7 May 2013
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


Over the past week, the Syrian conflict has taken a step towards what many fear is the beginning of a regional war. Two Israeli air attacks on weapon stocks in Syria, which the Israelis claim to be Iranian-manufactured Fateh-110 missiles destined for Iran's ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, have now been joined by renewed allegations that Syrian opposition groups have deployed chemical weapons in addition to those already alleged to have been used by the Assad regime. 

Barely two weeks ago, the first allegations of chemical weapons use came up against US President Barack Obama's 'red line' promises of August 2012 to respond decisively should such evidence prove compelling. So far, decisive proof remains in doubt, and the Obama administration continues to support only piecemeal intervention in the conflict. The preferred approach this week is for US Secretary of State John Kerry to explore whatever diplomatic compromises may be left to strike with Russia, which along with Iran (who no one is proposing to negotiate with over Syria), remains President Assad's strongest international supporter.

In failing to articulate a coherent strategy over the past two years, the impression that the US is offering 'too little, too late' at each turn of events has placed the Obama administration in an invidious position. Where international commitments have consistently failed to meet the scale of the humanitarian crisis or the expectations of opposition groups, the US, above all, is blamed for not assuming its 'traditional' interventionist role, or leading from behind as it did in support of the NATO-led military campaign in Libya in 2011. NATO has repeatedly declined the appeals of the external opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) to intervene, even though John Kerry has urged NATO to plan for this eventuality should more concrete evidence relating to chemical weapons usage emerge. With the heightened involvement of Israel, if merely defensive so far, the latest expectation is that the US will use its influence to 'rein in' its Israeli ally. Even if this were to succeed, however, the US would still only be acting in a reactive rather than proactive fashion.

Arming the rebels

On the domestic front, US Congressional support has been rising to lift the American ban on supplying arms to the Syrian opposition, but this may be a dangerous avenue to pursue. The radicalization of the conflict - with a clear Sunni-Islamist ascendancy on the armed opposition front – has resulted in an unfortunate, if only partial, corroboration of President Assad's claim that he is facing down a foreign-backed jihadist incursion into Syria. For reasons other than support of the Assad regime, this narrative now risks gaining credence with more than Assad's Russian and Iranian backers. If John Kerry fails to convince the Russians to modify their support for the Assad regime, the US might be tempted to redefine its priorities towards Syria as a counter-terrorist campaign against Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (already designated in the US as a terrorist organisation) combined with containing the Iranian-Syria-Lebanese axis that is of increasing concern to Israel.

Loss of credibility 

With echoes of the fall-out from the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts in mind, there is next to no popular domestic support for further US involvement in the Middle East. The temptation for the Obama administration to continue to ‘sit this one out’, or pursue a narrower set of domestic and regional interests in respect of Syria is thus strong. An over-arching focus on counter-terrorism and the defence of Israel would nevertheless constitute an unfortunate departure from the original ambitions of the US and its European allies to support the struggles of ordinary Syrians. The international credibility of both Americans and Europeans has already suffered over their inability to match actions to words, and could negatively impact policy ambitions further afield, both in and beyond the Middle East.

Time to focus 

The irony over the past two years is that weak US diplomacy has merely highlighted the consistency and coherence of Russian and Iranian policy, however unpalatable their positions have been. For too long, both the US and EU have lacked a strategy capable of withstanding its own internal contradictions, whether this be insisting that Assad leaves, while still believing that negotiations are viable, or seeking to arm Syrian rebels towards a military victory no one really believes in, but which might, as an outside chance, change the balance of the conflict on the ground.

If the only concrete ambitions that the US and EU can agree on consist of addressing the humanitarian crisis and the fall-out across the wider region, perhaps now is the time for them to say so, with one coordinated voice. Better a consistent policy that stands some chance of being acted on and applied, than a set of non-policies that are already endangering relations with parts of the region whose trust the US and EU need to maintain or secure. 

If, however, western interests go beyond damage-control towards stopping the violence and saving Syrian lives, then the stakes for Europe and the US are extremely high – and cannot be achieved without striking bargains with some of the least palatable actors engaged in the conflict. The real game-changer would be to set this as the real, rather than imagined, goal, and do whatever is diplomatically and materially necessary to stem the drift into regional war by default.