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Cary Brunswick

March 3, 2012

U.S. intervention in Syria's uprising would be a gamble

So, what about Syria?

That question has been posed for nearly a year now, since the Arab Spring uprisings led to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and eventually Libya.

The continuing violence by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces against the opposition, which has led to a death toll of more than 6,000 in less than a year, is putting the so-called Obama Doctrine to the test.

The rationale applied to justify our assistance to the Libyan rebels was spelled out by President Barack Obama last year, when he stated that, "To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and _ more profoundly _ our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances (people facing brutal reaction while seeking freedom) would have been a betrayal of who we are."

And the doctrine could even more aptly be used to promote intervention on behalf of those fighting the autocratic Syrian government. So why isn't it?

Well, the Middle East is not North Africa, and there is a complex set of circumstances that has to be considered before the U.S. and/or its NATO alliance jump into the fray, whether by providing arms to the rebels or getting involved in even more direct ways.

In the middle of this mix are Israel, Iran and Russia, with both of the latter being Syrian allies and arms suppliers to the Syrian government. While Iran and Syria may be strange bedfellows, Russia's position was made exceedingly clear in recent days.

First, Russia joined China in a veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned the Syrian government's deadly crackdown on demonstrators, and Russian President Vladimir Putin this week left no doubt how he feels about the possibility of U.S. involvement is what looks more and more like a civil war.

Putin said Russia would not permit a repeat of the Libyan conflict where NATO air strikes helped rebels oust Moammar Gadhafi's regime.

"Learning from that bitter experience, we are against any U.N. Security Council resolutions that could be interpreted as a signal for military interference in domestic processes in Syria," Putin said in the article published Monday in Moscow News.

And the Russian president warned any U.S./ NATO interference that lacked U.N. endorsement.

"I strongly hope that the United States and other nations … won't try to resort to a forceful scenario in Syria," Putin said. "I can't understand that bellicose itch."

On the other hand, Obama is facing calls from congressional Republican leaders to get more involved in aiding rebels by providing weapons, intelligence, money and supplies immediately.

"What is needed urgently are tangible actions by the community of responsible nations to ensure that the Syrian people have the means to protect themselves against their attackers," the group led by Sen. John McCain wrote, adding that the U.S. should lead the charge.

These same lawmakers had urged Obama to intervene more directly in Libya by arming and supporting the rebels, but the president stuck with the NATO strategy of air strikes.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Arab League leaders in Tunisia last weekend as "the friends of Syria" but could not agree on way to stop the brutal assault on rebels.

"What are we going to arm them with and against what? We're not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan," Clinton told CBS News on Monday.

Another administration concern is that weapons might go to al-Qaida, which also is supporting the uprising in Syria.

So, for now, it appears the U.S. will be relying on a policy of jawboning to bring pressure on the Assad government in Syria to end its crackdown, if not its rule.

Also at issue is that in some ways the Syrian uprising is the start of a religious civil war, with the rebellion being led by Sunni Muslims opposed to the secular Syrian government. Caught in the middle are the Shiite minority, who fear what might occur if the Assad regime were to be forced out of power.

Last year, Obama also said "that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."

The Syrian uprising likely is one of those cases when we should stay out of what could easily become a sectarian civil war, with or without our help.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at

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