What's Next For Obama on Syria?

by Jon Western
Patterns of US military intervention in foreign humanitarian crises ebb and flow between non-intervention and limited intervention.  Jon Western on what it means for Syria.

President Obama’s decision to begin providing arms to the Syrian rebels has rankled critics on both sides of the move.  Many believe it is too little too late while others warn that the decision has launched the United States down a slippery slope toward greater intervention and war.  The only point of consensus is that almost all seem to share bewilderment about what the overall US strategic objectives are behind the policy shift.

Yet, neither the timing nor the direction of it should come as a surprise.   The Obama administration’s actions are consistent with earlier responses to regional and civil conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Ivory Coast, and even more recently in Libya.  Arming the rebels is an attempt to change local conditions and to incentivize some form of negotiated resolution.  If that fails, it provides some of the capabilities on the ground needed for limited intervention through the use of direct American air power.   

In all of the cases of limited US intervention in the past twenty years, the initial American response to regional and civil conflicts demonstrated elaborate efforts to navigate competing interests and priorities – with the aim of limiting US involvement while attempting to contain conflict.  The result in every case was an initial set of improvised and largely feeble conflict management strategies that failed at either containment or at reduction of mass violence against civilian populations.    The subsequent humanitarian crises that emerged, as well as changes on the battlefield, shifted the political and strategic environments for the United States and produced stronger internal and external pressure for greater American involvement.  Non-intervention came to be seen as more costly than limited intervention.  

Nonetheless, both Clinton and Obama limited American interventions.  They resisted deploying military force until a viable indigenous entity emerged with sufficient armed capabilities to provide the necessary “boots on the ground” to support American and NATO airpower.  In Bosnia, the US intervened only after major advances by Bosniac and Croatian forces in the spring and summer of 1995 forced the Serbs into retreat.  In Kosovo, the US and NATO again, only began to contemplate intervention after major developments within the Kosovo Liberation Army in early 1999 convinced American military officials that the KLA could do the heavy lifting ..  In both cases, the US interventions were designed to alter the balance of power on the ground in order to compel the Serbs to the negotiating table – and simultaneously constrain allied indigenous forces from waging retributive attacks (something that did not always work).  

Syria fits the pattern.  The Obama administration’s public rationale for its decision to arm the rebels was premised on the intelligence community conclusion that regime forces had crossed President Obama’s chemical weapons “red line” in their use of Sarin gas, which killed between 100 – 150 people., Despite this justification, which could have been used months earlier, the decision almost certainly was more directly influenced by the rebel defeat at Qusayr following a joint campaign by Syrian regime forces and Hezbollah militias from Lebanon.  

The strategic landscape of the conflict has changed. Hezbollah entered the battle more directly and sectarian radicalization between Sunni and Shia forces has increased, dramatically raising the potential for greater regional instability in Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.,

In response, the administration, still wary of direct military involvement, has moved to help develop a viable and sustainable rebel opposition.  The administration is banking that selective arming of highly vetted rebels will turn the tide on the battlefield.  The strategic objective with the move, as with prior cases, is to alter the balance of power on the ground in order to compel Assad’s regime to the negotiating table.  

The challenge for the administration is that selective arming of rebels is often a necessary, but rarely a sufficient, condition to ending conflict.  In none of the earlier cases were the rebel forces (or government forces in the case of Ivory Coast) able to compel their adversaries to negotiate on their own.  It took direct use of international military force to alter the local balance of power.  Syria may prove to be different, but given Hezbollah, Iranian, and Russian support for Assad’s regime, it’s not clear how a limited flow of light weapons to rebel forces is going to fundamentally alter conditions. Given the introduction of radical Sunni Islamists from Al Qaeda and elsewhere, it’s also unlikely the United States will open the taps to any heavy or sophisticated weapons.

With more than 100,000 dead and 6,000 people dying each month in Syria, the pressure on the Obama administration to do more will increase, not decrease.  The humanitarian tragedy of this conflict will continue to rise, but as civilians are deliberately targeted for  their ethnic, tribal, or other group affiliations, the conflict will become increasingly radicalized along sectarian lines and transform the strategic elements of the conflict.

Unless something changes the trajectory of violence, all of this suggests that the next stage may well be more, not less, American involvement.   The pattern also suggests that stepped up involvement will include the use of American air power.  
About the Author: Jon Western is Five College Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College in Massachussetts. He served in the U.S. Department of State during the Clinton Administration, and is the author of Selling Intervention and War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

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