Stephen Walt on the Escalating Crisis in Syria

May 3, 2013
by Doug Gavel

U.S. President Barack Obama this week said he would consider providing military aid to Syrian resistance groups if solid evidence is uncovered to support the claim that the Assad regime is using chemical weapons on its own people, and the U.N. is now calling for Syrian President Assad to allow international weapons inspectors into the country. Stephen Walt is Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs with an expertise on Middle Eastern affairs. We asked for his perspectives on the escalating crisis.

Q: How credible is President Obama’s assertion that he will consider aiding the rebels?

A: It is fully credible, but only in the narrow sense that it would force the president to rethink his prior position. He did not commit to taking any specific action in response to possible chemical weapons use, and would undoubtedly want to consider the various options in light of the overall situation prevailing at the time. And it's a mistake to put too much weight on the chemical weapons issue. Chemical weapons are bad news, but they are not as lethal or as dangerous as nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Assad regime was already using military force against civilians without much restraint, and more than 70,000 people had been killed. So it is not obvious that possible chemical weapons use is as much a "game changer" as the president initially suggested.

Q: What types of military aid could and would the United States provide? Would other countries follow in kind?

A: The United States could provide the opposition with many types of equipment, ranging from communications devices to small arms to heavy weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. Some of these items are already being provided by some other countries, and the United States is probably facilitating such efforts in various ways. But sending a lot of additional firepower to Syria is not a good idea in the long-term. We do not know enough about the various contenders for power, and there's no way to prevent any weapons we might send now from falling into the wrong hands or being used for different purposes later. We might also be fueling the same sort of conflict that engulfed Lebanon in the 1970s or Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion. For these reasons, the Obama administration has been reluctant to provide the rebels with lots of lethal aid, and appropriately so.

Q: How important is it for other Middle Eastern leaders to stand up and publically assail President Assad? Can that make a difference in the outcome?

A: It can, largely by telling the opposition forces that Assad has little support within the region. But in the end the question will turn on when Assad's closest supporters begin to realize that he is going to lose and begin to defect, or whether outside powers can arrange some sort of negotiated settlement that leads to his departure and begins a process of reconciliation within Syria. Unfortunately, it is hard to be optimistic about either outcome in the near term.

Q: The polls continue to show that most Americans oppose involvement in Syria. Does that factor into the White House strategy?

A: Certainly; all presidents try to keep their finger on the pulse of public opinion and take it into account. But it won't determine the U.S. response. If President Obama believes doing more is necessary he will, and if he thinks greater involvement in Syria is unwise, he won't be forced into it by popular pressure. In this case, I think it is clear that the American people are leery of another potentially costly and open-ended quagmire, and they prefer that the United States limit its involvement to diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, and modest forms of military aid.

Professor Stephen Walt

Stephen Walt, Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs

"The United States could provide the opposition with many types of equipment, ranging from communications devices to small arms to heavy weapons, including surface-to-air missiles. Some of these items are already being provided by some other countries, and the United States is probably facilitating such efforts in various ways. But sending a lot of additional firepower to Syria is not a good idea in the long-term."


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