Friday, June 7, 2013

What to Do about Syria?

To be fair to President Obama, no one knows what to do about Syria.

This does not obviate the fact that President Obama is responsible for managing the crisis. As of now, he has let the situation deteriorate, without benefit of American involvement.

Surely, no one wants to put American soldiers in the middle of a civil war between competing groups of Islamic terrorists. Yet, the situation does not appear to be amenable to diplomacy.

Some have suggested no-fly zones and arming the rebels, but that assumes that we know who the rebels are and that we have reason to believe that they are on our side.

Perhaps, at one point in the conflict they were, but today it seems no longer to be the case.

The Obama administration seems to have believed that Bashar Assad would go the way of Hosni Mubarak. When the war broke out it saw rebels fighting for a righteous cause and predicted that the tyrant Assad would be quickly dispatched with the aid of a few words from the White House.

It worked in Egypt. Why shouldn’t it have worked in Syria?

In other words, the Obama administration thought that their favorite historical narrative, the one where the people rose up and overthrew tyrants, was repeating itself in Syria.

It was a na├»ve, a child’s-eye view of foreign policy. We learn from it that history does not repeat itself and that those who manage today’s crisis as though it were yesterday’s will be defeated.

Since no one knows what to do, we are left with counterfactuals. What would have happened if the administration had done this or that, there and then.

Many agree with the counterfactual that Bret Stephens offered:

Had he armed Syria's rebels early in the conflict, he could have empowered a moderate opposition, toppled the regime, sidelined Sunni jihadists, prevented the bloodbath we now have, stemmed the refugee crisis and dealt a sharp strategic setback to Iran—all without any U.S. military involvement.

Had he moved against Assad after the latter's use of chemical weapons, the president could have demonstrated the seriousness of U.S. red lines—this time with limited and surgical use of U.S. military assets. (By the way, whatever happened to that U.N. fact-finding mission on Syrian chemical weapons that Mr. Obama promised back in April?)

If Obama had done so, the situation would probably be different today. But, as happens with counterfactuals, we do not know whether it would have been better or worse.

It’s nice to think that the original rebels were freedom fighters, but who can say whether they would have evolved into terrorists or whether they would have been overrun by terrorists.

David Goldman doesn’t think that there is very much we can do, at all. To his mind Syria is not viable as a country. It’s inevitable that it disintegrates:

Ultimately, partition of Syria (and other Middle Eastern countries) on the model of the former Yugoslavia probably will be the outcome of the crisis. There are lots of things to keep diplomats busy for the next generation. But the terrible fact remains that it is not in our power to prevent the decline of a civilization embracing over a billion people, and to prevent some aspects of that decline from turning ugly beyond description. Among the many things we might do, there is one thing we must do: limit the damage to ourselves and our allies.

Goldman believes that the war in Syria is yet another chapter in the story of the disintegration of the Islamic world. He is anything but hopeful.

Other, equally sage commentators have suggested that Syria’s civil war serves America’s interests. Sunni extremists and Shiite extremists are killing each other day after day. What’s not to like?

Of course, they are also creating a humanitarian disaster in Syria, murdering tens of thousands of innocent civilians and producing massive flows of refugees into Jordan and Turkey.

Others, like Daniel Pipes believe that the Syrian civil war is not such a bad thing at all.

Today, Charles Krauthammer examined the changing shape of the battlefield in Syria. It had looked as though Assad’s forces were headed for defeat. Today, it looks as though the tide has turned against the rebels, largely because Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have intervened. Also, the Assad government is being helped by Russian President Valdimir Putin.

In the vacuum created by President Obama’s failure to manage the crisis, other players have stepped up their game. Sensing American paralysis they have used the conflict to promote their own geopolitical interests, or better, to promote their claims to world leadership.

On the global political chessboard, America seems to have come up the loser in Syria.

In Krauthammer’s words:

And the United States, whose bystander president, having declared that Assad must go, that he has lost all legitimacy and that his fall is just a matter of time, is looking not just feckless but clueless.

President Obama doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Fine. No one does. But between nothing and invasion lie many intermediate measures: arming the rebels, helping Turkey maintain a safe zone in northern Syria, grounding Assad’s murderous air force by attacking airfields — all the way up to enforcing a no-fly zone by destroying the regime’s air-defense system.

Obama could have chosen any rung on the ladder. He chose none. Weeks ago, as battle fortunes began changing, the administration leaked that it was contemplating possibly, well maybe, arming the rebels. Then nothing.

Obama imagines that if America is completely hands-off, a civil war like Syria’s will carry on as is, self-contained. He simply does not understand that if America withdraws from the scene, it creates a vacuum that invites hostile outside intervention. A superpower’s role in a regional conflict is deterrence.

If I read Krauthammer correctly, he is saying that sometimes, when there are no good options, one is still obliged to do something.

Life would be much easier if we are always faced with choices between good and bad options. Or else, between good and better options.

Problems arise when we find ourselves in a dilemma where we are faced with a series of bad choices. In that case, one that we all confront on a daily basis, we often find that we still have to choose one, lest we be eliminated from the game.


vanderleun said...

"But between nothing and invasion lie many intermediate measures: "

How about, for a change, we choose "nothing" and if that doesn't work out we choose "incinerate" the joint. Shouldn't have to do that more than two or three times for it to become a policy that gets people's attention.

vanderleun said...

Come to think of it we have chosen, up to this point, "nothing." Seems to be working out okay in Seattle this morning.

Memphis Steve said...

What we have is a theoretical revolutionary whose only focus throughout his life has been on destroying America. Now that he is in the role of America's leader, he has no clue what to do. He takes a lot of criticism for all of his endless vacations, but he is like a child avoiding homework he doesn't know how to do. He's just totally lost in trying to be a leader. So he goes and plays golf and pretends everything will work itself out. Meanwhile, the scandals stemming from his network of corruption are boiling over. This president not only threatens to redeem the reputation of Jimmy Carter, but Richard Nixon, as well. This is the worst I've seen in my lifetime.

JP said...

Syria's in an awakening era, which means that that the rebels either win a political victory (like forcing Nixon to resign and the Vietnam war to wind down) or they get smooshed like the Chinese protestors in Tieneman square.

So, at this point, it looks like Syria is going to win against the rebels, thereby setting themselves up for a major civil war in about 40 years.

So, I'm with Xenakis on this one.

"From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, one must recognize the possibility that al-Assad's Qusair victory may lead to the complete collapse of the rebel side. As I've written many, many times, Syria is in a generational Awakening era, like America in the 1960s, with little desire among the Syrian people for a war. The war has been propelled entirely by the psychopathic president Bashar al-Assad, with heavy weapons supplied by Russia and Iran, and guerilla fighters supplied by Hezbollah. Without that outside support, al-Assad's army would have collapsed long ago. But with that support, it's the rebel side that vulnerable to collapse, and that collapse may be close.

In that event, there are almost certainly going to be bitter recriminations in the West, as this will be the third such loss that might be blamed on the Obama administration:

Sectarian violence has been growing steadily in Iraq since December, 2011, when the American forces pulled out.

Afghanistan's government is very unlikely to survive the pullout of American forces.

And now a possible victory by al-Assad in Syria."

Lastango said...

I see comments above from my old webfriend Gerard Vanderleun; a good reminder to revisit his blog.
Stuart, thanks for this piece, with its thoughtful content and informative links.

My own view is that Obama's inaction is a continuation of Bush's inaction, and what we see in Syria is a natural outcome of our appeasement of Iran.

Bush sought a Grand Bargain with Iran in order to give him the fig leaf of a political exit from Iraq, a place where he had no intention of fighting to win. In pursuit of this he made numerous, notable concessions, including:

-- allowing Iran to kill, via proxies, hundreds and perhaps thousands of our troops in Iraq. (Remember Bush's seemingly inexplicable failure to support the democratic opposition inside Iran? "Why doesn't he act???", conservatives wondered.)

-- preserving Iran's operative al Sadr, and turning over the entire south of Iraq to Iran's control.

-- supporting the election of compliant puppet Olmert in Israel. Among Olmert's Bush-friendly acts (and, thereby, Iran-friendly acts) was the staging of a theatrical, phony assault on Iran's Hezbollah army in southern Lebanon. Empty-suit mouthpiece Condi Rice was a major player in all of Olmert's calculated donothingism.

Fast forward to today. Obama needs to look ensure his final withdrawal from Iraq does not appear to have been a retreat or capitulation (he need not fear; Bush already retreated and capitulated there), and so will do nothing to provoke Iran -- in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, or anywhere else. An Iraq in flames would suggest Obama cut and ran.

This was pure self-interest and cynicism on Obama's part, as was the case with his backing of the Arab Spring and overthrow of Libya. I disagree sharply with columnists who suggest Obama's viewpoint is or ever was idealistic, optimistic, or delusional. Obama co-conspired with the Europeans to turn North Africa over to the Islamists as an act of realpolitik, because they perceive the Islamists to be the ultimate winners. Everything else the Obama administration says, every seemingly heartfelt "concern" it expresses, is intended to conceal this reality. Long before there was a President Obama, Bush was reaching out to Islamists across North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, and undermining our allies. Our enemies see this clearly, and are emboldened accordingly.

And so, through a long history of appeasement and perfidious deal-cutting we arrive at the present humanitarian and geopolitical disaster. It has deep, deep roots. That's why it's intractable.

So, when Obama throws up his hands and declares there's nothing we can do, he's right. But not for any reason he is prepared to actually state. He calculates correctly that his domestic political risk from inaction is trivial.

There's no point in tilting a windmills here. A nation that isn't even prepared to build a meaningful fence to secure its own southern border against a foreign invasion also isn't going to actively work to depose the regime in Iran. An until the Mullahs fall, there won't be peace at any place between Damascus and Tehran.

Dennis said...

A slight change from the seriousness of the issues discussed here.

Stuart, I thought you might enjoy this and hoped others would also.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, Dennis. It's a great story.

n.n said...

Perhaps Obama could stop running guns to the "rebels." It had deadly consequences in Mexico and Libya, and it has the same deadly consequences in Syria.