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What Next in Syria?

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Saunders, Paul J.

May 13, 2013

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Recent statements by American, British, and Israeli officials asserting that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons have led many to ask whether the United States will or should intervene in Syria. These questions are especially intense because US President Barack Obama personally declared that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and be a “game changer.” At the same time, the United States and Russia have launched a new international diplomatic effort to end the fighting. The two developments are closely related.

Should the United States Intervene?

The Obama administration is unlikely to pursue military action in Syria for several reasons. The first is that Americans don’t want to. According to a March 2013 CBS News poll, 69% of respondents do not believe that the United States has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria, while just 20% believe Washington has such a responsibility. Of course, these views cannot be isolated from their wider context; according to another CBS News poll, 54% of Americans surveyed now think it was a mistake for America to invade Iraq. Americans are tired of war.

Perhaps more important, however, is that President Obama doesn’t want to intervene either—he wants to focus on his domestic agenda and to avoid costly and distracting international entanglements. This underlies the administration’s efforts to blur its “red line” by emphasizing that Syria’s regime used chemical weapons “on a small scale” and that “we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions,” as one unnamed White House official put it in a background briefing. That official also alluded to the Bush administration’s justification for the unpopular Iraq war, stating that “from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments are alone not sufficient” and that the administration has to “establish the facts” before going further.

Some leading Republican politicians—particularly Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham—have called for much greater involvement. Senator Graham’s has argued that only by sending in US ground forces can America secure Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, but few support his position. By contrast, Senator McCain suggested that the United States should establish “safe zones” with drones and missiles. As a practical matter, however, this would probably lead to deeper intervention, as creating safe zones would require extensive strikes to knock out Syria’s air defenses and its air force as well as attacks on Syrian ground forces that approach the zones—something they would be very likely to do once rebel groups predictably seek shelter there between raids outside the safe area.

Moreover, once American troops are a direct party to the conflict, the Assad regime may not limit its retaliation to the US forces directly involved. On the contrary, Syria’s desperate leaders would likely seek additional targets and asymmetrical responses like terrorism. If a Syrian-linked terror group killed Americans in the Middle East or elsewhere, the United States could be drawn to Syria’s war in a way that few now want or expect. Advocates of “measured” responses should acknowledge this.

Poor Track Record

Ultimately, however, one of the greatest obstacles to US intervention in Syria has been uncertainty about the results. The Obama administration has resisted calls to arm Syrian rebels by arguing that we don’t know enough about their many factions, or their plans should they win, to risk placing a substantial amount of weapons into the wrong hands.

Taking into account the poor track record of US officials and commentators predicting and managing events in the Middle East, this caution is probably justified. To name just a few cases, the democracies that US intervention in Iraq and Libya was supposed to establish are weak, unstable and violent; likewise, the freedom Americans thought the Obama administration was supporting in Egypt is increasingly in danger.

Unfortunately, despite his apparent desire to stay out of a potential quagmire in Syria, President Obama and his advisors have repeatedly misjudged developments there. As a result, the administration wasted two years thinking that Assad was “on the wrong side of history” and that he was about to lose power. Rather than creating and seizing an opportunity for a negotiated solution to end the violence, stabilize the country, and strengthen America’s international reputation (and Mr. Obama’s too), the administration passively waited for “history”—which turned out to be less inevitable than senior officials must have believed.

The first serious mistake was President Obama’s statement in August 2011 that “Assad has to go.” Seemingly assuming that a rebel victory could be imminent and that his statement could tip the balance, Mr. Obama declared that Assad had to leave while knowing that he was prepared to do very little to make it happen. This strongly encouraged the rebels to insist on total victory rather than a negotiated settlement—why should they accept less than the United States?—even as it allowed Assad to portray every day he remains in office is a victory over America. It also highlighted the Obama administration’s failure to follow through.

More recently, President Obama made a similar mistake in his declaration that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Again, he appeared to believe that his words would be enough to shape the Syrian regime’s behavior without apparently considering the consequences if they were not.

In this case, it is difficult to dispute the argument by America’s former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton that the administration’s conduct has dramatically undercut its assurances that the United States will do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Seeking a Negotiated Settlement

Still, credibility with Iran is no reason for the United States to intervene militarily in Syria, whether with ground forces or air strikes—there are better and cheaper ways to demonstrate our seriousness to Tehran. One would be a highly visible effort to establish a regional security architecture in the Middle East to prevent and deter inter-state conflict.

Ironically, new political pressure on the administration to intervene in Syria following the use of chemical weapons there may have finally persuaded top US officials to focus less on Assad—whose claim to leadership has been severely damaged whether or not he loses power anytime soon—and more on ending the violence.

After meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and announcing plans for a major international conference, Secretary of State John Kerry downplayed previous US-Russian differences over requiring Assad to step down as a precondition for talks. This suggests that however politically difficult it may be for the administration to move beyond President Obama’s declaration about Assad, that option is now more attractive than deeper involvement in Syria’s messy and unpredictable civil war.

Even with this new interest in negotiations, a settlement will be quite challenging if a significant number of the rebels believe they can win a military victory. At the same time, if the talks fail and the United States decides to provide more support for the rebels, Washington will have limited tools to ensure that the moderate opposition prevails in the end rather than Syria’s radicals.

In fact, if Assad does eventually fall, it is entirely possible that the conflict will evolve into a war among the rebel factions. While the current fighting poses a choice between Assad and something else that few can define, that war could produce a range of different alternatives—including a violent and dangerous extremist Islamist regime. Hopefully leaders in Washington, Moscow, and other major capitals will manage to set aside some of their other differences to do whatever they can to find a negotiated solution that avoids this outcome.

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