Condi Rice on Syria: "The United States doesn't have an option of no action"

The good news for hawks: If there’s any one member of the Bush administration you want making your case for you on Syria, it’s probably Condi. The bad news for hawks: You really don’t want any members of the Bush administration making your case for you on Syria. Rice, at least, gets a bit closer to filling in step two in the “underpants gnomes” plan for pacifying Syria:

Step one: U.S. intervention
Step two: ?????
Step three: Fighting declines and a peace settlement is reached

Intervene now to stop Assad’s momentum and then convince him to come to the bargaining table, when he’ll be willing to agree to a more equitable settlement for the rebels. Step two, essentially, is to put a hurt on him to the greatest extent possible, but it also presumably imagines leaving him in place as ruler of some post-treaty Shiite carve-out. How comfortable would the west be with that idea given the claims, which now include one by UN investigators, that he’s used chemical weapons on the enemy?

Her argument, like most calls for intervening in Syria, relies on three assumptions, none of which I’m sold on. First, that victory for Iran would be worse than victory for Sunni fanatics. Second, that a peace agreement between Assad and the rebels carving up Syria into Sunni and Alawite territories would hold. And third, that there remains a “small nucleus” of America-friendly rebels who, if empowered by the U.S. and placed in charge of the country afterward, might be able to maintain a cold peace between Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and secularists. (Rice is sufficiently uncertain whether that faction of rebels exists that she hedges with the phrase “to the degree that they’re left on the ground in Syria” to describe them.) The third assumption seems ludicrous to me. Jihadists, after all, are salivating over having Syria as a new base of operations in the heart of the region. Libya is swell and all, but it’s on another continent. Syria’s where the action is, and even if a U.S. puppet/client were installed, they’ll fight for it afterward. At which point, what? Deeper western intervention?

The second assumption also seems ludicrous, although I guess a cold peace could last for a few years if both sides were battered to the point where they needed time to lick their wounds. It’ll never last long-term. What you’re seeing here in Rice endorsing diplomacy, I think, is simply a realist looking to buy time by getting the two sides to drop their guns while the rest of the world figures out a more sustainable arrangement for the country. Most of foreign policy is simply muddling through. Stop the killing first and then we’ll all collectively muddle. Imagine the sort of split state, though, that would be produced by a peace conference even under the best of circumstances — namely, an Alawite region ruled by Assad and a Sunni region ostensibly “ruled” by American-friendly rebels but otherwise crawling with fundamentalists. We’ll have to police the Sunni region somehow to protect our client regime from jihadis. Would the UN or other Arab states be willing to send peacekeepers? If not, it sure doesn’t seem like that sort of thing can be done entirely by drone. And even if it could, imagine how popular the regime would be locally with U.S. death-bots in the sky firing at the fundie “heroes of the revolution” on the ground. Realistically, the only way a peace between Sunni and Shiite Syria holds is if the fanatics on both sides decide to make common cause against the west and/or Israel. Wouldn’t be the first time. Something to look forward to.

The first assumption is the most defensible because Iran is, after all, a budding nuclear power and the local Sunni Islamist states aren’t (yet). Iran’s also better organized, both regionally and internationally, to do damage to western interests. Again, this is Condi the realist in action: Weaken the enemy who poses the greatest threat now and then worry about the rising enemy later. That’s fine, but it echoes the “logic” of Iraq in knocking out Saddam only to see his rivals in Iran fill the vacuum across the border. Squash Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guard in Syria now — which would be no easy task, and certainly nothing that could be accomplished simply through a no-fly zone — and then worry in 10-20 years about the Sunni Islamist crescent that’s spreading in Libya, Egypt, and eventually Syria. (Add Saudi Arabia and maybe Jordan to that list in time. Gulp.) The Middle East is, apparently, just one long game of whack-a-mole and Iran is the mole to be whacked at the moment. The only thing that ends the game in theory is (a) regional populations eventually learning that liberal-ish democracy is better than theocracy or (b) cataclysmic war. I know how Condi’s betting on that. I can guess how most other Americans are betting.

Exit question: Are there any prominent foreign-policy thinkers who were dovish on Iraq and who are now hawkish on Syria? There were lots of lefties who fit that bill on Libya, but they’ve quieted down significantly on Syria. It’s basically just McCain out there by his lonesome in Congress, right? Or am I overlooking someone?

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Jazz Shaw 8:31 AM on December 04, 2022