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

- January 25, 2013

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.