Global Policy Studies & International Security

The Moral Cost Of Inaction In Syria

The tragedy in Syria grows worse by the day. Battles between rebel forces and the Assad regime continue to rage across the country. With over 30,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn areas, the suffering endured by the Syrian people is an abhorrent tragedy. However, an even greater tragedy is the comprehensive lack of leadership shown by the United States government in responding to the crisis.

This is a rolling disaster for American leadership. The Obama administration’s failure to act in the face of growing human carnage is a blow to the United States’ reputation, to regional and international allies, to initiatives like the Responsibility to Protect and to innocent civilians in Syria.

As the world watches, the Syrian government is escalating its war against rebel groups. In an attempt to defeat the rebels, the Assad regime is resorting to the unrestrained pounding of civilian areas. In addition, Syria’s use of air power decisively tilts the advantage in its favor, leading to indiscriminate destruction, where fleeing civilians are often caught in the crosshairs of battle.

The U.S. can repair some of its damaged reputation by instituting a no-fly zone in northern Syria. In choosing to follow this course, America would find substantial international support from a cross-section of key allies, making the mission a multi-lateral effort and lending it international legitimacy. A broad coalition of actors, from France to Qatar, has already called for such a move.[1] All that is needed is American leadership, something which has been sadly lacking in this conflict.

Instituting a no-fly zone will also serve to bolster Turkey, which has been bearing the brunt of its imploding neighbor. Turkey has already set up fourteen camps and is housing approximately 100,000 Syrian refugees, straining its resources and creating domestic tensions. Pursuing a no-fly zone will not only signal to Turkey, a key NATO ally, that the international community supports the country in a time of serious need; it will also signal a serious commitment to address the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Furthermore, a no-fly zone would create a secure humanitarian corridor between Aleppo and the Turkish border, allowing the UN’s Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to set up camps and provide critical services to Syrian refugees. Instituting proper camps within Syria’s borders will lay the groundwork for absorbing the refugees back into the country and relieve southern Turkey from the overwhelming refugee influx.

Alternatively, former U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter, among others, has suggested that the international community arm the rebel groups.[2] Yet, training and arming unknown rebel fighters is a questionable move. No one really knows who these groups are, or what will happen to these weapons after the Syrian conflict concludes. This may lead to greater instability over the long-term. A no-fly zone would serve as a great equalizer because it will reduce Assad’s options, it will help the rebels fight on more even footing with the Syrian Army and it will assure that weapons do not fall into the hands of terrorists like al-Qaeda or Hezbollah.

China and Russia will surely veto any resolutions calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, but appeasing them is not worth the mounting cost of innocent lives. Action by the international community will alleviate human suffering and solve a mushrooming humanitarian crisis. History will surely judge Russia and China for failing to take any steps towards helping innocent refugees find safety from a growing conflict.

As the death toll mounts, instability spreads and refugees flood nearby countries, the world is witnessing twin tragedies unfold in Syria. One is the innocent human suffering being generated by the Syrian civil war. Yet perhaps even worse is the inaction of the United States. Armed with resources, capabilities and allies the United States has failed time and again to respond to the crisis. This policy paralysis is allowing the blood of countless innocents to flow. The time to act is now.


[1] Talmadge, Eric; & Murphy, Brian. “Qatar FM calls on UN to back Syria Rebels.” Associated Press. (

[2] Slaughter, Anne Marie. “We Will Pay a High Price If We Do Not Arm the Rebels.” The Financial Times. 31 July 2012. (


One reply on “The Moral Cost Of Inaction In Syria”

Very good insights all-around. The question that I have is, if Assad falls, what takes place of this regime? Iraq is a perfect example of a bad situation that gets much much worse when there is no leader or control of disparate sectarian groups. Also, if there is intervention, does this set the precedent that the US should intervene in every conflict in the Middle East? Libya is often put up as the example for intervention, but they have oil. Looking at principle and practice, it seems to me that the US is mainly interested in making sure the energy markets are stable. We need look no further than Sec. Clinton’s recent energy address at Georgetown.

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