Conflict & Justice

US response to Syria: 3 questions with Ambassador Nicholas Burns


US Army National Guard soldiers prepare to depart in a Medevac helicopter to assist the last convoy from Iraq at Camp Adder, now known as Imam Ali Base, on December 17, 2011 near Nasiriyah, Iraq. The US is considering sending military aid for a no-fly zone in Iraq with hope of stemming conflict in Syria.


Mario Tama

BOSTON — Details are still emerging pertaining to this week's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad's allies blame the rebels. The rebels blame the government. Hundreds are dead.

GlobalPost live blog: Syria attacks

Last year, Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a "red line," and now, assuming that's what happened, the world braces for what's next. GlobalPost's senior foreign affairs columnist and former US diplomat extraordinaire Nicholas Burns weighs in on how important it is for America to respond, and exactly what that response should be.

What is the appropriate response by the Obama administration to this week's events in Syria?

The United States needs to act. We should assemble a coalition to lead the international response to Assad's brutality of his own people and the use of chemical weapons. The United States warned a year ago there would be consequences if Syria used chemical weapons. The Obama administration has correctly asked the United Nations team in Syria to investigate this week's chemical weapons attack. If confirmed, the United States would have every right to assemble a coalition including NATO allies the UK, France and Turkey and a number of Arab states. One option is to conduct air strikes against Assad's artillery, key military locations and air assets. This would help to neutralize his ability to attack civilian targets as well as rebel forces. The United States drew a line in the sand and dared Assad to cross it. He has done so twice. If we don't now respond, our credibility will be seriously affected in the region. 

Is there a moral responsibility for the Obama administration to respond to what the UN is calling "a crime against humanity"?

The United States does have a moral responsibility to act. We can't be a global cop and can't intervene everywhere. But, given Assad's use of chemical weapons, the terrible humanitarian crisis unfolding with millions of people homeless and more than 100,000 dead, and Syria's central geopolitical location, we have clear interests at stake. We need to act to protect those interests. The United Nations doctrine of Responsibility to Protect asks that we protect people victimized by their own government This is one of those situations that requires an effective international response 

What's the end game in Syria, as it relates to US policy?

Syria is disintegrating as a nation state. The civil war might continue for a year or two or more. And, there is a possibility the country could fracture along ethnic and religious lines into several mini states. The United States should not respond by introducing ground forces as we did effectively in Bosnia and Kosovo in the '90s, and in Iraq and Afghanistan with much less success. But, targeted air strikes against Assad will set him back, give the rebels a chance to unseat him and help to protect civilians. It is time for that type of American leadership in the Middle East.

Nicholas Burns, GlobalPost senior foreign affairs columnist, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is faculty chair of the school’s Middle East Initiative, India & South Asia Program, and is director of the Future of Diplomacy Project. He served in the United States Foreign Service for 27 years until his retirement in April 2008. Burns was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008. Prior to that, he was Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001), and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997). Follow him on Twitter @RNicholasBurns.