US and Syria: The third way

The West should do more to stop the decimation of Syria.

An entire generation of Syrians has been maimed, writes Bishara [AFP]

Twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda, history is repeating itself a second time as a tragedy in Syria.

Then as now, indifference, incompetence and procrastination underline UN shortcomings and Western double standards. As if we’ve learned nothing, zero, zip, zilch, nada.

Now as then, the justifications for inaction are more of the same feeble excuses.

In 1994, the US/West was presumably marked by its failed Somalia intervention, preoccupied by the crisis in Europe/Yugoslavia and captivated by the trial of OJ Simpson. 

Ditto in 2014. The US/West is said to be marked by its failed intervention in Iraq, preoccupied by the crisis in Ukraine, and gripped by the trial of Oscar Pistorius – or the “mystery” of a missing Malaysian plane.

But unlike Rwanda where inaction in response to the killings of hundreds of thousands was justified by their archaic nature and speed, in Syria, the mayhem has been going on for almost three years, not three months as was the case in the African nation.


With hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of refugees, this proud, ill-fated Arab nation is being decimated.

With the UN Security Council deadlocked between the US and Russia, the world looks on as death and destruction touch every town and neighbourhood, devastating families and harming innocent children. An entire generation of Syrians has been maimed, perhaps for life.

Millions have been fleeing the violence or evicted from their towns and villages and are living under dreadful circumstances.

Goodwill is no substitute for better policy in Syria, especially for the self-appointed world superpower.

It’s the worst refugee crisis in decades, with more than 9 million displaced, and over 2.5 million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. 

The US has contributed funds, some $1.3bn, to help secure temporary food and shelter. But of the 135,000 Syrians who asked for political asylum in the US in 2013, only 31 were allowed in. That’s 1 in 4,000.

The Obama administration says it will relax the asylum procedures, but it still lags far behind Europe, which has accepted some 60,000 refugees thus far. The rest of the displaced Syrians, mostly children, remain in limbo or live in tents. 

And there is no end in sight. Western and other able governments prefer to help out from afar. Alas, even their humanitarian aid has proved inadequate, especially when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime tries to starve entire communities into submission.

In the absence of real solutions, even goodwill gestures that come with the best of intentions can be inadequate. For example, giving out toys for the young Syrian refugees is kind but there is something terribly disturbing about giving a homeless child a LEGO set to build a toy house for fun.

Put simply, goodwill is no substitute for better policy in Syria, especially for the self-appointed world superpower.

Right and wrong

Let me be clear; Americans are mostly not interested in another military intervention, and President Barack Obama is probably the soberest guy in Washington today. He’s cool and collected in a city saturated with excitable populists and gun-ho opportunists.

But is this sobriety a sign of carefulness or utter indifference to the soaring Syrian tragedy?

Listening to him explain the administration’s position on Syria, one senses an aggravated president fed up with his detractors who take cheap shots against his policies without providing viable alternatives.

Domestic politics and Republicans badgering have motivated much of the criticism. And the same loudmouths who got the US into the Iraq quagmire are today pestering him about Syria as they did about Iran. But there are also those who truly care about stopping the bloodshed.

Before we go any further, it’s helpful to recall what’s worrying Obama, in his own words:

“Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force… And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

And he added rather irritatingly:

“I would note that those who criticise our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops…’ Well, what do you mean?’Well, you should be assisting the opposition.’ Well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? ‘Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.’ Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off.”

Obama is probably right about his gun-ho critics, but does that make him right about Syria?

Yes and No

Yes, Washington’s warmongers haven’t met a war scenario they didn’t like. But no; a decade of war has not stopped Obama from using military force, for example in Libya, when he deemed it necessary.

Yes, the critics also oppose deploying troops to Syria. But no; they don’t oppose aerial bombings as a way of deterring the regime from committing more atrocities.

Yes, the administration is supporting the Syrian opposition. But no; it’s not helpful. It provides the opposition with the minimum to help it survive, but not enough to defeat or at least pressure the Assad regime into serious negotiations.

And yes, Syria has agreed to give up its chemical weapons. But no; the Assad regime has not divulged all its stockpiles and excluded the biological weapons, according to the administration’s own leaks

And finally, yes the threat of force did compel Assad to do away with the country’s weapons of mass destruction.  But no; this was not done on behalf of the Syrian people; it was done mostly on Israel’s behalf.  WMDs are not the cause of death and destruction in Syria; it’s mainly the regime’s conventional killing machine – its planes and heavy armour.

More relevantly, when Obama backtracked on bombing the regime’s conventional military installations after it violated its “redline” on the use of chemical weapons, and when he failed to enact policies that meet his stated goal of “Assad must go,” Obama has de facto emboldened Assad and encouraged his allies in Tehran and Moscow to play hard ball.

Gaming in Syria

Poker, chess, basketball and baseball, among others, have been used as metaphors to help explain what lies behind US foreign policy to the bewildered.

I am all for the use of metaphors to explain the game of nations as much as the next person, but the Syrian tragedy is not a game.

And yet the bleeding nation is treated as if it were a disposable piece in a US-Russian geopolitical chess match, or a bet to place in poker politics. 

The president, we are told, isn’t terribly alarmed by the new Syrian – or Middle Eastern-type – extremists: “If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Hence, in his latest foreign policy pitch in the Philippines, Obama dampened the chances for a “home run” in Syria.

Syria is not a major oil producer; it’s not in Europe, and doesn’t pose national security risk to the US. So why intervene?

Only as US-Russian tensions deepen over Ukraine, are the pundits suggesting that Washington escalate the war against Assad as a way to hit back at Putin in Syria. Rarely has global power politics been so cynical.

Obama said in the beginning of the year that he is “haunted” by what is happening in Syria, but not by his decision not to get the US involved militarily.

Fine. But then what? Has Obama tried to articulate and embrace a third way between reckless military intervention and utter inaction? 

This question is of paramount importance for the US and the rest of us. Because, unless the bleeding stops and a political solution is found, sooner than later, Syria will haunt us all for a long time to come. 

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.