why the U.S. appears ready to act now
Q: The Obama administration has sought to reduce U.S. military entanglements abroad, withdrawing forces from Iraq two years ago and moving to do the same in Afghanistan next year. So how has it come to pass that we are now moving toward another military entanglement, this time in Syria?
A: The Syrian conflict affects U.S. foreign policy in a number of ways, but the Obama administration has approached it cautiously, not only because it wants to reduce U.S. military engagement overseas but also because the conflict is complicated and quickly shifting. The rise of sectarianism and the slow collapse of the state in Syria poses a danger to the Middle East as a whole. Millions of refugees have fled to neighboring nations, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, destabilizing them and inflaming sectarian tensions. Violence has also spilled over into Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey and even Israel, raising the specter of a broader conflict.
Q: Why is the momentum for action building now?
A: Last week, the Syrian government is believed to have killed hundreds of civilians in a chemical attack on the Sunni-majority suburbs of the capital, Damascus, violating international law and crossing what the Obama administration has called a “red line.” It is believed to be the largest chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein of Iraq used a gas attack on the Kurds in 1988, and some observers, including senior Israeli officials, have argued that allowing it to go unpunished sets a dangerous precedent for Syria and its main ally, Iran, suggesting that the use of chemical agents could be tolerated in the future.
Q: How did the conflict begin and why are they still fighting?
A: The conflict grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, when Syrians peacefully demonstrated in towns across the country against Assad, who succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, as president; between the two, the family has held the presidency for four decades. Unlike some other countries facing democratic protests, the Syrian government responded with violence, killing many protesters and radicalizing the movement. Civilians began to take up arms, at first to defend their demonstrations and later to fight security forces in their cities and towns. This nascent armed movement was at first bolstered by army defectors who organized themselves, with Turkish help, under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, but over time radical Islamists, including some allied with Al-Qaida, came to play a dominant role.
Q: Who supports the rebels, and who supports the government?
A: Russia and Iran are the Syrian government’s two most important allies, providing financial and military support. Russia additionally provides Syria with important diplomatic cover, including the potential use of its veto on the U.N. Security Council. The largest sources of support for Syria’s rebels have been Turkey and conservative Sunni monarchies in the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Western countries have been more reluctant to embrace the rebels, providing primarily diplomatic support, in part because of the increasing influence of radical Islamists in the diverse and fragmented coalition of anti-Assad groups.
Q: What do the United States and its allies hope to achieve through military intervention in the Syrian conflict, and what are the risks?
A: Pentagon officials have said that President Obama is considering limited military action to “deter and degrade” the Syrian government’s ability to deploy chemical weapons. He is not considering a more ambitious air campaign like the one that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, nor is he considering the deployment of U.S. troops in Syria.
new york times