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Syria Needs Peacekeepers, Not Missile Strikes

Author: Ed Husain, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
September 9, 2013
USA Today

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Here we go again: America is preparing to attack yet another Arab nation. I lived in Syria during the Iraq war and saw first-hand the consequences of American policy blunders in the Middle East. I understand the impulse to "do something" in Syria, but the U.S. might be getting it horribly wrong again. There are excellent reasons why the British, America's most loyal allies, backed away from America's side. Congress has no political or moral obligation to attack Syria — the country does not threaten U.S. national security, nor pose an imminent danger to America.

Striking Syria's military complexes from the air will not stop the country's civil war, nor prevent the further use of chemical weapons. We cannot target Syrian chemical stockpiles because we do not know of their location, and if we did have some knowledge of their whereabouts, attacking those sites would increase the dangers of dispersing harmful toxins.

Not only will Assad escalate the conflict by killing more rebels, but we are also increasing the risk of Assad using chemical weapons on populations and cities that are not under government control. Damaging his air force and known military installations would force him to consider his more extreme options for regime survival. U.S. allies Turkey and Israel are bracing themselves for possible retaliatory chemical attacks from Syria.

The Syrian civil war is not America's problem. Colin Powell's remark, "If you break it, you own it" applies to Obama in Syria: If the U.S. and its allies depose Assad, then they inherit the ensuing carnage in Syria. The day after Assad falls, a new civil war will break out in Syria between different shades of secularists, Assad loyalists, Christian and Alawite militias, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda affiliates, and other mercenaries of regional governments. America cannot solve the Syria quagmire. Until now, president Obama has rightly steered clear of involvement in complicated, ethnic, religious and sectarian conflicts.

"It's too bad they both can't lose." Henry Kissinger's quip on the Saddam's Iraq-Iran war applies to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah fighting each other in Syria. The conflict, with or without Assad, will last for several more years. Further American involvement risks uniting our enemies against us, rather than allowing them to fight each other. The way out of Syria's war is not American aerial attacks, but neighbors of Syria shouldering greater military and political responsibility.

For what happens in Syria does not stay in Syria. Millions of refugees have flooded neighboring nations, including Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon. Worse, sectarian spillover from Syria is adding fuel to existing tension between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq and Lebanon. In Jordan, the fragile balance between Bedouins and Palestinians is threatened by the prospect that soon 15% of the Jordanian population will be Syrian refugees. Jihadist training camps in Syria mean that Arab fighters returning to their homes in Egypt, and elsewhere, could create terror cells against their own secular governments.

Anti-Americanism is at an all-time high in the Middle East. Polls show President Obama's personal popularity is below that of George W. Bush in his last year in office. Egyptians accuse the United States of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and terrorism. But unlike the United States, European nations do not have a branding problem in the Middle East. The White House should aggressively push the European Union, Turkey and Arab nations to lead an international effort to send peacekeeping troops into Syria. Russia is more likely to cooperate and force Assad to negotiate if the conflict is not perceived as a showdown with America. Nothing short of soldiers separating fighting factions, creating humanitarian corridors for safe escape of some communities and ensuring that a non-violent political transition commences inside Syria will stop the conflict.

No amount of American bombings will end war in Syria. Missiles won't prevent further use of chemical weapons either. Instead, American diplomatic muscle should be brought to bear on our allies to work with Russia and Iran. The U.S. Congress can help America gain more respect and credibility by bringing peace, not bombing another Muslim nation.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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