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.
Though the signs a creeping presence in Syria by these groups concerned the United States, it was this month’s terrorist attacks in Boston that for the first time brought home the potential dangers of aligning with such forces in Syria’s civil war. Though there is currently no evidence linking the Boston bombers to Chechen secessionism, the fact that the dead ringleader spent a considerable amount of time last year in Russia’s Dagestan (the province bordering Chechnya) may now be reawakening U.S. policy officials to a long forgotten fact about involvement in internal rebellions.
History has shown that America’s experience in taming forces that might share the same short-term goals, but have varying strategic ends, is at best mixed—and usually quite bad. In replaying the saga of the 1980s by tactically supporting radical Islamist militants against a common enemy, Washington discounted key lessons of the past—misconstruing its strategic objectives with those who it is arming while severely overestimating its ability to control such forces.
Compounding this dangerous trend in the rebel demographics is the massive presence of WMD in Syria in the form of chemical and biological weapons. As the initial hope for the U.S. strategy was to have the regime fall by now (presumably by what it claims were “vetted” rebels of the nonextremist, non-Salafist variety), the persistence of the Assad regime only adds to the worry of what might end up replacing it. This is especially germane to the postconflict environment. Even if Washington’s slow-bleed strategy eventually succeeds in collapsing the regime, the reality on the ground in Syria would be a disjointed, deindustrialized entity, with large swaths of the country outside any central control.
Considering the sheer amount of manpower needed on the ground to secure Syria’s WMDs—a figure that no country in the West, in this age of austerity, has the political or economic will to produce—the United States would be forced to outsource this critical responsibility to Syria’s newly empowered Salafist legions. It’s one thing to utilize Islamist auxiliaries for the tactical aim of cutting down an adversarial regime, but it’s another thing altogether to entrust them with the protection and dismantlement of large stockpiles of WMD.
Thus, the hesitancy of the Obama administration may not necessarily be war weariness due to Iraq—and certainly not a replay of Clinton’s timidity during the Rwandan civil war—but more likely strategic inertia, in that as events in Syria have degraded U.S. policy options from bad to worse to unthinkable, paralysis has become de facto policy. In light of these developments, it would seem that the only rational way out of this impasse is for the United States to fundamentally alter its objectives in Syria. But for that to happen, its aim must shift from regime disintegration to state recentralization. The latter might still end with the departure of Assad, but not necessarily, and most likely not the regime.
As was witnessed in Yemen at the start of the Arab Spring, there is a precedent for this type of strategy, as the figurehead leaves but the body stays. But in the intervening period, the first step towards such a change of direction would be to maximize efforts to stop the violence, essentially halting arms transfers to the rebels and beginning a collective, simultaneous dialogue with the Syrian regime and all its allies—meaning Iran, Russia and China. Other than that, U.S. tactical policy may very well end up succeeding in its short-term goal, but is far more likely to create the conditions for strategic failure, both for U.S. policy and the region.
Reza Sanati is a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Center and a PhD candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.
Wikimedia Commons/Richard Croft. CC BY-SA 2.0.