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

Dec 5th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe must fend for itself for the first time since the end of World War II. Yet after so many years of strategic dependence the US, Europe is unprepared – not just materially but psychologically – for today’s harsh geopolitical realities. Nowhere is this truer than in Germany."
Nov 23rd 2019
Extdact: "The kind of gratitude expressed by Vindman and my grandfather is not something that would naturally occur to a person who can take his or her nationality for granted, or whose nationality is beyond questioning by others. Some who have never felt the sharp end of discrimination might even find it mildly offensive. Why should anyone be grateful for belonging to a particular nation? Pride, perhaps, but gratitude? In fact, patriotism based on gratitude might be the strongest form there is."
Nov 20th 2019
Extract: "Moody’s, one of the big three credit rating agencies, is not upbeat about the prospects for the world’s debt in 2020 – to put it mildly. If we were to try to capture the agency’s view of where we are heading on a palette of colours, we would be pointing at black – pitch black."
Nov 17th 2019
Extract: "Digital money is already a key battleground in finance, with technology firms, payment processing companies, and banks all vying to become the gateway into the burgeoning platform-based economy. The prizes that await the winners could be huge. In China, Alipay and WeChat Pay already control more than 90% of all mobile payments. And in the last three years, the four largest listed payment firms – Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and PayPal – have increased in value by more than the FAANGs (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google)."
Nov 14th 2019
Extract: "Trump, who understands almost nothing about governing, made a major mistake in attacking career public officials from the outset of his presidency. He underestimated – or just couldn’t fathom – the honor of people who could earn more in the private sector but believe in public service. And he made matters worse for himself as well as for the government by creating a shadow group – headed by the strangely out-of-control Rudy Giuliani, once a much-admired mayor of New York City, and now a freelance troublemaker serving as Trump’s personal attorney – to impose the president’s Ukraine policy over that of “the bureaucrats.” "
Nov 4th 2019
Extract: "Trump displays repeated and persistent behaviours consistent with narcissistic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. These behaviours include craving for adulation, lack of empathy, aggression and vindictiveness towards opponents, addiction to lying, and blatant disregard for rules and conventions, among others." The concern is that leaders with these two disorders may be incapable of putting the interests of the country ahead of their own personal interests. Their compulsive lying may make rational action impossible and their impulsiveness may make them incapable of the forethought and planning necessary to lead the country. They lack empathy and are often motivated by rage and revenge, and could make quick decisions that could have profoundly dangerous consequences for democracy.
Oct 31st 2019
EXTRACT: "......let’s see what happens when we have less money for all the things we want to do as a country and as individuals. Promises and predictions regarding Brexit will soon be tested against reality. When they are, I wouldn’t want to be one of Johnson’s Brexiteers."
Oct 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership."
Oct 20th 2019
EXTRACT: "Europe also stands to lose from Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds. If, in the ongoing chaos, the thousands of ISIS prisoners held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces escape – as some already have – America’s estranged European allies will suffer. Yet Trump is unconcerned. “Well, they are going to be escaping to Europe, that’s where they want to go,” he remarked casually at a press conference. “They want to go back to their homes." "
Oct 15th 2019
EXTRACT: "Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress – including the Senate – to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question."
Oct 7th 2019
EXTRACT: "The problem didn't start with the election of Donald Trump. Nor did it begin with the Democrats launching an impeachment inquiry against Trump. This is a developing crisis that has been growing like a cancer within our polity for at least the past 25 years. Its main symptoms are a lack of civility in our political discourse, a "take no prisoners" mindset, and a denial of the very legitimacy of "the other side." Trump didn't create this crisis; he was the result of it.   When Newt Gingrich took the helm of Congress in 1995, unlike previous Republican leaders, he embarked on a campaign not only to obstruct the efforts of then President Clinton, but to destroy him. Congress launched a series of investigations accusing Clinton of everything from corruption to obstruction of justice – with hints of even more nefarious plots to assassinate those who might pose a problem to his presidency.  "
Oct 4th 2019
EXTRACT: "As the story spreads, it grows darker. Meanwhile, Trump is trying to learn the identity of the whistleblower (who is protected by law), which could expose that person to great danger. And he is accusing some people – including Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee – of treason. My sense is that Trump fears the tough, focused Schiff. Trump has ominously noted that traitors used to be shot or hanged. And he hasn’t helped himself with members of either party by declaring, in one of his hundreds of febrile tweets, that forcing him from office could lead to a “civil war.” Trump has taken the United States somewhere it’s never been before. His presidency may not survive it."
Sep 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "But regardless of whether the Ukraine scandal remains front-page news, it will haunt the US intelligence community, which has been Trump’s bête noire since the day he took office. Trump has relentlessly attacked US intelligence agencies, cozied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and divulged secrets to foreign officials, potentially burning high-value sources. This behavior had already raised serious concerns about whether Trump can be trusted to receive sensitive intelligence at all. Now, intelligence leaders must ask themselves how far they are willing to go in toeing the White House line."
Sep 21st 2019
EXTRACT: "As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them.......As a result, over time pathocracies become more entrenched and extreme. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.......In the US, there has clearly been a movement towards pathocracy under Trump. As Lobaczewski’s theory predicts, the old guard of more moderate White House officials – the “adults in the room” – has fallen away. The president is now surrounded by individuals who share his authoritarian tendencies and lack of empathy and morality. Fortunately, to some extent, the democratic institutions of the US have managed to provide some push back."
Sep 16th 2019
EXTRACT: "If the Supreme Court does agree with the Divisional Court that the question is political rather than legal, it will take the UK constitution into quite peculiar territory. Prime ministers will be the new kings and queens. They will be free to suspend parliament at will, and for as long as they wish, without any judicial interference. Parliament will meet not out of constitutional necessity but in the service of the government’s interests – namely, to pass its legislation and to maintain appearances, rather than to hold it to account."
Sep 12th 2019
Extract: "The Republican Party has lashed its fate to an increasingly unhinged leader. Though three other presidential hopefuls for 2020 now stand in Trump’s way, none can defeat him. But they can damage his reelection effort, which is why the Republican Party has been scrapping some primaries and caucuses. How well Trump does in November next year may well depend on how his fragile ego withstands the coming months."
Sep 2nd 2019
EXTRACTS: "Most people think of revolutions as sudden earthquakes or volcanic eruptions that come without warning and sweep away an entire political system. But historians, political scientists, and even the odd politician know that the reality is very different: revolutions happen when systems hollow themselves out, or simply rot from within. Revolutionaries can then brush aside established norms of behavior, or even of truth, as trivialities that should not impede the popular will............ Only time will tell whether we are currently witnessing the hollowing out of British democracy. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson may well have crossed some invisible Rubicon by.......... Whatever happens now, British parliamentary democracy may never be the same again. It will certainly never again be the model that so many people around the world once admired."
Aug 29th 2019
EXTRACT: "Events such as prorogations and dissolutions happen when countries face difficult times. Therefore, because of the disastrous effects of Brexit: sterling in freefall; a recession looming on the horizon and Britain’s international standing at its lowest ebb since Suez, it is no surprise that the country is in this position now. The worrying thing is that using the monarchical power of prorogation does not solve problems – it has a history of turning them into frightening and often violent crises. There is a worrying relationship between the use of such powers and a complete breakdown in government."
Aug 28th 2019
EXTRACT: "Reminiscent of Don Quixote, Trump is tilting at windmills. His administration is flailing at antiquated perceptions of the Old China that only compound the problems it claims to be addressing. Financial markets are starting to get a sense that something is awry. So, too, is the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the global economy is fraying at the edges. The US has never been an oasis in such treacherous periods. I doubt if this time is any different. 
Aug 24th 2019
EXTRACT: "In fact, with firms in the US, Europe, China, and other parts of Asia having reined in capital expenditures, the global tech, manufacturing, and industrial sector is already in a recession. The only reason why that hasn’t yet translated into a global slump is that private consumption has remained strong. Should the price of imported goods rise further as a result of any of these negative supply shocks, real (inflation-adjusted) disposable household income growth would take a hit, as would consumer confidence, likely tipping the global economy into a recession."