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Opinion

Syria – another sign that US needs to recalibrate Middle East policy

As the US backs into Syria and other Mideast crises, China is proactively and strategically engaging in the region. Its actions point out what America has to lose if it continues to hesitate in the Middle East.

By Kurt Shillinger / May 8, 2013

US Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (r.) in Moscow May 7. The two pledged to convene an international conference about Syria's civil war, and the US is considering arming Syrian rebels. Op-ed contributor Kurt Shillinger writes: 'As welcome as these steps are, they are in another sense vaguely discomfiting. This should have happened much, much sooner.'

Mladen Antonov/Reuters

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Escalation of the Syrian civil war seems finally to be attracting more serious international attention. The United States and Russia have agreed to host an international summit on ending the war. Washington and other Western powers are meanwhile considering plans to arm the opposition. 

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As welcome as these steps are, they are in another sense vaguely discomfiting. This should have happened much, much sooner. Delay has only made the task in Syria more complicated. Not only is the opposition more fragmented and radicalized, with jihadist elements more influential, the popular mood in the region is also decidedly against the US sending weapons to the rebels.

According to a new Pew Research poll released May 1, less than 33 percent of people in Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories back the US and other Western countries arming the Syrian rebels. Most of those surveyed in neighboring countries fear the conflict will spill into the region. Among Washington’s European allies, the poll found, support for arming the rebels is also low.

Had the US been thinking more proactively about the region, it might have had a much greater chance of shoring up the opposition and helping to shape a democratic outcome before jihadist elements muddied the picture or the conflict threatened to engulf the region. As with the opposition movement in Libya, and before that, in Egypt, Syria has revealed a hesitant, reactive America.

American policy in the Middle East and Central Asia needs recalibrating, not only from one in which America is forced to act, but from one which relies too heavily on force. More than a decade of war-fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhausted the US military and sapped the Treasury. It has also distracted from diplomacy and development, resulting in missed opportunities and diminished influence.

One part of the globe where the US is thinking strategically is the Pacific, where it is engaged in a military and economic “pivot.” But it musn’t let that translate into neglect elsewhere.

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