Other than what it has already tried, there is nothing the United States can do to stop the violence in Syria or make things better for the opposition forces there: this is the conventional wisdom shared by a good number of analysts in Washington and almost ingrained in the minds of U.S. officials working on Syria policy. But there is another strategy worth pursuing with greater urgency: talk tough and bargain with Moscow.
Washington’s policy logjam on Syria is not surprising. There is an acute awareness of the high risks of alternative and perhaps more forceful strategies, be they diplomatic or military. The Obama administration sympathizes with the plight of the Syrian people and is eager to help, but it also does not want to make things worse in that country—and it can’t absorb substantial costs along the way, especially during the fall run-up to the presidential election.
Those who remember the horrors of America’s military intervention in Iraq and the fact that it cost the United States billions of dollars and 4,486 lives so far—not to mention the intangible and indirect costs from the invasion and post-war occupation—may immediately laud the administration for its extra cautious approach toward Syria.
But how much caution is too much? Is Washington being so careful on Syria that it risks undermining U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East?
As things currently stand, the two main U.S. priorities for Syria, containing the civil war and securing the regime’s WMD, are more or less fulfilled. The risk of chemical-weapons loss or usage in Syria is relatively low because Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is not facing a mortal threat—at least not yet. And the sectarian violence inside the country has not furiously spilled over to neighboring countries—again, not yet.
An Agenda for Washington
Does the present calm mean that the United States can afford to watch from afar and do the bare minimum in Syria? Assad may be in good shape now, and the balance of power currently may be tilted in favor of his forces, but several developments could change the dynamics inside Syria in the not so distant future and undermine U.S. priorities there.
Neighboring Turkey is starting to get worried about its own security. The recent firing by Syrian soldiers into a refugee camp inside Turkey (Turkey hosts thousands of Syrian refugees), killing two, has raised the prospects of Turkish military action, with prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for NATO intervention. And it is only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other neighboring countries actually deliver on their promises to supply the Syrian rebels with substantial amounts of money and modern weaponry. Unsurprisingly, Kofi Annan’s peace plan has failed to stop the violence, thus boosting the chances that military options will be seriously entertained by neighboring countries.
The reality is that a full-blown civil war in Syria is in the works, one that will surely change U.S. priorities in the country. Thus, Washington cannot afford to lead from behind. It is smart to repeat that Syria is not Libya in advancing an argument against military intervention. But it is precisely because Syria is not Libya that Washington cannot merely state its concerns and hope for the best. Unlike in Libya, the stakes in Syria are high, and the United States must take charge, although that does not necessarily mean boots on the ground, another Libya-like aerial campaign or other military options.
Washington’s reactive Syria strategy is at risk of being overrun by events on the ground. A more proactive strategy is desperately needed, one that entails tough bargaining and creative diplomacy with the Russians. The United States needs to know what it would take for Russia to abandon the Syrian regime. If it is continued access to the port of Tartous and business opportunities, as well as healthy trade and strategic relations with the next Syrian government, then so be it. The administration should get it on paper and have the Syrian opposition sign off. There also should be frank discussions about the U.S. policy of NATO expansion.