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Will the U.S. Lead From Behind on Syria, Too?

By Marc Champion
November 14, 2012 2:38 PM EST

Is the U.S. getting ready to "lead from behind" its European allies again, this time on Syria?

First the U.K. said it would look for ways around the European Union's embargo on the supply of arms to Syria and was open to putting troops on the ground. Then France on Tuesday recognized the newly proposed -- though not fully constructed -- unified Syrian opposition and said it too would consider arming them.

This is the same duo (albeit now with the French energizer bunny, Nicolas Sarkozy, no longer at the helm in Paris) that forced the pace on Libya. The U.S., meanwhile, is hesitating.

It isn't a simple calculation, but the Brits and the French are right. It isn't just the opposition that needs unifying, their external supporters do too. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey -- all Sunni, with sectarian skin in the game -- are already deeply involved with the rebels, financially and logistically. That has not turned out well, and the more time passes, the worse the sectarian violence and spill-over becomes, not to mention the pure human suffering.

The logic for tying the opposition together, in effect to build a partner to do business with now and after the fall of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, is solid and long overdue. Getting control over the supply of weapons to the rebels, and providing them with what they need to bring the conflict to an end once you've achieved that, makes sense.

Missiles lobbed across the borders between Syria and Turkey, and between Syria and Israel; signs of strain from the flow of refugees in Jordan; plus spillover fighting in Lebanon show that the worst fears about where a Syrian civil war might lead are on track to come true.

The U.S. hesitation has logic, too. Just because a group of Syrians brought together in Doha say they're going to unify the atomized groups inside and outside Syria into an effective leadership, doesn't mean they've done it, or will -- It's not like no one asked them to make this happen before.

The whole point about Syria, the reason why Middle East experts talk of it as the keystone to the region, is that it is in truth the last Ottoman principality. It combines so many different religious and ethnic groups with ties to brethren across the artificial borders made just under a century ago by Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot (yes, the Brits and the French again), that the country -- and thus the opposition -- is especially hard to unify. For the same reasons, it's dangerous for the region should Syria collapse.

So, for as long as a consolidated and effective opposition leadership doesn't exist, difficult questions remain: To whom will you be giving those shoulder-held anti-aircraft missiles? Which Islamist radicals will you be empowering? And for what war crimes will they use your weapons?

Absent a willingness on the part of Russia to actually help find a solution by ending the deadlock at the United Nations, the U.S. and its allies must act alone. That means creating a common quartermaster to supply the opposition and to cut off the flow of outside money to the radical Islamist brigades who have been the main beneficiaries of the current free-for-all. Events are drawing the West in, like it or not, and the better course is to jump in and try to exert some control over them.

The U.S. can lead that effort from behind or in front, but it needs to lead.

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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