As Syria spirals out of control, the U.S. under Obama can only watch

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — As the carnage against civilians continues across Syria, there’ a compelling humanitarian case for international intervention to stop the violence which has killed more than 10,000 civilians. Yet, what started as a political uprising against the authoritarian rule of Bashar Assad sixteen months ago, has morphed into a complex conflict which borders on civil war but now threatens to involve regional states.

Predictably with the conflict at boiling point, there are calls for foreign intervention especially as media images of civilian massacres by the regime fuel a drumbeat of righteous indignation presented alongside the usual tableaux of a “we must do something.” So is there a case for American military involvement?

Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Tamanna, near Idlib on June 22. The banner reads, "We kneel only for God". /Shaam/Reuters

First, a quick overview. Syria has been ruled by the Assad Family dictatorship since the 1960’s. Under their tenure, the country became one of the former Soviet Union’s staunchest Arab allies, supported the “rejectionist front” Palestinians to oppose any peace deal with Israel, provided a home address for the Abu Nidal terrorist group, and until five years ago, occupied neighboring Lebanon.

Because the Assad’s belong to the Alawite sect of Shi’ite Islam, the Damascus rulers have been politically close with their co-religionists in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

But largely because of Syria’s complex religious and ethnic quilt among its 22 million people, the regime has wisely maintained a secular state. There’s a sizable and prosperous Christian minority.

Moreover and ironically, Syria hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world and provides shelter for one million Iraqi refugees.

As the political sandstorm of the Arab Spring started last year in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, inevitably the winds reached Damascus. When they did, and protests started, Assad cracked down the old fashioned way; arrests, intimidation, and shootings. As violence intensified, the “international community” expressed shock and dismay but repeated attempts to censure Syria in the UN Security Council were stopped cold by the dramatic double-vetoes of Russia and Mainland China.

As this column has oft stated, despite growing international indignation over the violence in Syria, both Moscow and Beijing have provided Damascus with the diplomatic cover fire to get away with murder. What small steps the UN has achieved on the political front, such as the Kofi Annan ceasefire plan with the 300 UN observers across Syria has largely become moribund, suspending operations, as all parties to the conflict refuse to stop.

As former UN Secretary General Annan stated circuitously, “It’s time for countries of influence to raise the level of pressure on the parties on the ground and persuade them to stop the killing and start the talking.” But will another international meeting, planned for this weekend, stop the clock on the ongoing violence? Not likely.

So given the ongoing violence inside Syria, should the USA and its allies seek to topple the Assad dictatorship militarily either through a multinational UN operation or acting unilaterally? Given Russia’s and China’s continuing support for the Syrian regime, no remotely serious Security Council action will pass their double veto in the UN. And while a “Coalition of the Willing,” in this case the USA, Britain, France through NATO, could rerun the Libya scenario and intervene under the “Responsibility to Protect,” such would be setting a dangerous precedent.

When Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet, the crisis took on a dangerous new dimension. Turkey which shares a 550 mile border with Syria and has sheltered 35,000 refugees, has played a key role in arming and supporting the Free Syrian Army. Yet, Ankara, is wary of taking military action alone. NATO has condemned the Syrian action and has expressed strong solidarity with member state Turkey.

While the pros of such an operation would likely topple Assad’s family rule and serve as a devastating setback to Iran’s regional interests, the counterpoint would be to shatter a fragile secular state, to directly confront Russia, and to enter another Mideastern political imbroglio. The Obama administration acquiesced to the rise of a radical Islamic government in Egypt. Might we be opening another political Pandora’s Box for fundamentalist factions in Damascus?

The question emerges; is Syria a direct national interest of the USA? Given the wide-ranging U.S. military deployments, the severe cutbacks to military preparedness, and the Obama administration’s haphazard policy trajectory, this is clearly not America’s fight.

Seeing the carnage in Syria, surely there are feelings of hopelessness and despair. But beyond emotions, now think realistically of the collateral consequences of such an action with a significant American military role thrust into a spiral of events.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for