that domestically, a majority in the US (70%, September 2013) does not wish to see military intervention, citing the Libya debacle, but to equate the situation in Syria to that of Libya is erroneous on a number of grounds:

Unlike Libya, the purpose of striking Assad is to 1) degrade his air capability and prevent him from indiscriminately bombing thousands of men, women and children, 2) prevent him from regaining lost territories, 3) open up corridors to supply stranded civilians with food and medicine, and 4) force Assad to realize that he cannot prevail.

By arresting Assad’s gains and with no effective weapons at his disposal, especially air planes and helicopters to repel rebels’ advances, he will be forced to seek a political solution that will exclude him but spare his life.

Syria represents a critical test for the US’ credibility and moral leadership. Only the US can bring an end to Syria’s suicidal path and the President must shoulder that responsibility.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "