As the media’s attention has been focused on the American presidential election, the armed conflict in Syria has expanded in recent weeks.
Turkey and Syrian forces loyal to the regime of President Bashar Assad have exchanged artillery fire, and a high-ranking Lebanese security official who was known to be hostile to the Assad government was killed by a bomb blast in his Beirut office that destroyed several buildings. The Kingdom of Jordan has let it be known that it feels it cannot continue to offer refuge to the Syrians who have been coming to Jordan.
Many observers have indicated that they feel that the U.S. should become more involved by arming some of the rebel groups who are fighting against the Assad government. The current state of Syria and the role that the U.S. should play in that state was the subject of a panel discussion recently at the University of OKlahoma’s School of International Studies. The panelists included Joshua Landis, an OU professor who is an authority on Syria, Ambassador Kurt Volker, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador to several European nations and is now affiliated with the McCain Institute For International Studies at Arizona State University, and Professor Afshin Marashi, associate professor and Farzaneh Family Chair in Iranian Studies at OU.
Landis spoke forcefully against any U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict, and reminded the attendees that those who supported to the U.S. invasion of Iraq said that the American occupation would be paid for by Iraqi oil sales within six months of the invasion, but in fact the U.S. ended up spending billions of dollars in Iraq, and killed more than 10,000 Iraqis during the first six months of occupation.
The professor also said that there are now more than 2,000 militias in Syria, and that after the Assad government those groups will be fighting among themselves to see who will rule Syria, and the one group that the U.S. supported, the Syrian National Council, has been discredited in part because it is supported by the American government. He also said that Iran is supporting Assad and is providing training and weaponry to its army. Landis also asserted that it will cost at least $12 billion to run Syria in the first six months after the Assad regime falls.
Marashi said that we are witnessing the end of the Arabian autocracy that ruled much of the Arab world in recent decades, and that the uprising against the Assad government in Syria is part of that event. But he cautioned that the Iranian government has been expanding its role in the Middle East, and its support of the Assad regime is part of the increasing role.
Marashi also said that there is a debate within Iran’s government about whether or not it should continue to support Assad. While there are hardliners in Tehran who believe that the Syrian rebels are nothing more than mercenaries who are working for the U.S., there are moderates in the Iranian Foreign Ministry who believe that elections should be held in Syria to allow the citizenry there to select a new government.
The professor said that it is possible that even the hardliners in Iran may decide that it is not in their long-term interest to continue to support Assad if the rebels appear to be gaining the upper hand.
Volker said that the U.S. has a commitment to freedom and democracy, and that that commitment warrants the U.S. providing some type of support to the Syrian rebels. He also pointed out that forces hostile to the U.S., including Iran and Al Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist organizations, are currently involved in Syria, and that the U.S. should be involved as well.
Volker asserted that the U.S. should show leadership by taking symbolic steps to show its support for the Syrian people. Recently, the Turkish government talked about the possibility of creating a safe area within Syria for the Syrian people adjacent to the Turkish border, and Volker said that the U.S. could exercise leadership by publicly supporting that proposal and working with the Turkish government to make it a reality.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.