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How America Is Alienating Syrians – OpEd

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By Fawaz Turki

The Aspen Institute, headquartered in Washington and founded in 1950, is an international organization devoted to fostering “enlightened leadership, the appreciation of timeless ideas and values, and open-ended dialogue on contemporary issues.” And it’s all done in a nonpartisan and nonideological setting through seminars and conferences.

At the annual meeting of the Institute’s Aspen Strategy Group, in Aspen, Col., earlier this week, attendees and discussants puzzled over why President Obama is dragging his feet on Syria, hesitant to adopt a more muscular policy there. And lest you think these folks are lightweights, it should be pointed out that they represent the crème de la creme of America’s foreign policy establishment and the world of academe, including former Cabinet ministers, Nobel prize winners and noted scholars, social critics and journalists.

Syria - United States Relations
Syria – United States Relations

In attendance at the conference, Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state under Bill Clinton, spoke to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristoff about why the Obama administration should embrace an aggressive approach to toppling the brutal Assad dynasty in Damascus. “We do have to get more involved in this … we can’t afford to be in a cul-de-sac while people are being killed..”

One would wish that Hillary Clinton, the current US secretary of state, would take heed of this bit of advice — cogent for its simple bluntness — in Turkey where she plans to meet with Syrian opposition figures.

And why, you ask, should the US “get more involved in this“? The answer is anchored in diplomatic tradition. America is a big power and the role that a big power plays, and the responsibility it shoulders, in international affairs is self-evident. It exerts influence on a global scale, controlling the outcome of events through the exercise of coercive power or, alternately, cooperative power, the latter known as “soft power,” a term coined by Joseph Nye in his book by the same name released in 2004. That’s the way it has always been for big powers since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, when the so-called Great Powers, as they were known then, met in the Austrian capital to create the Concert of Europe, whose goal was to keep the peace on the continent and settle the many issues arising from the Napoleonic Wars. (The mass uprisings against injustice that erupted spontaneously all over Europe, all at once, known as the Spring of Nations, were not deterred by Great Power diktats at Vienna 33 years earlier.)

Little powers, in effect, were admonished in advance to consider the opinions of big powers before taking action on their own that would disturb the peace, harm the civilian population or lead to destructive war.

In an ideal world, it is not meant for a big power, of course, to swing its big ego around and dictate how political systems in other, lesser empowered nations should be regrouped in response to its own strategic interests — simply that it wield its enormous resources for the common good, be it, as in our time, through soft power at the UN Security Council or hard power through military force.

America’s response to the Syrian crisis has alienated many of the peoples of the Middle East, not least the Syrian people themselves, a people who continue, in large numbers, to be maimed, killed, tortured, uprooted and have their lives upended on an ever-escalating level, while Washington twiddles its thumbs.

Liz Sly, the Washington Post correspondent in Aleppo, filed a report last Wednesday where she wrote: “America, once regarded by the Syrian opposition as a natural friend in its struggle for greater freedom against a regime long at odds with the West, increasingly is being viewed with suspicion and resentment for its failure to offer little more than verbal encouragement to the revolutionaries.”

As Syria plunges deeper into what appears to be a relentless conflict with no end in sight, the rebels are appalled by Washington’s stance. They have repeatedly said that what they want from the US is not direct military intervention involving boots on the ground, but a protective no-fly zone, similar to the one that helped overthrow Libya’s dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and for supplies of heavy weapons that would enable them to mount a credible offensive against the vastly superior fire power, including now the use of air power, by the regime. Not a tall order by any stretch of the imagination.

But American assistance remains puny, confined to the provision of communication and satellite equipment. For an insurgency that is now well into its second year, whose battlefield covers virtually the entire country, the need for heavy weapons, regardless of their provenance, is now urgent. There is no other way to accelerate the downfall of the Syrian dictator and bring to an end the unspeakable suffering that the people of Syria have been subjected to.

In her news report, Liz Sly also interviewed a spokesman for a rebel unit in the town of Al-Bab, 30 miles northeast of Aleppo, who reminded her that the rebels’ entreaties for American help have gone unanswered. “America will pay a price for this,” he said. “America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don’t trust them at all.”

Now that she is in Turkey this weekend to meet with Turkish and rebel officials, is Hillary Clinton listening to any of this? Like Molier’s M. Jourdan who was amazed to discover that he had been speaking prose all his life, she may discover that what’s been going on all along in Syria is all-out war. No kidding!

Her country, a big power, needs to tell us what side it is on.

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Arab News

Arab News is Saudi Arabia's first English-language newspaper. It was founded in 1975 by Hisham and Mohammed Ali Hafiz. Today, it is one of 29 publications produced by Saudi Research & Publishing Company (SRPC), a subsidiary of Saudi Research & Marketing Group (SRMG).

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