Forget about “how” to intervene in the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration needs to answer the bigger question: why?
U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is holding yet another round of internal deliberations about how to deal with Syria. Despite the breathless media coverage, the arguments inside the administration are well-rehearsed at this point and unlikely to produce surprises. The pressure on the administration to deepen its military involvement in the Syrian conflict may become irresistible, as my Foreign Policy colleague Aaron David Miller argued this week — even as the public overwhelmingly opposes such steps and nobody really believes that the ideas on offer will work.
Washington’s Syria debate rages within the boundaries of a broader debate about America’s appropriate role in the Middle East and the world. The Obama administration clearly and correctly places a high premium on not being dragged into another Iraq-style quagmire. Many in Washington view this refusal to intervene in Syria, like the withdrawal from Iraq, as an abdication of leadership. But even most hawks recognize that the United States can’t afford, and the public doesn’t want, another Iraq or Afghanistan — that’s why few openly recommend a full-scale U.S. intervention.
The endless arguments about Syria too often focus on the tactics — arming the rebels, diplomacy, no-fly zones. But as Micah Zenko recently noted in FP, these more limited options involve Washington more directly in the war without any realistic prospect of ending it. Cratering runways might work for a few hours, but then Bashar al-Assad will repair them. No-fly zones might limit the destruction of Assad’s air force, but the Syrian military has other resources at its disposal. Arming the rebels will slightly tilt the battlefield but will not likely break the strategic stalemate or give Washington significant influence within the Syrian opposition. The first step on the slippery slope is always easy, but it’s much harder to actually resolve a conflict or to find a way out of a quagmire.
These painfully familiar arguments about U.S. options miss the point, though. They conceal a prior question: What does it mean for U.S. policy to “work” in Syria? Should Syria be viewed as a front in a broad regional cold war against Iran and its allies or as a humanitarian catastrophe that must be resolved? That question crosses partisan lines and gets to fundamental questions about how to understand the rapidly changing Middle East.
The distinction matters directly and profoundly for the debate over specific policies. Steps that effectively bleed Iran and its allies might well prolong and intensify Syria’s bloodshed, while policies that alleviate human suffering and produce a more stable postwar Syria may well require dealing with Assad’s backers. Imagine that Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a diplomatic breakthrough that ended the fighting and secured a political transition but included an Iranian role — from the latter perspective this would be a stunning success, but from the former it would be an epic disaster.
Many of the advocates of aggressive intervention define the Syrian conflict primarily as a front in the cold war against Iran. From this perspective, Hezbollah’s entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing — Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran’s most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy’s queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat — and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran — should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States.
If Washington endorses the goal of bleeding Iran and its allies through proxy warfare, a whole range of more interventionist policies logically follow. The model here would presumably be the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — a long-term insurgency coordinated through neighboring countries, fueled by Gulf money, and popularized by Islamist and sectarian propaganda.
“Success” in this strategy would be defined by the damage inflicted on Iran and its allies — and not by reducing the civilian body count, producing a more stable and peaceful Syria, or marginalizing the more extreme jihadists. Ending the war would not be a particular priority, unless it involved Assad’s total military defeat. The increased violence, refugee flows, and regionalization of conflict would likely increase the pressure on neighboring states such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. It would also likely increase sectarianism, as harping on Sunni-Shiite divisions is a key part of the Arab Gulf’s political effort to mobilize support for the Syrian opposition (and to intimidate local Shiite populations, naturally). And the war zone would continue to be fertile ground for al Qaeda’s jihad, no matter how many arms were sent to its “moderate” rivals in the opposition.
What follows if the conflict were understood instead as a Syrian civil war and humanitarian catastrophe? Resolving these twin crises has long been the focus of international and U.S. diplomatic efforts and is again at the fore of the proposed (but probably stillborn) Geneva II conference, which aims to bring the Syrian regime and opposition together to reach a negotiated deal. Such a settlement could in theory reduce the killing, allow the return of refugees, reduce pressure on Syria’s neighbors, marginalize the jihadists, and assuage the region’s spiraling sectarian hatreds. But it would not mark a defeat of Iran and its allies.
Neither of the warring parties seems inclined to take the Geneva II off-ramp to a negotiated transition at the moment, of course. The problems with such a deal are massive. Both Iran and the Gulf states seem to prefer waging proxy war over striking a regional bargain over Syria (though some of its immediate neighbors, such as Jordan, seem keener on a deal). There would be tremendous, and possibly insurmountable, enforcement problems: the opposition naturally worries that Assad would take advantage of any de-escalation to quietly liquidate his opponents, while the bickering Syrian opposition would have difficulty persuading its members to adhere to an agreement.
The debate about open U.S. military intervention in Syria should therefore be built around a frank discussion of the goals, not only the means. At the moment, advocates of arming the rebels switch between making the case that it would strike a blow against the Iranians, and that it would improve the prospects for a negotiated solution. The fundamental tension between those who argue that the rebels need more arms so that Assad will be forced to come to the table, and those who argue that this is a path leading to the complete defeat of the Syrian regime should be resolved now — not after Washington gets involved.
The reality is that the Obama administration has done very well to resist the steady drumbeat to intervene in Syria. Can anyone who has observed Assad’s tenacity over the last year still believe that his regime would have rapidly crumbled in the face of airstrikes or no-fly zones last year? Had the United States gone that route, Syria today would likely look much like it does now — except with America trapped in a quagmire and Obama under relentless pressure to escalate.
I suspect that Obama knows better than to give in to the pressure to arm the rebels simply to appear to be “doing something.” But to sustain that posture, his administration is going to have to look beyond the array of policy options and explain precisely what the United States wants to achieve in Syria.