After Obama’s red line of chemical weapons has been crossed, what now for the U.S. in Syria?

By Jack Thompson

The reports coming in yesterday morning of a chemical attack outside Damascus remind us that the Syrian Civil War is entering a dangerous phase, one not likely to be resolved internally. But what routes can international actors, most notably the United States, take to resolve the crisis?

Now might be a good time to look at President Obama’s options, and what is holding his administration back.

For a long time now, Obama has explained that chemical weapon use in Syria would be a ‘game changer’, yet since the first reports of their use, the US has remained on the sidelines, offering humanitarian aid, but unwilling to step up and engage against the Assad regime. Various ideas are floated around, with those favouring a drawn back approach advocating logistical support and supplying weapons to the rebels, whereas defence hawks, like John McCain (R-Arizona) pushing for a full intervention.

One of the proposed plans involves arming the rebels. There are fears that supporting the opposition could be problematic in the long term. Past ‘freedom fighters’ that have been supported by the US include Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi. It would be unwise to strengthen groups that will eventually turn on the West. And it’s not a case of just promising to arm the official leaders, because the major rebel groups are in fact umbrella organisations consisting of various organisations and militias. The varied nature of these groups makes controlling the proliferation of weapons extremely difficult, especially when rebel leaders openly offer to share weaponry and resources with extremist groups.

When it comes to a full intervention however, there are a number of reasons we can attribute to the lack of action. First off, we cannot doubt the Obama administration’s willingness to use force, as seen through its liberal use of drones across countries like Qatar. However, Obama has been very reluctant to use any real intervention policy ever since he won the presidency. US involvement in the Libyan Civil War was drawn back, and part of a wider international coalition. Rhetorical support was offered during the Arab Spring, but by and large the US kept a wide berth. Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, the administration has done its best to avoid definitive statements that would land them with a military intervention. Why?


The spectre of Iraq looms over the Obama administration, much like Vietnam did with Jimmy Carter. It’s not hard to see why: a trillion dollars and thousands of American lives later there is destabilised region and vast anti-American sentiment, both in the Middle East, and amongst the US’s allies.

Obama wants to avoid his Iraq, for a number of reasons. Firstly, he ran his first election as the ‘anti-Bush’; putting an end to illegal wars that damaged US prospects abroad. He spent the majority of his first term blaming Bush for the state of the country’s finances, for the diplomatic fallout of his policies, for the costly and failed war. To then turn around and intervene in a Middle East country that would likely bog down American troops for years to come would seem like a u-turn for the President. Of course, Syria is not Iraq, but comparisons can be made.

There are also financial arguments to be made. They may not be the most ethical ones to make alongside the daily deaths of Syrian civilians, but on the back of a recession, policymakers have a duty to manage the books. As Republican’s fight to balance the books, it seems unlikely that Obama will commit to another billion dollar conflict, as the money would likely come out of spending cuts at home, and potentially even derail his flagship policy, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), which he is battling a hostile congress to get funded. Extensive military action could not come at a worse time for the US economy.

There’s also the legal argument. Iraq was a coalition of a few nations that used questionable evidence to circumvent international law and invade another country. Returning to the idea that Obama is trying to fix the damage done by Bush, it is most likely he would prefer a course of action that is approved by the UN and the rest of the international community, and one that includes a vast amount of participants, where the US is not simply the major player with a few states assisting. However, with Russian and Chinese opposition on the Security Council to any major involvement by the UN, this issue is likely to be moot for the foreseeable future.

Obama is limited by the past, the present and the future. The Iraq syndrome that affects his administration is crippling any productive action in the Middle East, while the financial state of the US means any intervention would potentially mean crippling cuts to government programmes he has been championing. And arming the rebels could have dangerous consequences for the United States in the future, and further military action could enrage other regional actors and destabilise the Middle East.

The longer the US waits, the longer it risks losing key regional allies. Yet are the financial and legal costs too high for America to continue playing the world’s policeman? Have we reached a new time of national autonomy, where international anarchy reigns freely? Are we truly alone?


The international community must act to save the Rohingya Muslims

By Alex Bryan

One year since anti-Muslim violence broke out in Burma, the blood still flows and the deaths rack up. The Rohingya minority, stateless, discriminated against by virtue of their constitutional status as outsiders, remains the target of one of the most vicious series of ethnic attacks in the world at the the moment. The authorities have at times joined in these attacks; more often, the facilitate them or simply sit back and allow the killings to continue. Sadly, although the Rohingya are officially classed as ‘illegal migrants’, they have no homeland to which they can return. Nor can they simply flee; those that do risk rejection from other countries as well as the potential for bad weather conditions. Those who make it to Bangladesh, Thailand or Malaysia are often ‘pushed back’ from the borders, detained en masse, or arrested.

The discrimination in Burma has a long and inglorious history. It existed long before independence in 1946, and the Citizenship Act of 1982 defined Burmese citizenship in such a way as to exclude the Rohingya. Perhaps even worse than this is the refusal of the Burmese authorities to class the Rohingya as asylum seekers, instead condemning them to the lowest strata of society – the illegal migrant. The violence directed at Muslims in Burma for the last year has happened in a context of exclusion, of seeing the Muslims as ‘not fully human’. This can be seen not only in the violence, but also in the two child policy recently introduced.

The international attention on the violence has increased with time. The UN Human Rights Council President has voiced ‘deep concern’ about the killings. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also questioned the regime’s decision not to prosecute those who have enacted the attacks (indeed, it is often Rohingya themselves arrested after suffering terror attacks against them.) Unfortunately, this had had little to no impact on the regime’s course. In fact, the one piece of international intervention which could be seen to have altered the course of history was President Obama’s visit and meetings with President Thein Sein. Obama said he hoped the violence would stop. It has not, and his trip may been seen to have legitimised the regime.

International action is necessary to stop the systematic murder of the Rohingya people. Inside Burma, the figure those who protested against the regime, Aung San Suu Kyi, is now a member of the government, and has stayed shamefully silent on the issue. Attempts to stop the killings by foreign forces will almost certainly attempt to reach out to her first. Unfortunately, her tight-lipped attitude to the massacres bodes ill for any who do so.

One of the reasons for the relatively small pressure being exerted on Burma is that, nationally, this does not fit into the narrative the media have presented over the past few years of a Burma moving towards democracy, liberalising their economy, releasing political prisoners and allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to walk the streets again. Hence, viewers (on the rare occasion such stories are run on major news bulletins) tend to see them within a wider narrative of progress rather than one of discrimination, thus underestimating the problem.

The international community and national governments cannot absolve themselves of responsibility. The central foreign policy focus for the majority of major nations at the moment is the Syrian civil war and the ongoing power struggle in Egypt. As important as these two events are, they must not take up all the foreign policy political space. The attacks on the Rohingya have been persisting for the last 12 months. They show no signs of stopping organically, nor of being stopped by the Burmese government or ASEAN, the regional international group. The UN must act now to ensure that the Rohingya population can be liberated from this ethnic hatred and to ensure that Burma does not collapse.

Campaign group Avaaz has launched a campaign to get citizens of Western nations to pressure their governments to stop Burma from becoming ‘The next Rwanda’. The story of Rwanda is not only one of genocide and racial hatred but also one of an international community failing to fulfil its promise to those at risk of genocide. If the UN and the wider international community does not act now, the word ‘Burma’ might begin to be said in the same dark way we say ‘Rwanda’; as a synonym for the worst depths of humanity.