High Time for an Obama Syria Strategy

Without a grand vision for America's role in the Middle East, the anti-Assad intervention will only suck us in deeper.

Barack Obama’s decision to launch a limited intervention in Syria only when the use of chemical weapons by the regime could no longer be plausibly denied throws into sharp relief something that has been clear since the first blooms of the Arab Spring began to flower in December 2010: beyond reaction to calamity, the White House has no strategy for the use of American power in the Middle East. A planned “one-off” strike, though it may be cathartic to proponents of intervention, does little to alter this fundamental deficiency.

The tragedy of the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy is that it learned the lessons of Iraq too well. The Bush administration’s democracy-promotion strategy was unrealistic and ill-executed, committing American power to carry out a broad societal transformation for which it was wholly unsuited. Ultimately, as the Obama administration realizes, domestic change in the Middle East will have to be brought about by domestic forces—and as was the case in the West’s own history, this change will often be disruptive and bloody.

There is clearly no room or appetite for a democracy-promotion agenda in Syria. But the fact that it is inappropriate for the United States to sally forth abroad in search of dragons to reform does not obviate the need for Washington’s policy makers to have a policy towards the Middle East in general and the troubled countries where change is underway in particular. The stakes are simply too high.

Apart from the democracy-promotion agenda, the other reason often proffered for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war is humanitarian. But the Obama administration has been, at least until now, unpersuaded by this line of argument too. The president’s description of the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” was a surprise even to people in his own administration, according to background briefings given after the chance the U.S. might have to act on the threat arose. One official even put it like this: “If [Assad] drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

It is indeed the case that intervening in Syria purely for humanitarian reasons would be a misuse of American power and would have highly unpredictable consequences for the humanitarian situation. It is hard to imagine a committed humanitarian interventionist like Samantha Power agreeing to serve an administration that she believed had missed a simple chance to avert mass killing. But the situation is murkier. It is also the case that the United States is not and never will be able to avert every humanitarian tragedy in the world, and those it addresses are usually tied in some way to its broader interests—or should be, lest the public tire of overseas commitments altogether.

So the Obama administration is quite right to reject democracy promotion or simple humanitarianism as the reason for action in Syria. But what it has failed to do is recognize that beyond these tropes, the need for U.S. engagement still exists and existed right from the beginning. By belatedly taking action now, the administration is recognizing this fact. But it intervenes now under conditions which are far worse than obtained twenty-four or even twelve months ago, and it does so in a form that is unlikely to have any decisive influence on events.

A forward-looking and comprehensive Middle East policy would have been based on the realization in 2011 that the outbreak of rebellion across the Arab world spelled the end of the narrow regimes that have ruled the region for decades and which have purchased relative international calm at the cost of domestic repression. It was and remains a historical aberration for an Alawite minority to rule a Syrian Sunni majority of many times its size, especially at a time when uprisings elsewhere have provided a lesson in political change. The West should have learned from its own experience opposing wars of national liberation that brute violence can only perpetuate such a situation for so long, especially—as is increasingly the case in Syria—when foreigners provide the money and the muscle to do so.

By recognizing that the liquidation of Assad’s rule in Syria is a matter of when and not if, Washington should have positioned itself early for what came next. It takes a peculiar myopia to decide that because certain elements of the Sunni population of Syria have views detrimental to Western interests, it would be best to allow them to be pummeled into submission with every weapon of war imaginable—including chemical weapons—in the hope this will improve their disposition. Moral failings aside, this policy fails the test of realism. Assad and his foreign backers can no more to hold back the tide forever than could King Canute.