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Best way for Obama to help Syria is with aid and diplomacy – not weapons

Giving military aid to Syria's rebels – however just their cause – will only prolong the civil war and increase the risk of sectarian conflagration in the region. A better way to help the Syrian people is to pursue diplomatic efforts to end the conflict and provide more humanitarian aid.

By David CortrightOp-ed contributor / June 11, 2013

People run for cover after what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, June 10. Op-ed contributor David Cortright writes: 'Rather than pursuing uncertain and dangerous military solutions, the US should use its influence to continue to press for a diplomatic settlement.'

Nour Fourat/Reuters


Notre Dame, Ind.

As onlookers gaze in horror at the civil war raging in Syria, many naturally feel a compulsion to do something to relieve the people’s suffering. Many have called for arming the Syrian rebels – a move President Obama is now reportedly considering as Bashar al-Assad’s forces are apparently poised to attack the key city of Homs. But such a step would worsen the devastation and might involve the United States in yet another Middle East war. A better way to help the Syrian people is to pursue diplomatic efforts to end the killing and provide greater support for humanitarian relief efforts.

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Giving military aid to the rebels will only add fuel to the fire, prolonging the war, producing more death and destruction, and increasing the risk of sectarian conflagration in the region. The rebel cause is just – to overthrow the murderous Assad regime – but the hard reality is that after two years of fighting, insurgent forces have been unable to defeat government troops, and lately have lost ground militarily, most recently with the fall of the city of Qusayr in central Homs province. Mr. Assad’s Army remains strong, despite some defections, and has been bolstered by aid from Iran and Hezbollah and promised missile shipments from Russia.

Sending weapons and military aid might help the rebels, but they are already receiving assistance from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. US support will not solve the problem of rebel disunity and the lack of effective command. Many of the fighting groups are more loyal to local militia leaders than to the Free Syrian Army. In some localities warlords hold sway and refuse to submit to external authority.

Providing weapons to the rebels also means giving military support to insurgent forces that include elements allied to Al Qaeda. We are assured that US aid would go only to moderate groups, but controlling the use of weapons is impossible in the midst of the large-scale bitter war raging in Syria. Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front increasingly dominate the insurgency and would likely gain control of any weapons we send. US military aid could end up arming Al Qaeda.

What if American arms assistance were to somehow help the rebels turn the tide in their favor? More Hezbollah troops would probably enter the fray on the side of the Assad government, and their paymasters in Tehran might also intervene more directly. This would escalate and expand the conflict. The Sunni majority Syrian rebels would face a Shiite-backed (Hezbollah, Iran) Assad regime, intensifying a regional Shiite-Sunni divide already tearing apart Lebanon and Iraq. This conflict would sunder the entire region and further devastate Syria.


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