Why the US must now lead in Syria

The Middle East, and most particularly the Assad regime and its Iranian sponsors, awaits the reaction to this development and will likely determine their future policies based on the US reaction.

May 5, 2013 21:22
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama in a video message to the Syrian people, January 29, 2013.

Obama video to Syrian people 370. (photo credit: YouTube Screenshot)


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US intelligence agencies have recently confirmed, with varying degrees of certainty, the use of Sarin gas against civilians, most likely by regime forces. This development presents a compelling challenge to President Barack Obama’s “red line,” which declared the use of chemical weapons a “game changer.”

The Middle East, and most particularly the Assad regime and its Iranian sponsors, awaits the reaction to this development and will likely determine their future policies based on the US reaction.

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The cautious stance of US policymakers, seeking more precise data on the chemical attacks, is not only appropriate but critical. However, ultimately the US will need to respond and show how it is committed to a leadership role in the unfolding crises in Syria. Indeed, the world awaits this reaction and, importantly, the Obama administration cannot risk losing credibility by not following through on its own declarations.

Fortunately, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, frightening as it is, also presents a unique set of opportunities for Obama which did not exist previously. Maneuvering its way through the thicket of international politics and relationships will not be easy, but leadership never is. Still, by combining robust diplomacy and military power, the US can emerge from this crisis having enhanced its role as global leader and positioning the Middle East for a future of greater stability than has existed in recent years.

The effort will require a regional approach to share the burdens of reestablishing some order and the critically needed control over stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. While the US will not be prepared to put “boots on the ground,” it should insist on the Gulf states lending their own Arabicspeaking troops for this purpose.

Such action by the Gulf states, finally coming to the assistance of the Syrian people, will be viewed favorably by their own people and enhance the standing of their leaders, a welcome change from the current tension.

The US must concurrently assure the Syrian people that a “no-fly zone” will be established over Syria to stop the Syrian Air Force. This policy should be enforced by the US together with the backing of the UK and France and possibly NATO.


The US must also assure the Alawite community that it will be protected from retribution by establishing a self-governing enclave along the Mediterranean coast where 85 percent of its population now lives. Only such assurances will allow Assad’s supporters to believe they can abandon their “fight to the finish”; currently they believe that the fall of Assad will lead to their own genocide.

A generous resettlement fund must be established and funded by donor countries to encourage the over 1.5 million refugees to return to Syria from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

These host countries must be active in channeling this assistance.

Finally, the global community, led by the US and including China and Russia, must sponsor and support a final agreement between the Palestinians and Israel to end the conflict which has existed for over 60 years.

The parameters of such a settlement is by now well known and largely recognized and the time to end this issue is now.

None of this will be easy, but faced with the escalating tragedy and the ever-increasing instability it represents the US must do what the world needs and expects: Lead us through the morass with the skills and vision only it can provide.

Ghanem M. Nuseibeh is originally from a prominent Palestinian family of Jerusalem. He is the founder of Londonbased Cornerstone Global Associates, a strategic consulting firm. He is currently a senior visiting fellow at King’s College, London. Eli Epstein is a New York-based businessman with long-standing interests in the Middle East.

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