Syria Options Go From Bad to Worse

The conflict repeatedly has outgrown U.S. policy.

As reports have surfaced of possible use of sarin gas in the Syrian civil war, calls by long-time proponents of U.S. intervention on behalf of the anti-Assad rebels have grown to a fever pitch. These same voices, both at home and abroad, have evoked the administration’s previously stated “red line” on use of chemical weapons. But even assuming that reports of WMD usage in Syria turn out to be true, the Obama administration’s position may be far more nuanced than previously thought.

From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Washington’s policy options have consistently ranged from bad to worse. However, two new disturbing trends since the president set his red lines may grudgingly alter U.S. strategic objectives in that war-torn country: the now unquestioned dominance of extremist Salafist militants amongst the rebels fighting the Syrian government and the long-term impact of an irrevocably decentralized and WMD-endowed Syria. With these two factors now dovetailed together, the fear of sustained regional instability that they would garner may upend the logic of U.S. strategy. To understand why, the evolution of these two trends, in the context of the initial U.S. policy towards the Syrian revolt, needs to be examined.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war, Washington’s strategy has been incremental: In lieu of direct conventional involvement, favored by nervous U.S. client regimes and interventionist voices at home, it would slowly bleed the Syrian government towards collapse. It would fuel a foreign-backed insurgency with endless rebel soldiers from the wider region and a bottomless supply of weaponry. There would be gradual Western-driven recognition of the opposition in international institutions. Overt intervention would be far too costly, and would possibly bring about unwanted conflict with Russia, Iran and possibly China. Hence, American thinking was that a slow-bleed strategy, when combined with the creation of an exile-based transitional council (eventually recognized by key EU countries and later the Arab League) would present the aura of inevitability—both for the Syrian regime and its allies.

The July 2012 bombings in Damascus, which took out several key players of the Syrian high command, led some pundits to proclaim that Assad was doomed, further legitimizing the trajectory of U.S. policy in Syria.

Yet an unfortunate reality has gradually emerged, showing that the most able of the rebels are not the initial defectors from Syria’s secular army or the Westernized exiles from Paris or London, but Sunni Islamist militants who had cut their teeth in years of guerilla warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. The Obama administration’s motif of “leading from behind” in Libya, by arming antiregime rebels and foreign fighters under the protection of the NATO no-fly zone, opened the floodgates to proxy militants to receive Western weapons and training, and also become legitimized as a tool of U.S. policy. With the transnationalization of the Syrian rebellion, the same Libyan militiamen that NATO assisted in defeating Qaddafi exported their cause to Syria.

But with the evolution of the war, Al Qaeda’s presence within the opposition ( in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra and like-minded affiliates) not only became official, but also dominant. Joining them in this maelstrom are Chechnya’s battle-hardened Islamist fighters, whose ideology now mirrors other pro–Al Qaeda elements that are fighting the Assad regime. Hence, with the passage of time, it was these same Islamist militants that would become the custodians of Washington’s slow-bleed strategy in Syria.