US & Canada

Viewpoints: What role should the US play in Syria?

Rebels in Syria
Image caption Prominent US political figures have urged Obama to arm the Syrian rebels

As civil war in Syria rages, Russian officials say they will send anti-aircraft missiles to the forces backing President Bashar al-Assad, while EU officials have announced they will not renew an arms embargo, a move that could free member states to arm the rebels.

In Washington, meanwhile, US officials say they will not send arms to the rebels.

Yet over time the US officials may also change their minds, particularly if the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, analysts say.

A panel of experts weighs various options for the US in Syria, ranging from doing little to setting the stage for direct military intervention.

Elizabeth O'Bagy, senior research analyst, Institute for the Study of War

Image caption Obama, who has been pulling the US out of wars for much of his tenure, is reluctant to intervene

The US should provide greater support to the Syrian opposition. The goal should be to build a force that is committed to building a non-sectarian, stable state.

The US should look to provide both non-lethal support to civilian groups as well as lethal support to moderate armed forces.

Providing arms through the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army is the first step in ensuring the army is a professional force that submits to the rule of law.

Providing lethal support to the opposition does entail the risk of unintended consequences.

However, the current policy of inaction carries much more risk.

This policy has not prevented the flow of weapons into Syria nor has it prevented extremists from acquiring arms. Instead, it has prevented more moderate forces from acquiring arms and consolidating their authority while allowing extremist forces to develop their own independent sources of support that are less easily monitored.

Robert Danin, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Despite my longstanding reluctance to provide arms to the Syrian opposition, the realities of the conflict today argue for doing just that.

While removing President Bashar al-Assad from power is important, the real issue is what kind of regime will rule Syria after his departure.

Syria's rebels are already being armed by countries that want Syria to emerge as a Sunni-dominated Islamist state, not as an inclusive, multi-ethnic country.

To the extent the US and the West wish to counter the many countries from the region already seeking to shape the outcome, providing arms to Syria's rebels is necessary.

Providing weapons also strengthens non-jihadists and enhances Washington's leverage in future negotiations or in the post-Assad Syria.

Aaron David Miller, vice-president, Wilson Center

Here's what the US shouldn't do - pretend that a diplomatic solution, a Geneva 2.0, will answer the mail. It won't.

Indeed, it will only validate the regime's legitimacy and further divide the opposition.

We should also stop pretending we're prepared to identify a decisive military strategy. President Obama has so far wisely avoided militarising the American role.

It's very unlikely that this administration will provide the kind of weapons the opposition wants - or that this move would significantly alter the arc of the military struggle.

The bottom line for America is that Mr Obama doesn't want to get stuck with the cheque on Syria.

He's the Extricator in Chief, charged with getting the US out of the two longest wars in its history - not getting America into new ones.

The tragedy of Syria is that there's too much blood to imagine a negotiated solution between the regime and the rebels - and apparently not enough to force the international community to intervene.

Unless forced by a new crisis that is qualitatively different than what we've seen, Mr Obama is likely to remain risk-averse - not risk-ready.

Jeffrey White, defence fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

The rebels need military assistance now. The US should have a major role in this.

Short of direct military intervention, the US could assist its allies to provide assistance to the rebels - anti-tank weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, intelligence, training and advice.

The US itself could also provide the same kinds of assistance, working if possible in concert with other states.

The US should accept some risk that weapons will fall into the hands of rebel groups that the US opposes. This should not be a show stopper.

The US could also, along with allies, position air and naval assets in the region to defend against any expansion of the war outside of Syria by the regime.

Finally, the US could prepare for the establishment of no-fly, no-drive and safe zones within Syria.

These actions could deter the regime from worse actions - and set the stage for direct military intervention.

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