Thursday, August 29, 2013

Expect more U.S. minimalism on Syria

Amid the frigid talk in Washington about why President Barack Obama might order a strike against the Syrian regime, one word is never heard. U.S. officials describe a possible military action as “punishment” for the use of chemical weapons, and “deterrence” against the future use of such weapons, but none have used the word “justice.” You would have thought it would come naturally when mentioning the consequences of a crime against humanity.

But rendering justice means doing more in Syria than the United States is prepared to do. U.S. officials are saying that Obama plans a “limited operation,” one that may last two days. Such a response to the mass killing of civilians will probably achieve nothing. In seeking to avoid a campaign affecting political outcomes in Syria, Obama will effectively allow the carnage in the country to continue.

When retaliation for a terrible crime only helps perpetuate a larger crime, something is off kilter, especially from the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. In his defense Obama may state that he is not responsible for the Syrian war. That’s true, but he is also the president of a country that has been at the center of the post-World War II international system, with its laws, norms and treaties (indeed Obama claimed he respected the rules of this system, unlike George W. Bush). But today Obama has reinterpreted this legacy in such a minimalist way as to make the U.S. sense of responsibility negligible.

In Obama’s favor, one problem is that the Syrian opposition has come to be defined, and to an extent overcome, by its most extreme elements. Discord between the more moderate opposition figures, the bankruptcy of the Arab states, the cowardice and lack of foresight of the United States, and the futility of the Western Europeans, have crippled the effort to oppose Assad rule.

Ideally, what should the U.S. do? That question is often thrown out by those who see wisdom and vision in Obama’s immobility in the Middle East, even as American regional alliances begin to collapse. And yet the question requires a response.

From the start Obama has made a negotiated settlement in Syria his preferred outcome. In this he was right. A military solution is not feasible at this stage. It is also not desirable if it creates a political vacuum that can be exploited by jihadists, criminal gangs, and others, and leaves unanswered what happens to Syria’s minorities, above all the Alawites, an essential component of the Syrian social fabric.

But Obama’s efforts largely stopped at calling for the Geneva II conference. The president never sought to integrate a military strategy in Syria with his political aims, unlike Russia or Iran. Early on American officials said that President Bashar Assad had to leave office, as if a mere statement would push him to book a flight out of Damascus. Yet nothing was done to turn that thought into a reality.

Weeks ago Obama promised to arm the Syrian rebels, presumably to give them leverage in the run-up to negotiations. But that initiative stalled after opposition in Congress. The administration has instead relied on the Gulf states to send weapons, which may well undercut the conditions imposed by the U.S. for its own weapons supplies to the opposition. The Gulf states are far less discriminating about who ultimately receives the weapons, jihadists or otherwise.

Yet politically, if the administration wants negotiations, it must ensure that those it favors go to the table with a strong hand. That means three things: pushing hard, through it Turkish, Saudi and Qatari allies, for the creation of a unified opposition both inside and outside Syria, with a single program. It is imperative that the groups inside Syria agree to be represented by those outside. This is no easy task, but can be facilitated if those groups outside take over the distribution of weapons and funds through a broad, centralized Syrian body, perhaps under American and Arab supervision.

Second, it also means giving the opposition units it favors the weapons they need to make significant gains on the ground, since nothing will damage the jihadists more than the military success of their rivals in the rebel movement. And third, the U.S. must put all its political weight on the Saudis, Qataris and others to cut off their funding, both public and private, to the more extremist groups.

These are major endeavors, but American leverage will be greatly augmented once the Obama administration takes the Syria file in hand, and persuades its allies it has a real plan.

The persistent objective, one the Americans alone can impose on the different parties, is a political solution. In this they will have Russian backing. As practitioners of realist politics, the Russians read the balance of forces. If this turns against Assad, they will negotiate accordingly. But until the opposition (or the regime) gains a decisive military advantage, Syria will be stuck in a stalemate. Nothing suggests the U.S. intends to use an attack against Syria to break this stalemate. A sustained military campaign may precipitate Assad’s downfall (which is why Iran and Hezbollah have no interest in provoking one) and the vacuum Obama wants to avoid.

For Obama to refuse to integrate a military component, direct or indirect, into his political planning is irresponsible. As American intervention in the Bosnia war showed, well-measured American military action can facilitate a political arrangement. But doing nothing in Syria will only perpetuate chaos, possibly facilitating the creation of a terrorist haven, threatening regional stability further, exacerbating the refugee crisis, and leaving American allies to fend for themselves, which will lead them to make bad choices.

Firing a few Tomahawks will not benefit the Syrians in whose name the U.S. is acting. If matters remain contained, all will go back to normal soon thereafter, America having declared victory and again turned its back.

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