Syria: The Danger of Fighting Both Sides At Once

A big investment for limited, uncertain gains.

“The greatest contradiction of Mr. Obama’s military intervention in Syria,” charged senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham last week, “is that it appears unconnected to his political goal: a transition from Assad to an inclusive, sustainable political order.” The pair argue that attaining this goal will require more than the current air campaign against the Islamic State—the president will need “to militarily degrade the Assad regime, upgrade the moderate opposition, change the momentum of the conflict and create conditions for a political solution.”

To achieve the president’s goals, in other words, America must forge order from the red-hot, molten chaos of the Levant. Good luck. It would require an enormous effort on Washington’s part, yet the prospects for success are slender. What’s worse, apart from further roiling the region, it would likely also imperil broader strategic interests, provoking Russia and Iran for no real reason.

The root of Obama’s Syria muddle can be traced to an error he made more than three years ago, one which he continues to refuse to undo or even acknowledge. “The time has come for President Assad to step aside,” declared Obama on August 18, 2011. He then did nothing. America’s allies didn’t, however: the region’s turn against Assad accelerated. The rebels had less incentive to negotiate—and so, of course, did Assad. The president’s continued insistence that Assad exit has been an obstacle to talks, and accomplishes nothing.

What about McCain and Graham’s preferred path of directly overthrowing Assad? If Obama were to take their advice—and were able to marshal the political, economic and military resources needed to carry it out—would the world be safer and more stable?


Within Syria, the task of ending the current anarchy would only be rendered even more difficult. The regime’s natural strongholds, such as the Alawite-dominated Latakia Governorate in the northwest, have shown little interest in being governed by the Sunni majority. The increasingly sectarian character of the rebels gives non-Sunnis little reason to stop viewing Bashar as a lesser evil. Reducing regime power in its home areas would thus create a vacuum that only an outside force could fill.

And that outside force, quite likely to be us, might face local resistance, too—that came to be the case, for example, in Iraq, where Shia forces that benefited greatly from our invasion ended up fighting us anyway. The regime-change crowd is effectively proposing a two-front conflict, with the ultimate goal of defeating both sides and forcing a negotiated peace. After the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, would the American public be willing to support an all-out effort to win such an ambitious war?

The consequences of a robust anti-Assad policy wouldn’t stop at Syria’s borders. Our relations with Russia, already on a mutually destructive path, would worsen. Moscow would remember that our support for the 2011 overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi flouted promises of a limited intervention. It would also not enjoy watching an ally, one which it has extensively supported, fall at American hands. A deeper confrontation might be the result. That’s a dangerous prospect, particularly given the increasingly prominent role for nuclear weapons in Russia’s military strategy. There would also be a risk of a less cooperative Russian policy on issues of mutual concern outside Syria.

Iran, too, would respond to an overthrow of Assad. It has sunk a fortune into propping up the Syrian dictator. Iranians have died fighting in his defense. Iranian leaders have explicitly stated that Syria is of enormous strategic importance to them. Syria is an important bridge for Iran, one that allows it to keep Hezbollah’s thousands of rockets pointed at Israel. One senior Iranian commander has even said that if Syria and Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan were both attacked, he’d fight for Syria first: “If we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.”

Iran won’t let Syria go—and it’s already taken measures to ensure that the end of Assad wouldn’t be the end of Persian power in the Levant. Hezbollah, Iranian proxy militias and the Iranian-trained National Defense Forces have come to play a crucial role in the regime’s military efforts. Ending Assad’s rule Assad won’t get rid of them—and for Hezbollah and the Shia militias, at least, Tehran has always been the final authority, anyway. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei would, through his proxies, have a veto on any post-Assad peace arrangement. Overthrowing one of his allies in a manner he regards as geopolitically threatening will not likely make him beg for peace.