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Syria is melting away

Obama has no good options, but doing nothing can’t be the answer

Syrians inspected the destruction on Feb. 19 following an apparent surface-to-surface missile strike in Aleppo.AFP/Getty Images

Syria’s civil war is exacting an appalling toll on millions of suffering civilians. The carnage is so brutal that the United States and others must act quickly to prevent the country from descending into even further chaos. That was my major takeaway from an Aspen Institute meeting in Morocco last week with 25 former foreign ministers from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, led by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The death and destruction in Syria is numbing. More than 80,000 people have been killed. More than 1 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries, and more than 2 million have lost their homes and are internally displaced. The UN believes the refugee numbers could double or even triple in the next year. The health care system is breaking down with many hospitals destroyed or not functioning. The historic cities of Aleppo and Damascus are besieged. Lahkdar Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat and UN envoy to the conflict, told us in Morocco that “Syria is melting away.’’

Divisions are so deep among Syria’s main ethnic communities — the majority Sunni and minority Alawites, Kurds, Christians, Druze, and others — that the country might fracture into competing fiefdoms when President Bashar Assad is finally driven from power.


Syria’s desperate plight is increasingly reminiscent of the Bosnian war. The United States and Europe watched and waited as the war engulfed millions, with both the Bush and Clinton administrations insisting we did not have vital interests at stake. But it turned out that we did after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre jolted us from our complacency. When the bloodletting was simply too awful to ignore any longer, we finally acted. US diplomat Richard Holbrooke joined NATO’s military strength with bulldozer diplomacy to hammer home a ceasefire and then the peace at Dayton.

The answer in Syria, of course, is not so simple. The United States is exhausted and risk-averse after Iraq and Afghanistan. And Syria is forbidding territory — its well-armed government is stronger than any we faced in the Balkans. Much of the fighting is in densely crowded neighborhoods in which it would be difficult for an invading force to distinguish friend or foe. President Obama is surely right not to put American troops on the ground in yet another Middle East quagmire.


But doing nothing can’t be the answer, either. Not when our adversaries Iran and Hezbollah are running arms to Assad to enforce a belt of Shiite radicalism from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. And not when we have a humanitarian obligation to help civilians as well as a real interest in preventing even greater instability in the heart of the pivotal Levant.

Many at the Morocco conference complained about the absence of US leadership. However much the administration wants to pivot away from the tumultuous Middle East, the United States is the only country capable of uniting effective opposition to drive Assad from power.

Why, then, is Washington hesitating? One reason is that the options are all bad. But at the very least, the United States could lean on other countries to match US economic assistance and ensure more gets to rebel-held areas where suffering is greatest. France and Britain want to arm moderate rebel groups to accelerate Assad’s departure and gain influence with the people most likely to replace him. This will force the Obama team to think again about the wisdom of staying on the sidelines and failing to lead on a major international crisis. And, if Washington does not join Europe, Turkey, and the Arabs in supplying more decisive military aid to the rebels, it will leave us with the unpalatable option of trying once again to negotiate with a cynical Russian government for a political deal that might end up favoring Assad.


The failure of the United States to move resolutely down either path is striking. Sometime soon, the United States will have to choose, especially as the death toll mounts and the moral imperative of action overwhelms our caution.

At the start of the Iraq war 10 years ago this month, many Arabs and Europeans complained they had had enough of activist American leadership in the Middle East. Ten years later, some of those same people are now begging the United States to assert itself to help lead the Syrian people out of their nightmare of death and destruction.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.