no wonder Secretary of State John Kerry has been walking on eggshells when
discussing potential US support to the Syrian rebels. As The
Washington Post reported earlier in the week, a renewed discussion to supply the rebels with body armor, armed vehicles, and
military training has arisen. Until now,
the support from the United States had been non-lethal aid along the lines of
humanitarian assistance (such as medical supplies and packaged meals), funding
for communications and logistical support, as well as an American invitation to
the leader of the rebels to discuss the situation. To date, any combat-related supplies the
rebels have received has come from their own conquests of government bases or
supposed help from nations like Qatar, Turkey, and, predictably, Saudi Arabia.
surprisingly, Syria is one of the last places the Obama administration would
want its boots on the ground or its military munitions ending up in the wrong
hands; however, as the situation continues to spiral downward, Kerry stated in Paris, “we need to help them to
deliver basic services and to protect the legitimate institutions of the state,”
indicating a concern of state failure lest the international community take
another stab at aiding the rebels.
recent scholarship suggests that U.S. hesitation to intervene in Syria or
provide arms thus far may come from a somewhat consistent and historical aversion
to military commitment, Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding. According to a new study by the Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released on U.S. Policy Responses to
Potential Transitions, the U.S. has historically gone to great extents to avoid
using its military during conflict driven political transitions. The report goes on to show that over a 22
year span (1989-2010), the United States has most often defaulted to a
non-response or issuing a statement, rather than imposing economic aid or
sanctions, engaging in diplomatic efforts, offering military supplies, joining
multilateral military action, or invoking unilateral military action.
effect, as the CSIS researchers point out, the question of intervention in
Syria is not just figuring out the contemporary strategy, but anticipating the
consequences in the decade to follow it.
The possibility of a failed state, marginalized groups facing
increasingly dire livelihoods and further regional chaos loom ahead regardless
of any action taken by the United States or others. Ultimately, the Obama administration is
looking to offer some form of support to the rebels before their following and
credibility diminishes or Iranian influences pervade the porous Syrian border.
is not the only former French-colonized country that has the leading superpowers
hanging in the balance. The dilemma in
Mali has been pressing upon the world’s leaders to direct attention toward the
nation without inflaming an incredibly sensitive and volatile region. Largely credited to the spillover of armed
mercenaries in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, Mali had until now been seen by
the U.S. as one of the more stable West African nations, despite a façade of
democratic rule peppered with bribes, kickbacks, and corruption involving its
comments on Mali in Paris were sung to a different tune. Kerry voiced that despite transportation,
intelligence, and other U.S. support to the French-led offensive, “There has to be an African solution, ultimately. And our
shared goal now should be that African and U.N. entities step up, so that France
has the ability to step back.” The different takes on Syria and Mali can be
seen as informed by current strategic interests. Though eager to stamp out strains of
non-state actors like Al-Qaeda in the region, Kerry’s remarks indicate that the
Obama administration is being incredibly tactful to not jeopardize its presence
in regions where it is already working to curb Al-Qaeda’s influence (presumably
question then becomes whether there is anyone more willing to take the lead
when France eventually takes a step back.
Though ideally an “African solution to an African problem” would suit,
the disparate interests of the neighboring African governments, the African
Union, and the Western powers makes Kerry’s proposition more difficult. Both Syria and Mali share the common
roadblock that caused Somalia to turn into a debacle in the 1990s: the
intelligence terrain is lacking without the eyes, ears, and interlocutors that
eventually made Egypt easier to address by the West.
not only come from internal politics and faulty governance in each of these
nations, however. Limited appetite for
U.S. presence in international crises at the moment can be evidenced by the
brutal debate over domestic issues like the impending sequestration debacle,
economic instability, the inconclusive and unpredictable aftermath of aid or
intervention, and the shadow of two prior military operations hanging over the
heads of Americans.
the other hand, Russia and China are rattling the discussions further, as the
former seeks to hold on to its role at the table and the latter to expand and assume
a larger role in the global playing fields, particularly the mineral-rich
African nations. As such, the U.S.
cannot simply ignore the impasses.
Refraining from intervention to the extent that the U.S. has done may be
prudent, but should not transition their role into bystanders as the conflicts
deepen. As Marc Lynch of the Center for
New American Security indicates, arming the rebels with American munitions does
not mean the rebels will be able to simply defeat the Syrian army. Instead, the Obama administration ought to be
strengthening the legitimate authority of the rebels and more persistently
encouraging a U.N. Resolution that emboldens them.
the whole, the CSIS report indicates that the best U.S. policy that can and
should continue to be pursued in either of these countries is the enforcement
of a political solution, which will inevitably be needed whether fatigue or a
stalemate batters the fighting down. As
in the civil war within Lebanon, there may be dozens of political solutions
that fail, but eventually one will have to stick, even if no one is fully
satisfied. If, as has been suggested, no
enforcement will hold without U.S. involvement, the Obama administration cannot
simply hope a peacekeeping force will be able to ride out the tantrums wreaking
havoc in the Middle East and Africa.
strategy of having the U.S. take the lead may not be the key here, but working
with its allies to push the direct
stakeholders from behind in a way that avoids direct confrontation seems to be
a discussion worth having. Kerry’s
cautious steps on behalf of the Obama administration regarding these fragile circumstances,
therefore, are understandable. However,
both he and his boss know that if they want to make an omelet, no matter how
careful, some eggs are likely to be broken.
Ms. Hassan is a Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellow at the National Security
Network and has a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’s
School of International and Public Affairs.