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Why Obama’s Syria Diplomacy Is Doomed to Fail

Former Senior Fellow

President Obama addressed the country Tuesday night in an attempt shore up eroding public support for his Syria resolution, which  faces likely defeat in Congress. Such a defeat would cripple presidential  leadership in foreign policy for years to come, and thus the administration's diplomatic efforts on Syria may be as much about avoiding political defeat in  Washington as about defeating the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

To date, the most substantial U.S. engagement in the Syrian civil war has been its $1 billion dollar humanitarian aid program to sustain more than 6 million people in refugee and displaced camps. But humanitarian aid will not end what is a military conflict over political issues.

Is there a humanitarian justification for U.S. military intervention in  the Syrian civil war? The president's arguments were  too closely  focused on the use of chemical weapons to make the case for a  military  response in Syria rather than on ending the civil war. Even if the U.N. investigation produces irrefutable evidence that the Syrian government  used  these weapons, it is not sufficient reason for U.S. action,  particularly  weighing the pros and cons of intervention in what is a  very complicated  conflict with no good options for U.S. policymakers. By  focusing international  attention on one incident, instead of a broader  strategy for intervention and  final settlement of the war, the Obama  administration may be ensuring its new  policy on Syria is stillborn.

While the Assad regime has a murderous record on  human rights going  back four decades, some of the Sunni rebel groups opposing him have  committed enough  atrocities to suggest they would have as bad or worse a record  should  they take power. Even more worrisome is that some of the jihadist rebel groups are openly associated with al-Qaida, which should give  policymakers  pause. A military victory by the best organized and most  effective Sunni rebel  militias will not bring a modern day Syrian  version of George Washington to  power, as there is no unifying national  figure in a divided country. And it may  bring the opposite.  Historically, the United States government has not been  particularly  adept at choosing the right rebel leaders in civil wars, helping  them  take power and then ensuring they govern well.

What is increasingly clear in this civil war is that  supporting regime  change will not bring peace to Syria and stabilize the region.  But  allowing the war to continue along its current trajectory means more   deaths, a broader humanitarian disaster which has already displaced and   destroyed the homes and livelihoods of nearly a third of the people in  the  country, and a high risk of more atrocities by all sides. What is  needed is a  political settlement balancing the rights of all of the  ethnic and religious traditions in Syria—Sunni, Shia, Kurd, Orthodox Christian, and Alawite—which may involve partition of the country.  Achieving such a political settlement would be exceptionally difficult, but is certainly not achievable unless the U.S. intervenes to change the political calculations of the contestants.

The only way the Bosnian civil war ended, itself particularly vicious with  egregious atrocities, was U.S. military intervention followed by aggressive U.S. diplomatic efforts to force all sides to negotiate a  settlement. U.N. and EU efforts to end the war failed until the U.S. intervened. From the perspective of the Syrian people and the groups at war within the country, a negotiated political settlement is the only way to bring some stability back to a traumatized society.

But no political settlement will be diplomatically achievable until the major contestants fear their own military defeat enough that they will enter into serious negotiations. A one-time bombing campaign will not achieve that.

A national interest argument can also be made for U.S. military  intervention, which is the only one which might change the mind of  Republicans in the House now leaning against the resolution. A first  principle of American foreign policy should be to support its friends  and oppose its adversaries. The Iranian government is the greatest  destabilizing nation-state in the region, an adversary of the United  States and a threat to long-term American allies. In recent polls in  Sunni Muslim countries in the Middle East, Iran has replaced the United  States as the greatest threat. American disengagement or missteps in   the region over the past four years have encouraged Iranian adventurism.

When President Obama precipitously withdrew all American forces from  Iraq at the end  of 2011 after failing to negotiate a status of forces  agreement, he created a military and strategic vacuum in Iraq which has  been filled by Iran. The U.S. abandonment of President Hosni Mubarak in the middle of the Arab revolution in Egypt, and more recently the U.S. refusal to provide anything other than humanitarian aid in Syria, sent  messages to the Saudi royal family, among others, about our  disengagement from the region and of America's unwillingness to counter Iranian adventurism.

Iranian influence has been growing in the region for  some time. Sudan, which has been governed by the Muslim Brotherhood government of Omar Bashir since the coup which brought them to power in June 1989,   established an alliance with Iran a few months after taking power which  remains in effect to this day. Iranian munitions factories outside  Khartoum supply weapons to the Sudanese military; secret intelligence  cooperation agreements have been signed between the two countries; Sudan serves as Iran's intelligence service base for its subversive operations in Africa and has given the Iranian Navy unlimited base rights at Port Sudan; and one of Iran's top diplomats was sent to Khartoum as Ambassador when Tehran feared the Bashir government was destabilizing in 2012.

Syria has been a client state of Iran since 1979, and Iran has been a  major supplier of arms to the Assad government during the civil war.  Iran has used Iraq, its newest client state, as a corridor to supply  those arms. King Abdullah of Jordan, one of the firmest U.S. allies in  the region, in a television interview in the U.S. last year described the fear of encirclement by Iranian client states in Syria, Iraq and  Shia-dominated Southern Lebanon. Jordan and Lebanon, given their size,  are destabilizing because of proportionately large refugee flows from  the Syrian civil war into their densely populated countries.

The destabilization of the Middle East structure of power has increased the risk of a regional conflict as countries try to protect themselves by whatever means they can. Iran has threatened to annihilate the state of Israel enough times that the Israeli government has considered a  preemptive strike to destroy Iran's nuclear capability before the point of no return. The one serious initiative of the Obama administration in the region has been its efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapon; unfortunately, we have no evidence that its efforts have successful. Iran moves closer by the day to achieving nuclear power status.

Because American allies in the region fear the U.S. is no longer a reliable ally in the face of Iranian expansionism, the Gulf States  and Saudi Arabia have built new commercial, financial and diplomatic ties to Egypt and Turkey as counterweights to Iran. In the aftermath of the  military coup in Egypt in August that overthrew the Islamist government of Mohammed Morsi, the Saudis and Gulf States—which fear the Muslim Brotherhood as much as they do Iran—provided $12 billion in immediate financial support for the new military government.

American military action in Syria, if it is strategically designed and  followed by a major diplomatic effort, would repair damaged American  credibility with the Saudis, the Gulf States and the Jordanian and Turkish governments—all allies of the United States. It could be used to break up Iranian power in Syria and constrain its expansionist policies, but only if the Obama administration shows more diplomatic skill than it has thus far in the Middle East.  Others models of presidential leadership in the Middle East might provide useful guides to what could  be done to deal with Syria.

Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization, with Soviet support, invaded  Jordan in 1970 and  threatened to topple King Hussein, a long-time ally of the  United  States, and replace him with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO. In response, President Richard Nixon ordered the 6th Fleet to anchor off the  coast of Israel and Lebanon to rattle the U.S. sabre. He did not announce what he would do, he did not say he would limit U.S. military action and he did not ask for congressional consent. The PLO, Syrian military and their Soviet advisors withdrew from Jordan because they were afraid of what Nixon might do. Nixon's skillful use of American power to protect our ally provides a valuable lesson for what the U.S. might do in Syria.

Ultimately the best solution to the Syrian civil war  is one achieved  through diplomacy. But without U.S. military action, any  diplomatic effort  will fail, because the Assad regime believes it can win the  civil war,  as it did in the last war between the Alawites and the Islamists 30 years ago. In 1982, Hafez Assad, father of the current Syrian president, ended the Muslim Brotherhood's six year effort to overthrow  him by  crushing the center of the revolt in Hama. In the blood-bath  which ensued over  three months in 1982, some experts estimate that as many  as 40,000 people were  slaughtered.

Given the current military balance of power between the Assad   regime and the rebel forces they are fighting, the stage is not set for a   diplomatic settlement unless an outside player intervenes with a  creditable  use of force able to upset that balance. This is why U.N.  diplomatic efforts to  end the Syrian civil war have been failed: not  because its diplomats didn't try  hard enough, or because they didn't  know what they were doing, but because the  U.N. has no 6th Fleet or Air Force to rattle an international sabre and no credible threat of the use  of force if the contestants refuse to negotiate  seriously.

The United  States should have intervened in the Syrian civil war  long ago, before  the rise of the Sunni jihadists who are among the most  effective  fighters. But it didn't and now the U.S. is faced with a mess which  is  destabilizing the region and putting our allies at risk.

One final observation about the momentous decisions about to be made  on Syria which should give us pause: Any  United States intervention in  the Syrian civil war will require a sustained  effort over several years  by experienced senior decision-makers in Washington  who have wide  experience in executing policy, not just in making it. The devil is  nearly always in the detail.  Right now, the United States does not have that  kind of experience at the top.

The  four top policymakers in the Obama  foreign policy team are four former U.S.  senators (Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel) who have little experience managing  crises or  implementing policy. If Congress approves and the president  decides  to intervene, the risk of sustained tactical blunders is high, and that   should give pause, even if the case can be made for intervention. But  U.S. senators have one skill which is particularly useful presently,  and that is  they can count votes among their former colleagues in Congress where the  tide is running against the approval of the Syria  resolution.

The fastest way  out of the president's dilemma is the  political lifeline Kerry appears to  be negotiating with the  Russian foreign minister as an alternative to U.S.  military action in  Syria. The president, seeing defeat before him in the  Congress, in  public opinion polls, among the hard left within his own party and  among our closest allies in Europe, has embraced the Russian proposal  almost  as fast as the Russians could make it. Nothing the Russians have  proposed  provides a road map for ending the Syrian civil war, but it  will keep the U.S. out of the Middle East and Syria which is why the  Russians proposed the  compromise. Meanwhile, Iranian influences grows  and the civil war rages.