Dead Man Walking

Photo Credit: Reuters[1]

By: Matthew Ceccato

The situation in Syria is shaping up to be a primary foreign policy concern for President Obama’s administration. According to the United Nations, over 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war since the conflict began in March 2011.[2] Various political groups and both sides of the aisle are pressuring President Obama to act on Syria and support the rebels as the United States did in Libya. However, lessons learned from past military intervention and understandable caution has apparently influenced the administration against military action.

There are many questions concerning the primary actors in Syria. The actual allegiances and motives of the rebels remain a question that needs to be answered. There have been reports that neighboring countries are sending troops to Syria to fight against the Assad regime in hopes of acquiring power and influence once the regime falls.[3] Other reports have named several terrorist organizations as supporters of the rebels in hopes of widening their sphere of influence across the region. Though the rebels seem to have altruistic motives for the benefit of all Syrians, their identities should be vetted before receiving military support, such as weapons, from the United States. Blindly sending weapons and other armament to the rebels can create a blowback effect as those weapons could be used against American troops already stationed in the Middle East.

An influx of weapons to Syria could inevitably end up in the hands of the very same actors that are planning attacks on American troops. While American troops in Iraq may have ceased major combat operations and troops in Afghanistan are preparing to do the same, the United States will still have an active presence in the region.[4] These service members remain a target for insurgents and other actors who wish to do harm to the United States.

On the other hand, supporters of those supplying the Syrian rebels with weapons also lobby for a no-fly zone. Though the Syrian rebels have recently captured several key military installations, including flyable aircraft, the Syrian military continues to assert its air superiority over the rebels.[5] A no-fly zone would mitigate the power of the Syrian air force and essentially level the battlefield. This could have several second order effects in Syria and for the United States.

Additionally, a no-fly zone is not a simple task to construct for the United States; extensive bombings of anti-aircraft and radar sites must be completed to ensure that patrolling planes are not placed in harm’s way. Instituting a Syrian no-fly zone would also require substantial military resources and funds to operate, which would necessitate further American commitment to the Middle East. This deployment of US troops could be seen in a negative light among a war weary American public and a wary Middle East. At the same time, a no fly zone could actually increase casualties in the nation. The Syrian Army would have to rely heavily on ground forces and tanks to continue their fight against the rebels. The Assad regime could switch to a scorched earth campaign, inflicting further damage to the population and infrastructure.[6]

In Syria, it seems as if both sides are guilty of heinous war crimes against each other. Not only has the Syrian army committed several massacres, the most notable in Daraya where over 200 people were killed, but they have also been accused of specifically targeting civilians in a city that has shown support for the rebel forces. [7] On the other side, rebel forces have been accused of murder and torture. In a report conducted by the Human Rights Council, it found that the conflict has spiraled out of control. [8] [9]

Fortunately or unfortunately, the internet has provided an outlet for each side to display the after effects of an attack or atrocity. YouTube videos show clips of civilians lying dead in the street and dramatic scenes from ill-equipped field hospitals.[10] Other videos show the rebels systematically killing captured regime soldiers or civilians accused of supporting Assad.[11] These videos and countless social media postings should make the Obama administration feel shaky about lending support. Navi Pillay, the chief United Nations human rights official, has recommended a list of suspects guilty of war crimes be tried at the International Criminal Court.[12] However, any future relinquish of sovereignty for trial will be at the discretion of the next Syrian government. This transfer of criminals to the ICC may be the best course of action given the destruction Syria has suffered since the uprising and the chaos that will consume the country after the combat ceases. In the case of Egypt, who suffered a relatively smaller and shorter revolution, chose to try ousted leader Hosni Mubarak in the country instead of the International Criminal Court.[13]

Understanding that Syria is a different situation than the situation in Libya is the key to realizing why the United States has been hesitant to supply weapons to the rebels. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has emerged as the mouthpiece for the opposition and de facto rebel government.[14] The SNC is not like the National Transitional Council of Libya. The SNC has released several contradictory statements about their purpose and intent. Though the SNC represents the Free Syrian Army, the Council does not represent the several other factions of fighters presently in Syria. Identifying these groups is extremely hard for the United States and the United Nations and will prevent actual military support. Various groups that may not particularly like the United States and its influence may want the need from the United States to dispose of Assad, though there is no foretelling if the groups will still be as friendly when Assad is gone.

Overall, President Obama has proven himself to be a realist on foreign policy affairs. He is not blinded by the light of American superiority and chooses to play his cards close to his chest. American military intervention in Syria would have grave consequences. Hezbollah and Iran could open up the nation as a new front on the existing war in the Middle East. Fortunately, President Obama has twice rejected the opinions and demands from his cabinet and top ranking military members to arm the rebels and assist in the overthrow of the regime.[15] Though not every official in the administration agrees with President Obama’s decision to not arm the rebels or institute a no-fly zone, it is still possible to offer support to the rebels. Medical supplies and other humanitarian aid should be delivered to the rebels in an effort to prevent further death. The most important assistance will need to come after the fall of the Assad regime. Syria will be a country in tatters and will need the help of the American diplomatic machine to assist in the transition to a democracy. This new Syria could stand as a beacon of democracy in the region and an ally to the United States.


 Matthew Ceccato is a second year Master of International Affairs Candidate at the School of International Affairs. His focus is on security studies. Matthew is a research assistant for Ambassador Dennis Jett (Ret) Ph.D. assisting with ongoing research for current and future publications. He has interned for numerous institutions and foundations, notably for the US Army War College Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute and the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Matthew is a five year veteran of the US Army and has deployed twice to the Middle East.

Title Credit: Matthew Lee, US: Assad’s Syria a ‘dead man walking,’ (December 2011).


[2] Armin Rosen, Counting the Dead in Syria, (February 2013).

[3] Andrew Rosenthal, Al Qaeda in Syria, (December 2012).

[4] Julian Pecquet, Obama to reaffirm US presence in Middle East in UN address, (September 2012).

[5] AFP, Syrian rebels ‘capture’ air base in Aleppo, (February 2013).

[6] Mike Giglio, ‘Scorched Earth’ Tactics Feared in Assad Fight With Rebels, (October 2012).

[7] Julian Borger, Syrian regime accused of killing hundreds in Daraya massacre, (August 2012).


Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, (March 2013).

[9] Erin Banco, Accusations of war crimes rob Syrian rebel fighters of moral high ground, (August 2012).

[10] Medical SAMS, Medical crises in Syria, Field hospital project, (January 2013).

[11] Stefanie Dekker, Syrian teenager reportedly tortured to death, (June 2011).

[12] Ian Black, Syrian leaders should face justice at ICC, UN says, (February 2013).

[13] Bahey eldin Hassan, The Trial of Mubarak: A momentous event, but does it go far enough?, (August 2011).

[14] SNC, About, (November 2011).

[15] Jennifer Rubin, Obama rejects suggestion for military strike on Syria, (March 2012).

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