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March 01, 2013

Syria, Mali - Any Other Takers?
Posted by Homa Hassan

It’s 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.


Not 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. 

However, 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. 

In 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.

Syria 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 leaders. 

But Kerry’s 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 Afghanistan). 

The 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. 

Roadblocks 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. 

On 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.

On 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.

The 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.


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