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.
By depriving moderate forces in the Syrian opposition of a focal point to rally around—and the weapons to protect it with—the West as a whole and the United States in particular has lost an opportunity to influence and gain friends among the forces who will determine Syria’s future. There is still time to make up some ground here, even if the moderate forces are at more of a disadvantage than they were several years ago. But without aid, this disadvantage is only going to increase. It makes little strategic sense to leave Syria’s future to a battle between Assad’s counterrevolution and increasingly well-armed and anti-Western Islamist fighters, which is the effective outcome of doing nothing.
Any honest argument about the pros and cons of intervention in Syria must admit that the civil war there is highly unlikely to end quickly or cleanly with a victory march for the rebels through Damascus. There will ultimately have to be a political solution, and low-level violence is likely to continue indefinitely. This hard truth does not excuse American inaction, which to date has only emboldened the regime and its allies and alienated those Sunni people and governments whom, in the future, the United States will need to count upon as friends and as the bedrock of stability in the Middle East. Reversing this trend must be the main goal of the new American policy.
There is, of course, a deep antipathy in the American military establishment to involvement in another open-ended conflict in the Middle East. This is especially the case given the need to reposition forces to the Asia-Pacific. But the “pivot” does not mean that it no longer affects U.S. interests if Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq are consumed by a sectarian war. Just because intervention is difficult and complex does not rob a country of its strategic significance. Indeed, intervening at a stage when a difference can be made with a relatively small commitment of resources is much more supportive of the “pivot” than waiting for the crisis to escalate to the point where the entire region is aflame and a much larger intervention may be needed.
One of the most commonly cited arguments against intervention is the role of Islamist militants, often from outside Syria, fighting on the side of the rebels. There are very legitimate concerns about the role of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in hijacking the rebel movement and promoting Islamist elements. But it must equally be realized that to continue a policy of nonintervention is to cede influence over the rebel movement almost exclusively to those nominal allies of the West who have a record of choosing to back elements who later become a threat to the West.
Like the Afghan insurgency, the Syrian rebel movement is comprised of a great number of factions who not only fight against the government for their own particular reasons but also fight against one another daily. In such an environment, the identity of individuals and even entire combat formations is malleable and responds to their environment. Just as former Baathists rebranded themselves as Islamists in the quest to legitimize the insurgency and gain foreign support in post-Saddam Iraq, so Syrian rebels are attracted to the brand that will serve them best in the market for foreign support, which in many cases they are reliant on for their very survival. Until support starts coming on a meaningful scale from the West, that brand will be Islamist. This is not a trend that can be checked by doing nothing.
This bandwagoning behaviour also applies to regime forces, many of whom defected during the early stages of the conflict. The truly loyal formations that the regime can rely on are few, and more defections would be likely if the U.S. aligned itself fully and materially with the anti-regime cause. The psychological impact on the regime’s forces of losing air superiority would be even greater. Even the limited support for the rebels announced by the Obama administration in mid-June led to a sharp drop in the Syrian pound’s value, further exacerbating economic problems for the regime and causing sharp inflation. All measures that undermine the regime contribute to the possibility of peace talks having a meaningful and useful outcome, something unlikely after the regime has achieved a string of military victories.