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The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber flies over the Missouri Sky after taking off from the Whiteman Air For..

It’s hard to accuse the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama of being trigger happy.

While Obama has been willing to use force to kill Taliban and al-Qaida militants, he has studiously avoided embroiling the U.S. in another war in the Middle East or South Asia.

His intention to strike Syria militarily for what appears to have been a wide-scale and lethal use of chemical weapons August 21 on a Damascus suburb is in keeping with the Obama doctrine of selected use of force for carefully defined reasons.

According to White House officials, any strikes will not be meant to topple the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. However despicable the Syrian leader’s behavior has become, the opposition to him is apparently not yet capable of running the country in a less brutal and more coherent fashion. And the Obama administration is not willing to commit the ground forces necessary to remove Assad. So, instead of regime change, U.S.-led military action now would have three important goals:

1. To deter further use of chemical weapons. While critics accurately note that Assad has killed more than 100,000 people, mainly through the use of conventional arms, there is a legal and moral taboo about chemical weapons that dates from their first use during World War I. As Secretary of State John Kerry said on August 26, “there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people.” (This appeared to be a play on George W. Bush’s famous 2002 State of the Union formulation that “the United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”)

2. To shore up the Obama administration’s credibility as a significant actor in global affairs. The United States may not be the world’s policeman, but when the president clearly defines a red line – in Syria’s case, no large-scale use of chemical weapons – there must be major consequences if that line is crossed. The message will not be lost on others, including Iran, which may have considered crossing other Obama red lines involving the development of nuclear weapons. It will also reassure Israel that Obama is not bluffing about Iran.

“The only solution to the Syrian war is a political one, but military action can push recalcitrant actors to the negotiating table.” – Barbara Slavin

3. To prepare the ground for more intensive diplomacy with the aim of achieving a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. The only solution to the Syrian war is a political one, but military action can push recalcitrant actors to the negotiating table.

War outcome still uncertain

A man holds the body of a victim of what activist said was a chemical attack, during a funeral in the eastern  suburbs of Damascus August 21, 2013. (Reuters)

A man holds the body of a victim of what activist said was a chemical attack, during a funeral in the eastern suburbs of Damascus August 21, 2013. (Reuters)

Over the past two years, the advantage in the Syrian civil war has oscillated between the Assad regime and its myriad opposition. Assad – with the assistance of Iranian weapons and Hezbollah forces – achieved a major victory in June, retaking the western city of Qusair and shoring up the border with Lebanon.

Earlier in August, however, Syrian rebels captured the Menagh air base north of Aleppo and seized large caches of heavy weapons there and at an army depot outside Damascus. It is possible that last month’s apparent chemical attack on East Ghouta – a Damascus suburb heavily populated by Sunni Muslims – was in part in response to this rebel victory.

A cease-fire is urgently needed in Syria for the sake of both Syrians and their neighbors. As the fighting continues, the country is being destroyed and de facto partitioned into Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Alawite-Shi’ite Arab slices. Refugee flows are intensifying.

One-third of Syria’s 22 million people are now displaced and the burden on Lebanon and Jordan, in particular, is becoming unbearable. The object for outside powers is expected to be to stabilize the situation while working intensively to strengthen the most reasonable elements of the Syrian opposition and to identify those within the Assad regime who are serious about achieving an end to bloodshed.
The Obama administration – in addition to assembling a multilateral “coalition of the willing” in support of selected military strikes – is expected to be consulting with the United Nations, the Russians and the Iranians about organizing a second Geneva conference to negotiate a cease-fire later this year. While the U.S. has had many disputes and disappointments with the government of Vladimir Putin, the U.S. and Russia, with U.N. help, are still best equipped to de-escalate the Syrian crisis.

Iran could play a role

A convoy of UN vehicles is seen during its return from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack, in Damascus August 29, 2013. (Reuters)

A convoy of UN vehicles is seen during its return from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack, in Damascus August 29, 2013. (Reuters)

Iran is another vital player that Obama has sought, unsuccessfully, to marginalize. With the inauguration of a new president, Hassan Rouhani, known for his diplomatic skill, the United States may accept Iran as a participant in Geneva II. U.N. Undersecretary General Jeffrey Feltman, who was in Tehran last month, has been discussing Syria with Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. Feltman, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Near East and former ambassador to Lebanon, is well qualified to convey messages about Syria and other matters between Iran and the United States, which lack formal diplomatic ties.

Nothing in this column is meant to suggest that U.S. military action against Syria will be easy or “surgical.” Innocent people are almost certain to be killed. Syria and its allies could retaliate against American civilians in grisly and unpredictable ways. But the Syrian civil war is not a vintage wine that will improve with age. U.S. actions so far have failed to shape the crisis in any beneficial way. Instead, Syria is becoming more chaotic. Islamic extremists are metastasizing and the Assad regime is becoming even more brutal.

U.S. strikes should be seen as part of a broader strategy intended to deter further use of chemical weapons and convince Assad and the opposition that negotiations will achieve more than killing. Chuck Hagel, before he was defense secretary, told me that in “the kind of complicated world we live in, I’m not sure there’s a solution to everything right now. What you have to do is manage it so it doesn’t get worse, manage it toward a higher ground of solution possibilities.”

Limited U.S. military strikes can serve that purpose while upholding one of the few firmly established norms of civilized nations.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a correspondent for, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.


  1. John Cox

    September 20, 2013

    The USA is happy to carry out mass assassinations – all illegal and against international law. It is also happy to threaten to attack another country, and arms rebels in that country – an act of war – all contrary to the UN Charter. The USA is just not willing to criticised for overtly supporting Islamic terrorists – by bombing the forces of the secular Syrian government.

  2. Sillo Mboweni

    September 8, 2013

    What about the illegal state of israel that even used more powerful chemical/gases weapons against the Palestinians in Gaza, why did the USA and Britain keep
    quiet about that? Why did the USA and Britain attach Iraqi on lies? Why do the
    jews cause all the problems in the Middle East and the USA and Britain is doing
    nothing, why, why? Answer me? I thought Obama had a little more brains than Bush and the Clinton’s but now I see he is just as stupid. Syria is no threat to world peace, the greatest threat to world peace is the illegal state of israel

    What is this about talks? The only action should be giving the land of the Palestinians, give back their land. The state of israel is an illegal state. The Israelite’s trekked over the Red Sea to the land of Canaan not Palestine. The family of Arafat can go back to 2650 years when they were already living in Jerusalem he was born in Jerusalem. Why cannot he be buried in his birth city Jerusalem? England did not know the history of Palestine or they ignored it when they illegally gave part of Palestine to the jews with the help of the USA. Now England and the USA must give back the land they stole from the Palestinians plus billions of dollars of compensation. Who is Sharon, Gurion, Olmert, Barak, Peres, Steinitz, Netanyahu these mafia guys should be given the death sentence with Blair and Bush as murderers of mankind. All the land belongs to the Palestinians, just give it back as simple as that and take
    the illegal jews to the USA and give them a Reserve to go and live in. The
    illegal jews have now killed too many Palestinians it cannot go on further like
    this. The illegal jews are just a causing enough tension in the Middle East for
    too long, they must get out and stay out. The illegal jews in Palestine are the
    biggest threat to world peace and they have created the biggest apartheid state
    in the history of the whole world. The illegal jews do not want peace, poor old
    Kerry is just as stupid as the Clinton’s he does not know the real jew they are
    the children of unrest and troublemakers. They play a big part in the Syrian
    civil war, very much involved in Egypt and now Lebanon and naturally the mess
    they caused in Iraq with confusing Bush and Blair’s with below IQ’s to start such an unnecessary war. Let the countries sort out their own problem and get the jews out of the Palestine so that we can have peace in the Middle East.

  3. bunty P

    September 6, 2013

    The Managing ‘Business’ is becoming a ‘Logistics Nightmare’, because of the accumulating diminishing of Resources. being experienced by the ‘Worlds Chief Cop’.

    One of their MAIN Financiers, China, is being very ‘Vocally’ against any American/U.S. involvement in any Military action against Syria!!!!!

    The ‘Average Joe’ now fully ‘Recognize’ what Stress their already ‘Burdensome Demands’ have done to their Economy, & see any ‘Military Face-Saving’ as EXTREMELY RECKLESS!!!

    VOX POPULI!!!!!

    But ‘intellectuals’, & folk who ‘Love their Wine-Tasting & Brie Parties, like in the Manhattan’s Upper East-Side, will somehow find sufficient ‘Intellectual Prowess’ regardless of the ‘Silly old Money facts’, which to them is just some ‘Inconvenient Red-Herring’!!

    That’s what this Page is ALL ABOUT!!!!!

  4. Irv Felix

    September 4, 2013

    Slavin,,, How can you tell some one,, that now we have blown hell out of some parts of your country,, now lets set down and talk peacefully , hell maybe have a beer or a cup of tea also…oh,, and I'm sure we wont kill any civillians,, just the bad guys…enough war,, Im sick of it…Were still in Iraq, were Still in Afganistan and Now we want to bomb Syria just to teach them dogs a lesson…give me a break.

  5. Irv Felix

    September 4, 2013

    we have NO right to meddle in a Soverign Countrys Politics..Americans don't want this,,, are those fools on Capitol hill supposed to represent We the People,, Now idiot has us backed into a corner and he has to bomb another country to save face…

  6. Daryoush Mehr

    September 4, 2013

    There seems to be a contradiction in your analysis. How can you have “To prepare the ground for more intensive diplomacy with the aim of achieving a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war.” When on the rebel side there is no central leadership. Secretary Clinton or Kerry haven’t been able to get a unified political wing for the opposition and postponed the peace conference that government had, at least tentatively, agreed to attend.. As a substitute for their political failure our government likes to resort to bombing targets while maintaining no casualties.

    Rebels wont get more united when you openly enter the civil war, and our politicians wont have any incentive or room to operate if hell breaks loose.

  7. Razzputin

    September 3, 2013

    Like Hegel, another apologist for empire strikes. Slavin, like too many “analysts,” finds it impossible to think of the United States as a destabilizing force in the world, insisting that the globe must be “managed” and managed by – guess who? Good guys of course. Yet the US has proven itself to be one of the ugliest “managers” on the planet. Example: The CIA has just admitted its role in toppling the Iranian government in 1953. Sorry, CIA, we were way ahead of you. And Americans are still shocked at the American Embassy takeover in Teheran? Do the history. Hegel at least admits the world is complicated. You bet it is. Why can’t he, Slavin, and others hear that and stop igniting the planet? The real issue for this insistence on meddling in the world is who pays the price.


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