A Question for Obama’s Syria Critics: What Are the Alternatives?

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The civil war in Syria is horrific, but a strategy superior to President Obama's has yet to emerge. By Steve Clemons

This weekend, on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, John McCain reacted to the failure of the latest round of Syrian peace talks by declaring that the Obama administration’s “policy towards Syria has been an abysmal failure and a disgraceful one.”

It’s a common refrain for the Republican senator, one often accompanied by praise for the Gulf states’ comparatively greater and less cautious support of the Syrian rebels. “Thank God for the Saudis. Thank God for the Qataris,” he said at the Munich Security Conference this year. This time around, McCain said that there are viable options other than U.S. military intervention that Washington is not pursuing in Syria. But he failed to articulate them, with the exception of further boosting the Free Syrian Army (FSA). 

Notwithstanding the question of how the Saudis and Qataris feel about McCain thanking his God for their work, the senator is mistaken in thinking that the core interests of the Gulf states align with America’s. In Syria, as in Iraq, the Saudis see the conflict as a case in which fellow Sunnis have come under siege, which explains the kingdom’s support for hardcore Sunni Islamist fighters throughout the region. Saudi Arabia just announced that it will supply Syrian rebels with mobile anti-aircraft missiles, something that Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey has strongly resisted.

Nearly all analysts—whether or not they support U.S. intervention in Syria— acknowledge that the Syrian rebel forces are weak and fragmented, and that one of the problems in providing material support to the “moderate” FSA is keeping the Islamist extremists who are also targeting Bashar al-Assad’s regime from hijacking the aid. For the Saudis and Qataris, pressuring Assad while heavily resourcing jihadi fighters helps shore up their own governments. But for the U.S., the chances are uncomfortably high that those anti-aircraft missiles will one day be turned against American or Western targets.

McCain and others like Anne-Marie Slaughter, formerly of Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy planning staff, have called for more boldness in America’s Syria policy. Slaughter has advocated establishing humanitarian zones, or corridors, inside Syria—but these zones could require U.S. or international forces to establish no-fly zones and use force to halt Syrian military incursions against those seeking refuge in such zones.  

To Slaughter’s credit, she acknowledges that U.S. or international forces would be essential to establishing such zones, but she thinks that the benefits far outweigh the risks of getting drawn into yet another Middle Eastern civil war and zero-sum proxy conflict between regional stakeholders.

But most of those urging the U.S. to intervene more aggressively in Syria are woefully short on details and shrug off the risks of blowback and escalation. If a strategy existed that would tip the scales toward the rebels with little likelihood of blowback, then skeptics like me might be turned into supporters.  

It’s emotionally wrenching to watch killing on the scale that the world is witnessing now in Syria. But the depressing likelihood is that the country will be convulsed with conflict for years to come. Obama is not to blame for that. In fact, he should be commended for the abundant caution he has shown during this tragedy.

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