In the ideological struggle over how best to approach the five-months old crisis in Syria, a motley crew of Middle East policy hawks are on the verge of claiming a rare, but nevertheless long sought-after “mission accomplished”: a bloody confrontation with the bloody dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
It should not have come to this.
Unfortunately though, from the beginning the Obama administration failed to publicly articulate anything approaching a reasonable bargain for the Assad regime and Syrian elites that might have either persuaded them both to move towards a gradual transition or made any rejectionists so obviously irrational that their ability and desire to exercise violence would have been radically diminished (thereby reducing the level of violence and contingency in any forced transition).
Instead, the line from top US officials has essentially been “reform or eventually die fighting”—not such a grand bargain, especially for a far weaker actor like Syria, since there were no guarantees of comprehensive incentives proffered in public and zero discussion about aggressively addressing a core grievance of occupied Syrian territory (the strategically more important and eminently
All one seemed to hear and read these past few months about potential ways out was that if the Syrian regime pulled back its forces, expeditiously removed itself from power and publicly or privately broke with its allies Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, then perhaps some kind of a welcome-home party for the state of Syria could be arranged.
In the absence of a credible, public roadmap though, the Obama administration was—unknowingly (?)—leaving the field almost completely open to a group of analysts from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an array of Beltway columnists, former Bush administration officials and some of the regional pundits they profess to love.
This core group’s ranks (on Syria policy) are now being swelled by notable scholars as the violence moves “beyond the pale.” They have long argued that the Assad regime only understands force and that, moreover, their minority-Allawite DNA makes peace making an impossibility (a conclusion which flies in the face of the recent history of negotiations).
Not surprisingly then, from the beginning they have filled Obama’s policy vacuum with what seemed more and more like the only credible game in town: accelerate the collapse of this evil Assad gang. Find the pressure points and squeeze harder, faster, more directly.
But if their original analysis was that the Syrian regime was essentially evil, could not structurally make peace and, in the end, would never relinquish power willingly, then surely their private expectation was that as the pressure they were recommending was ratcheted up, the Syrians would only dig in more, use more violence and force a major confrontation, possibly even along the lines of a civil and/or regional war—all the more so since the existential fate of the Assad regime was increasingly being put at stake all around?
In this sense then, one must view the present state of affairs in Syria—with a wide, potentially multi-faceted war becoming ever more likely—as not merely the result of missteps by the Syrian regime (as the International Crisis Group recently posited) but also as the result of yet another profound failure of vision and leadership on the part of Obama, one perfectly capitalized on by those voices that have long—and reliably—relished a wide and direct confrontation with Axis of Evil member states.
In this case, the particular cherry on the cake for analysts like former Bush Middle East advisor Elliott Abrams is that Obama’s opponents can quite effectively use the self-perpetuating descent into chaos in the Levant to argue that it was in fact the president’s laissez-faire approach to the crisis that actually brought about a sectarian war and outside intervention. Had he hit harder and earlier, lives could have been saved, interests redeemed.
As Abrams put it recently in one Council on Foreign Relations bulletin: “There appears to be no U.S. strategy except prayers that Syria doesn't turn into Libya: a full-fledged civil war. With the NATO military action in Libya now a source of contention both in the U.S. and among NATO allies, the last thing the White House likely wants is increased violence in Syria. Washington's inaction would then make it appear callous and inept—and could eventually lead to calls for a no-fly zone, arming the rebels, or even some form of military intervention. American leadership can help avoid civil war.”
That one of the main architects of Bush’s disastrous approach to the Middle East—which left US interests so battered and so many people dead and ruined—would now be able to plausibly cloak his preferred strategy of racheting up pressure in the guise of humanitarianism (but wasn’t the Iraq War precisely that?) is less a reflection on him or those who agree with him than a sad commentary on how politically and morally exposed team Obama has become in the region. After all, wasn’t it candidate Obama who vigorously decried the ideological bankruptcy of precisely figures like Abrams, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld and others who shaped Middle East policy for eight years?
But Abrams’s maneuverability and advantage also drives home a further point: that the only hope remaining for avoiding a bloodbath of great proportions is whether the Assad regime and their supporters can finally bring themselves to submit to the intense pressures gathering around them.
The problem for us all now, but especially for the people of the Levant, is that if you believe the hawks, this is just a mathematical impossibility.