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.