One thing Barack Obama’s presidency has done is lay bare just how little the world has changed. There has never been any such thing as a global “safe space” created by sunny international consensus, and there never will be. There is power and safety, and there is weakness and peril. If the US is using power to guard “safe spaces” – territory on which the people have choice and opportunity, unprejudiced by someone else’s use of power – then safe places exist. If we are not guaranteeing them, they don’t.
We are not guaranteeing right now that Syria can operate in a safe space and make choices based on what her people want. This is something we still have the power to do, although it would be harder to jump in now than it would have been 15 months ago. It need not necessarily involve using the US military on Syrian soil, and would be better, in my view, if it didn’t. Even if it did, however, an intervention with a partial military aspect is not beyond our power.
Such an intervention does require deciding what US interests are. That is probably the biggest task the Obama administration has declined to complete. It isn’t really possible to discern what Team Obama thinks our interests are; given our passivity as Iran and Russia dispatch weapons shipments to Syria, and our seeming encouragement of shipments to the rebels from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, what it looks like is that the Obama administration thinks a bloody civil war would be the best outcome. Others may assume cynically that that’s an accurate read, but I don’t see it that way. What I detect in operation is the terribly short-sighted ignorance of the 1960s radical, whose gift to mankind was rewriting history in 25 words or less.
What are US interests in Syria? I would define them as follows (not ranked, merely numbered):
1. Removal of the Assad regime – peacefully, to the extent possible – in favor of a new government with consensual, democratic features; understanding that Syria will not create an exact replica of either the US Constitution or a European-style parliamentary democracy. The objective should be ensuring, as much as possible, tolerance of religious, political, and ethnic differences within a unified national polity.
2. Separating Syria from Iran. Syria’s new government should not be a client of Iran. The current situation is not good for anyone else in the region, and it is certainly not good for Syria. Representatives of the radical Iranian regime packing their bags, and leaving on the next plane out, is the desired consequence.
3. Ensuring against an Islamist takeover of Syria.
4. Guaranteeing that post-Assad Syria has independence from Russia and Turkey. This doesn’t mean Syria won’t deal with Russia and Turkey; it means she will have options other than turning to them for her security.
5. Containing, for the region, the consequences of regime-change in Syria; principally for Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq. Under this heading, giving Hezbollah nowhere to run is one of the key objectives. Rather than passively waiting for a realignment of regional terrorists, assist other governments – including Egypt’s – with keeping their territory inhospitable to Hezbollah.
6. Protecting our general interests in the region, such as the maritime freedom and stability of the Eastern Mediterranean, the safety of the Suez Canal, the observance of the Israel-Egypt peace accord, the security of our NATO allies and Israel, and preventing the rise of a regional hegemon (e.g., Turkey or Russia) whose interests would be likely to run counter to ours. The last should be done less by confronting the aspiring hegemons than by offering the option to everyone else in the region of independence from them.
No international power struggle is ever settled once and for all. Most of the time, sound national-security policy is a matter of encouraging good and useful trends and discouraging the inevitable bad ones. Fortunately, doing the former is an excellent method of making progress on the latter.
But what we see in Syria today is a pristine example of what happens when the US is not proactively and consciously engaged in these activities. We may have military force deployed all over the lot, but without a positive focus on current problems, it is a rote activity. Over time, it becomes dedicated, by default, to preserving whatever force structure and purpose we developed to address the last crisis. That’s what is happening now, as Russia and Iran zero in on Syria – whose fate will dictate much of the geopolitical conditions of the future – while the US is preoccupied elsewhere. Keeping escort ships, and perhaps an intelligence-collecting submarine, off the Syrian coast is not a method of influencing the outcome in Syria; it is only a method for detecting things done by others, and perhaps reacting in a very limited way.
What we will get instead
A sensible national-security posture would entail trying to influence developments in Syria. In the absence of that posture on the part of the US, the region’s illiberal regimes will determine the outcome there. None of them is pursuing an interest consonant with those of the United States. Moreover, there is no such option as leaving Syria to her own devices. Deciding against an active role in the Syrian problem means leaving Syria to Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and whatever non-state jihadists can get a toehold in the internal conflict.
Russia and Iran are arming Assad, because they want to retain their client-based position in the Eastern Med, with its aspect of a hinge-point between East and West. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming the Syrian rebels, because they want to achieve a victory in Syria that both thwarts Iran and establishes them and their brand of state Islamism in the ascendant. Turkey is helping them deliver the arms (see UK Independent link above), because if the choice is between bolstering a Saudi-led effort and an effort in which Iran and Russia are paired, Erdogan will choose the former. No Saudi coalition can, under present conditions, challenge Erdogan’s regional vision for Turkey, but Russia and Iran can.
The civil war developing in Syria is not a war for the good of the Syrian people. It’s a war for the influence of outsiders over Syria and the Eastern Med. It’s not as simple as “Sunni Saudi Arabia and Turkey versus Shia Iran,” nor is it as simple as “Russia has a port in Syria.” There are multiple factors at work, one of which for Russia is that Iran, radical as she is, is a client and a devil Russia has cards to play against, whereas Sunni Salafists are already a major security problem for Russia, and would only gain courage and momentum from participating in a victory in Syria. Russia doesn’t want Turkey to be “the winner” in the Syrian outcome either, largely because such a victory would encourage Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman aspirations and empower his bid for leadership in geopolitical Islamism.
The Saudis, meanwhile, badly need a Saudi-sponsored victory to consolidate their stature with Muslims throughout the Middle East and South Asia. Jihadists despise the Saudi regime, considering it sclerotic, corrupt, and sold out to the West. Abdullah of Jordan has similar problems, but these monarchs and the Emir of Qatar would have an important and prestigious victory in kicking the non-Islamist Assad out of Syria, in favor of a regime in which their brand of Islamists could obtain central power. (It is a serious question, of course, how well they could control follow-on developments.)
What we are seeing in Syria is the regional jockeying I predicted in 2009 in my blog series “The Next Phase of World War IV” (including parts two, three, and four). Part of the ultimate objective is what I have called the “Race to Jerusalem”: the competition among Islamist groups and governments to plant the flag of Islam in Jerusalem and claim justification for leading the caliphate. Gaining strategic position around Israel is a key element of this competition, and Syria is one of the most important geographic redoubts. Neither the armed states Iran or Saudi Arabia, nor the non-state jihadists among the Syrian rebels, will give Syria up without a fight.
But Russia won’t sit by either and let one brand of Islamism assume control of Syria without a Russian say-so. This stance has made Israel, Russia, and Greece allies of convenience, since the worst outcome from the perspective of any of them is a Sunni Islamist takeover of Syria, which would encourage terrorists and probably empower Erdogan.
None of this would be foreordained if the US took an active role in fostering the best future for Syria. It is important for Americans to understand that the more we recuse ourselves from the conflict in Syria, the more its outcome is guaranteed to be determined by a foreign power at the expense of the Syrian people. We have just about reached the stage at which what’s going on in Syria is not a “Syrian civil war,” but a proxy war between regional powers, whose objectives will frustrate, and in some cases even defeat outright, every single one of the US interests in the Syrian crisis.
Civil war; children and old people mowed down like animals; arms and paramilitary troops flooding into the country; ruthless power struggles between corrupt despots on third-party territory – this is your world, when American power isn’t being exercised.