You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Obama Has To Lead From Behind In Syria, Even If He Doesn’t Want To

This is a contribution to ‘What Should the United States Do About Syria?: A TNR Symposium.

It’s the year 2012, and we are watching a massacre unfold, in real time, on Facebook pages and pixilated livestreams. A young boy lies on a filthy operating table, his nearly lifeless eyes staring upward as blood pours out of a gaping shrapnel wound on his neck. On the ground, a man, his face blown off. Women scream as they view a pile of bodies: husbands, sons, brothers?

These are the haunting images coming from Syria, and mainly from Homs, the city of one million that has absorbed the bulk of Bashar al-Assad’s fury. Syrians have long made jokes about “El Homsi,” a bumbling character reminiscent of Londoners’ disdain for the Irish. But as artillery shells and unguided rockets rain down on civilians in the besieged neighborhood of Bab Amr, they’re not joking any longer.

What can we in the United States do, other than watch in horror? The dispiriting truth is that, for the moment, we can’t do much at all—not only for a lack of political options, but for a lack of collective political will. And so the Syrian crisis is destined to get worse—perhaps far worse—before it gets any better.

The options that the Obama administration has currently put on the table—more rhetoric, more sanctions, more diplomatic support for the Arab League and the Syrian National Council (SNC), the umbrella group set up to represent the revolution—seem hopelessly inadequate to the task. Assad is not going to suddenly realize the error of his ways and delegate authority to his vice president, as the Arab League has demanded. And with this week’s formal withdrawal of Gulf state ambassadors, the odds of Arab diplomacy solving the conflict—never great—have gone down dramatically. The Arab League is meeting again this weekend, and the chatter in diplomatic circles is that it will make one last sally at the U.N. Security Council. (“Everything is very and I mean very possible but first there will be one more go to U.N.,” a retired Gulf diplomat told me.) But, even then, it seems likely that Russia and China will again deploy their vetoes.

Meanwhile, that joint veto has fueled fury and desperation on the ground—spurring the hapless SNC to lose credibility to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of military defectors and local militias defending enclaves like Bab Amr. “Diplomacy won't work,” one Syrian told me. “Everybody wants to fight the regime and the regime thinks it now has its chance. Male refugees I met in Jordan are waiting for weapons to be secured before they sneak back into Syria to join the FSA and many have already done so. I am talking about the overwhelming majority of male refugees. It is mind-boggling.” (Another Syrian emailed: “If the FSA is armed properly, we'll probably see more civilians join as well as an incredible increase in the amount of proper military defections.”) 

It seems that Syria, then, is on a path to more violence. What can the United States realistically do right now to stall its progress? Diplomatically, a “Friends of Syria” contact group of Western powers and neighboring countries is already being set up that can be used to rally support for the opposition. Western intelligence agencies, together with those from Turkey and Arab countries, could also be directed to gather as much information as they can on the intentions and disposition of Assad’s forces—mapping every warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse and doghouse supporting the regime—and encouraging further defections. And the United States, together with other countries, can provide much needed support to set up a more unified command structure for the ragtag FSA, and to smooth its fraught relations with the SNC.

On the other hand, the debate over whether to arm the FSA, however important, is rapidly being overtaken by events. Al Jazeera reported Thursday that the Arab League may soon officially recognize the SNC, sending the clear signal that Assad has no future in Syria and triggering Gulf cash—and weapons—to start flowing in large quantities to the opposition.Indeed, pro-opposition Syrian businessmen and expatriates are already raising money; private and perhaps not-so-private cash is probably already streaming in its way from the Gulf. (Time’s Rania Abouzaid reports that AKs are selling for $1,200 in Turkey, $1,600 in Jordan, and $3,000 in Lebanon.) To the extent that it can, the United States should urge that any official funding, from Saudi Arabia or Qatar, for instance, be channeled to responsible actors—no sectarian reprisals—and consist only of light weapons. The Obama administration should also provide humanitarian aid, expertise, and diplomatic and intelligence support.

But nobody should expect a miracle in Syria. Obama’s challenge is to accelerate Assad’s fall with one hand tied behind his back. There is little appetite in Washington, let alone Middle America, for yet another messy Middle East intervention, and so the administration is consigned to acting on the margins. That could change, of course, as the situation worsens. (The Pentagon is already preparing military plans.) But for now Obama has no choice but to lead from behind.

The Syrian regime is crumbling, but slowly. There are worse policy outcomes, perhaps, given the political constraints on the Obama administration. But the human costs are high. The uprising continues to grow more sectarian; the regime more brutal. A frustrated Syrian friend emails: Do they realize how difficult it is for the Syrian psyche that we are now calling upon the West to intervene? We do so because it is the only solution at present. Everything else is a waste of time.”

Blake Hounshell is managing editor of Foreign Policy.