If Pundits Can Agree about Syria, Why Won’t the U.S. Act?

We welcome this post from UConn political scientist Jeremy Pressman.


As pundits tell President Obama the million things he must do in his second term and as the humanitarian situation in Syria further deteriorates (e.g. 60,000 dead, a massive refugee problem), the debate over what the United States should do in Syria is heating up again. But even as some of the same proponents and opponents again duke it out, what is striking to me is the core agreement: the United States should do more to coordinate both the Syrian opposition and the international response.  The interesting question is why the Obama administration isn’t doing it.

If we leave aside the important question of providing “lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition,” establishing a no-fly zone, forming a peacekeeping force, or other military steps, there is actually much agreement. In a memorandum (PDF) to President Obama, Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh call for a U.S.-organized “national dialogue on the nature of the desired transition” in Syria. Help the Syrians talk about what comes next by bringing together representatives of the many ethnic and religious groups in Syria. Create a “national platform.” Radwan Ziadeh wants a transitional government or government-in-exile (and Fred Hof does too). A U.S.-organized dialogue could provide a forum for the consideration of such ideas.

In addition, Doran and Shaikh seek an international framework to organize international efforts regarding Syria. They advocate the formation of an International Steering Group (ISG) to help with immediate goals (e.g. protect Syrian civilians) and longer-term aims like the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of combatants.

Marc Lynch, though long opposed to U.S. military intervention in Syria, agrees that a greater U.S. role could help on the international front:

 The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage, and do more to coordinate regional and international action to keep the outside players from working at cross purposes.

And, he agrees regarding the Syrian domestic opposition as well, given the insurgency and civil war: “That suggests a more hands-on approach to coordinating and increasing the flows of aid into the hands of an organized political leadership.”

Now I am always skeptical when everyone agrees on something because if it is so obvious to all the pundits, left, right, and center, how come the officials, in this case in the Obama administration, are not doing it? I can think of three reasons.

The first is an information problem. The Obama administration is doing a lot of these things but people do not realize it, and they are not publicized. They are happening somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy or out in the field beyond our view. Lynch offers an example that makes this point: “The new National Coalition represents the best American and international effort to date to pull together a representative and effective opposition umbrella.” Or Hof, though he wonders if lethal assistance is really what is needed, notes that, “there is no shortage of people in Syria’s local revolutionary committees who will testify to the efficacy of American technical and non-lethal material assistance.”

The second option is that you cannot actually set aside the military steps that I mentioned above. Maybe coordination only works if you have the muscle to back it up. If the Obama administration is not willing to get more involved in arms, no-fly zones and the like, maybe it would not have the credibility or contacts with Syrian or international actors to create and lead the organizing efforts. Andrew Tabler, for example, is explicit about the inter-connectedness: put Patriot missile batteries in southern Turkey, thereby create a 50-mile no-fly zone, and then, as “an important ancillary benefit,” there would be a space for Syrian opposition and international officials “to help alleviate suffering and build a viable government for post-Assad Syria.” Robin Yassin-Kassab makes a similar point; funding certain parts of the opposition would “feed the hungry and fund the fighters.”

The third possibility is that the United States cannot do these things because other people are not cooperative. Maybe the Gulf states do not want to coordinate arms sales; maybe they cannot agree, either with each other or the United States, on which factions should get the arms and money and which should not. Or, to consider another hypothetical example, maybe the fractious Syrian opposition is just that – fractious (h/t Josh Landis) – and not amenable to coordinating in a helpful manner. Or, Obama can talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin all he wants, as Doran and Shaikh urge, but Putin still may not be helpful. Russia may remain a protector of Assad and refuse meaningful cooperation with an ISG.

I have long been a skeptic of U.S. military intervention in Syria, but I was struck by the common thread of the current calls for better U.S.-led coordination and organizing efforts. Perhaps the Syria specialists will take the coordination debate to the next level, offering further details as to what is wrong or insufficient about current U.S. organizing efforts and what exactly could be done to improve upon them.

7 Responses to If Pundits Can Agree about Syria, Why Won’t the U.S. Act?

  1. Nameless January 26, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    There’s nothing controversial or even interesting about calls for “national dialogue” or establishing “international frameworks”. The U.N. has been doing it from day 1 and it’s been making exactly zero progress. It’s basically talking, and talking is not going to change anything.

    Beyond that, there does not seem to be much agreement among pundits, except for an agreement that direct military intervention is out of the question. Some (like Tabler) are proposing extremely indirect intervention methods, others (like Lynch) won’t even go there.

    The ultimate problem is that you can’t improve the situation without leaning on one or the other side. You cannot lean on Assad, because he represents legitimate, duly elected government of Syria and he has strong allies (Russia and China) which would be strongly opposed to any attempt to undermine him. Ideologically, leaning on Assad or supporting resistance fighters (even with the ostensible goal to “feed the hungry”) is not substantially different from leaning on Lincoln or giving money to Southern States in the American Civil War.

    At the same time, you cannot lean on the rebels, because the prevailing opinion in the West is that the rebels are somehow the “good guys”. This is in line with the general trend to view separatists always and everywhere as good guys, be it in Kosovo, Chechnya, or Kurdistan. The only exception applies when separatists try to separate from one of the Western countries, hitting too close to home: the IRA and the Basques are undeniably “bad guys” and they are much more likely to be referred to as “terrorists” than as “resistance fighters”.

    So in the end the only thing that pundits can agree on is (1) there’s need for more talking, (2) it’s not clear what course of action exists that would be acceptable to everyone, except (3) for letting things run their course.

  2. toumanbeg January 26, 2013 at 8:36 am #

    The deapth of the hatred by both sides is “mis-underestimated” to perloin a Bushism.
    Any talking will just be a ‘time out’ while both sides gather resources for another round. The only thing that will stop the dying in Syria is the death of Assad. That death will have no immediate affect, Since it will create a power vaccum with a few hundred volunteers to be the new despot. There is a way. It is a Mencken Solution in that it will work but nobody will want to do it.
    The USA needs to run de-cap strikes aggainst Assad. Tha USA can have complete and total control of the Air space over Syria about 8 hours after the decision is made to grasp it.
    With Air superority we can hunt down Assad. The key here is we only need to get lucky once, Assad has to get lucky every time, good odds, unless you are Assad.
    What makes this a Mencken solution is that politicians will hate it. Being stupid and self centered, the average pol will think; “what if they do me next?”
    The simple fact is that only the USA has to ability to carry out such a targeted assassination campaign. Bombs kill voters, Smart bombs kill politicians.
    Why spend billions and put at risk the lives of our finest when a JDAM from a B2 thru the despot’s bathroom window while he is taking his morning dump will do the job?
    This program would bare tasty fruit in the future. Despots want to be the big cheese. No fun in cowering in a deep, dank hole waiting for the Americans to find you. Just tell the world what we are doing and why. Make rules and regulations. Make elected politicians exempt. When the reward for taking power in some turd world nation is being hunted down by the Americans, there will be less people looking for the work.
    Dying is no way to make a living.

  3. toumanbeg January 26, 2013 at 8:41 am #

    “You cannot lean on Assad, because he represents legitimate, duly elected government of Syria and he has strong allies “

    Twice wrong. Assad was NOT elected, IF you claim he was, please provide the date of his election, his opponent and margin of victory.
    Your second mistake is thinking of Russia and China as “Strong”. They are not, except in their minds and yours. The reality is both are weak in critical areas. Those weaknesses can be exploited by any leader with the power and a real understanding of geopolitics.

  4. Nameless January 26, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    Just because you don’t like how he was elected, does not stop him from representing the legitimate government of Syria with physical control over the country, the military, the judicial system, etc. etc.. You don’t go around knocking over legitimate governments just because you don’t like the way they do things. Russians tried that in Afghanistan in 1978 (Mohammed Daud Khan was even less “elected” than Bashar Al-Assad.) Americans tried that in Iraq in 2003. It ended up badly in both cases.

  5. Nameless January 26, 2013 at 10:50 am #

    Also, while the strength of Russia may be overestimated (if they get too upset and they want to hurt you, they might ban you from adopting their orphans … oh wait …), you generally do not want to mess with China, they are too important an economic partner.

  6. Nameless January 26, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” (Legal axiom.)

    Here’s a general principle that explains why it’s a bad idea to lean on Assad.

    If you order sociopolitical events in the order of most likely to least likely to result in lasting peace and stability, they would go somewhat like this:

    * Suppressed coup d’etat or rebellion
    * Successful coup d’etat
    * Successful rebellion that wins without external help
    * Successful rebellion that wins with external help

    Here’s why. The government currently in place in any country, even if it is brutal and it did not come to power via democratic means, is in actual possession of the country. It is in control of the power structure, accepted by the people, and most likely to continue running things smoothly.

    Suppressing internal revolts will make the government hold on the country stronger by eliminating some of the opposition.

    Coups d’etat tend to result in relatively stable societies because they take over the place at the head of the power structure, without making major destabilizing changes. (Just to name a few, Indonesia 1965, Syria 1970, South Korea 1979, Liberia 1980.)

    Successful rebellions, even when they win without external help, often quickly descend into internal strife as the power structure is broken and factions within the new ruling body turn on each other. (Liberia 1989-90, Somali 1991, ongoing instability in Egypt and Libya since 2011.)

    When a rebellion wins with external help, that’s the worst case: it means that the rebellion was too weak to win on its own. Not only will the rebels immediately turn on each other, but they won’t even be considered legitimate in the eyes of much of the populace, whose loyalties would remain with the previous government. (Cases are too numerous to mention, but let’s just start with Afghanistan 1989, Afghanistan 2003 and Iraq 2003.)

  7. Andreas Moser January 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    We lack a Charlie Wilson: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/charlie-wilson-syria/