Late last month, U.S. President Barack Obama stood before a shivering but enthusiastic crowd gathered on Washington’s National Mall to hear him lay out his vision for his final term in office. America was emerging from a dark period of struggle and conflict, he told them in his inauguration address. “A decade of war is ending.”
Had they lived long enough, this might have come as news to the 210 people who died in Syria that day—a fraction of the approximately 60,000 who have perished since an uprising began against dictator Bashar al-Assad almost two years ago.
The dead, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, included 15 children and at least 68 civilians—one of whom was tortured to death by the regime. The toll has continued apace. “Every single day has become a fixed price: 250 casualties,” says Hassan Hachimi, a Syrian-Canadian member of the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella coalition of opposition groups.
And yet even after the United States joined other NATO member states, including Canada, to stop a far less bloody conflict in Libya, the carnage continues unabated in Syria. And President Obama describes a world he wished existed, rather than the one that does.
The arguments for Western intervention in Syria are both humanitarian and strategic. Syria today is a tragedy. In addition to the dead, hundreds of thousands have fled, and another two million—of a total population of just 20 million—are internally displaced. Fighting rages throughout the country, including on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. Government forces, unable to hold territory, use air strikes and artillery to pummel their own cities. Civilians have little protection.
“Government forces have committed systematic human rights and humanitarian violations, in some cases amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes,” says Nadim Houry, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch, an NGO whose researchers have documented abuses in the conflict in detail.
Washington is already providing communications equipment to Syria’s opposition. The case for escalating this assistance to measures that might include arming and training rebels or even air strikes is less altruistic but, according to its proponents, also compelling.
Syria under Assad is one of Iran’s most important allies, providing Tehran easy access to the Mediterranean, and to Lebanon and the Hezbollah militant group that thrives there—essentially giving Iran an unofficial border with Israel. But Syria is not a natural Iranian partner. Though ethnically and religiously diverse, its people are predominantly Sunni Muslims, unlike the Shia Muslims of Iran. Removing the Assad regime likely ends Syrian loyalty to Iran’s ayatollahs.
There’s now “an opening” Washington “can take advantage of,” says Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut. “This is a regime that has always been a thorn in your side, that is allied to Iran and Hezbollah, who have done a lot of damage to American interests in the region.”
Syria’s key location, as well as a relatively advanced arsenal that reportedly includes chemical weapons, mean the consequences of the state’s collapse from prolonged civil war are potentially severe. Syria is not a country whose misery and chaos can be easily contained. Expediting Assad’s downfall would lessen the costs of rebuilding Syria once he is gone, says Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as a security adviser to former president George W. Bush. “The situation continues to get worse and worse inside Syria. It makes putting the pieces together that much harder.”
None of these arguments would come as a revelation to Barack Obama. In fact, it has emerged that departing defence secretary Leon Panetta, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then-CIA director David Petraeus and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton all endorsed a plan last summer to arm the Syrian opposition. Obama rejected it.
Reasons not to intervene in Syria often revolve around the nature of opposition rebels and the supposed strength of the Syrian military. But arguments about the capabilities of Syria’s air defences were dealt a blow last month when Israeli jets successfully struck deep inside the country—reportedly hitting a convoy of weapons bound for Lebanon—and returned home unscathed.
Concerns about Syria’s opposition persist. It is not united. And its ranks include extreme Islamists, some of whom share the same radical anti-Western philosophy as al-Qaeda. Prominent among them is Jabhat al-Nusra, designated a terrorist organization in December by the United States. Foreign fighters are also joining the struggle.
Opponents of intervention worry that by backing Syria’s opposition the West may inadvertently help jihadists take control of the country. Mohamad Khatib, part of the opposition Syrian National Council, says these fears are overblown. “The Syrians had their revolution to get rid of a dictatorship. They don’t have room for an Islamic state after that.”
Nevertheless, reports from inside Syria suggest al-Nusra is becoming more powerful, allegedly receiving arms and money from networks in the Gulf. That its emerging strength is cited as a reason not to intervene frustrates those who believe radical Islamists in Syria have profited from the West’s refusal to act.
“It was to a large degree a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who previously worked in America’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Having declined to arm moderate factions in the opposition, the West gave jihadists space to grow, and their presence among the rebels now justifies continued inaction.
But there have been hints lately that American policy may finally be about to change. Last week Secretary of State John Kerry suggested the United States is reconsidering its options regarding Syria.“This is a new administration now, the President’s second term,” he said at a press conference alongside Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “I’m a new secretary of state, and we’re going forward from this point.”
Until now, the Obama administration’s approach to crises in the Middle East has been restrained; stung by Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has tried to avoid further entangling America in the region. On Syria, this has resulted in paralysis, according to Young. “Whenever the Americans do anything, they want to see the endgame from the beginning,” he adds. “They want everything to be perfect before they intervene. Syria is a messy place, and it’s not going to be black and white.”
And yet what America might accomplish now is uncertain. After two years of slaughter, many Syrians feel abandoned by the West. Other countries and forces—from Iran to Qatar to foreign jihadists—have tried to shape the outcome of the Syrian war while Western nations watched from the sidelines.
Hachimi, among many other Syrians, still hopes the outside world will help drive the “criminal” Assad from power. Syrians will fight on alone, he says, and they’ll succeed. “But it will take longer.”