It’sno wonder Secretary of State John Kerry has been walking on eggshells whendiscussing potential US support to the Syrian rebels.? As TheWashington Post reported earlier in the week, a renewed discussion to supply the rebels with body armor, armed vehicles, andmilitary training has arisen.? Until now,the support from the United States had been non-lethal aid along the lines ofhumanitarian assistance (such as medical supplies and packaged meals), fundingfor communications and logistical support, as well as an American invitation tothe leader of the rebels to discuss the situation.? To date, any combat-related supplies therebels have received has come from their own conquests of government bases orsupposed help from nations like Qatar, Turkey, and, predictably, Saudi Arabia.
Notsurprisingly, Syria is one of the last places the Obama administration wouldwant its?boots on the ground or its military munitions ending up in the wronghands; however, as the situation continues to spiral downward, Kerry stated in Paris, “we need to help them todeliver basic services and to protect the legitimate institutions of the state,”indicating a concern of state failure lest the international community takeanother stab at aiding the rebels.?
However,recent scholarship suggests that U.S. hesitation to intervene in Syria orprovide arms thus far may come from a somewhat consistent and historical aversionto military commitment, Afghanistan and Iraq notwithstanding.? According to a new study by the Center forStrategic and International Studies (CSIS) released on U.S. Policy Responses toPotential Transitions, the U.S. has historically gone to great extents to avoidusing its military during conflict driven political transitions.? The report goes on to show that over a 22year span (1989-2010), the United States has most often defaulted to anon-response or issuing a statement, rather than imposing economic aid orsanctions, engaging in diplomatic efforts, offering military supplies, joiningmultilateral military action, or invoking unilateral military action.?
Ineffect, as the CSIS researchers point out, the question of intervention inSyria is not just figuring out the contemporary strategy, but anticipating theconsequences in the decade to follow it.?The possibility of a failed state, marginalized groups facingincreasingly dire livelihoods and further regional chaos loom ahead regardlessof any action taken by the United States or others.? Ultimately, the Obama administration islooking to offer some form of support to the rebels before their following andcredibility diminishes or Iranian influences pervade the porous Syrian border.
Syriais not the only former French-colonized country that has the leading superpowershanging in the balance.? The dilemma inMali has been pressing upon the world’s leaders to direct attention toward thenation without inflaming an incredibly sensitive and volatile region.? Largely credited to the spillover of armedmercenaries in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, Mali had until now been seen bythe U.S. as one of the more stable West African nations, despite a fa?ade ofdemocratic rule peppered with bribes, kickbacks, and corruption involving itsleaders.?
ButKerry’scomments 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 ourshared goal now should be that African and U.N. entities step up, so that Francehas the ability to step back.”? The different takes on Syria and Mali can beseen as informed by current strategic interests.? Though eager to stamp out strains ofnon-state actors like Al-Qaeda in the region, Kerry’s remarks indicate that theObama administration is being incredibly tactful to not jeopardize its presencein regions where it is already working to curb Al-Qaeda’s influence (presumablyAfghanistan).?
Thequestion then becomes whether there is anyone more willing to take the leadwhen 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 AfricanUnion, and the Western powers makes Kerry’s proposition more difficult.? Both Syria and Mali share the commonroadblock that caused Somalia to turn into a debacle in the 1990s: theintelligence terrain is lacking without the eyes, ears, and interlocutors thateventually made Egypt easier to address by the West.?
Roadblocksnot only come from internal politics and faulty governance in each of thesenations, however.? Limited appetite forU.S. presence in international crises at the moment can be evidenced by thebrutal debate over domestic issues like the impending sequestration debacle,economic instability, the inconclusive and unpredictable aftermath of aid orintervention, and the shadow of two prior military operations hanging over theheads of Americans.?
Onthe other hand, Russia and China are rattling the discussions further, as theformer seeks to hold on to its role at the table and the latter to expand and assumea larger role in the global playing fields, particularly the mineral-richAfrican nations.? As such, the U.S.cannot simply ignore the impasses.?Refraining from intervention to the extent that the U.S. has done may beprudent, but should not transition their role into bystanders as the conflictsdeepen.? As Marc Lynch of the Center forNew American Security indicates, arming the rebels with American munitions doesnot mean the rebels will be able to simply defeat the Syrian army.? Instead, the Obama administration ought to bestrengthening the legitimate authority of the rebels and more persistentlyencouraging a U.N. Resolution that emboldens them.
Onthe whole, the CSIS report indicates that the best U.S. policy that can andshould continue to be pursued in either of these countries is the enforcementof a political solution, which will inevitably be needed whether fatigue or astalemate batters the fighting down.? Asin the civil war within Lebanon, there may be dozens of political solutionsthat fail, but eventually one will have to stick, even if no one is fullysatisfied.? If, as has been suggested, noenforcement will hold without U.S. involvement, the Obama administration cannotsimply hope a peacekeeping force will be able to ride out the tantrums wreakinghavoc in the Middle East and Africa.
Thestrategy of having the U.S. take the lead may not be the key here, but workingwith its allies to push the directstakeholders from behind in a way that avoids direct confrontation seems to bea discussion worth having.??Kerry’scautious 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 howcareful, some eggs are likely to be broken.
Ms. Hassan is a Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellow at the National SecurityNetwork and has a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University’sSchool of International and Public Affairs.