Friday, May 2, 2014

What's the point? The debate over Obama’s awful Syria policy

Does the United States have a strategy in Syria? That question has been asked since 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began. Three years on it still has not been adequately answered.

One argument is that the Obama administration has allowed the situation in Syria to worsen because several of its enemies are paying a heavy price in a regional proxy war. A cash-strapped Iran is spending money to prop up the Assad regime, bleeding itself dry financially. Hezbollah is losing valuable manpower in a grinding struggle. Assad is sinking ever deeper into a quagmire in which victory is impossible. And Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists are being killed in large numbers, in many cases in bloody internecine fights.

With America’s enemies going at each other with abandon, what’s not to like in the Syrian war? That is supposedly what the more cynical American policymakers are saying, even as they insist that the United States has no advantage in getting involved in Syria. The only imperative is to protect vital American allies in the region, above all Israel and Jordan, by containing the violence as much as possible.

A second view is that the United States has no strategy in Syria, and that all that really preoccupies the administration is avoiding being drawn into the conflict. Because America cannot coldly ignore the mass murder of civilians, it has taken positions in the past setting conditions for military intervention, such as when Barack Obama established “red lines” against the use of chemical weapons. But even there, when an alternative was found, the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal, Obama seized upon it to escape any involvement.   

Last week my friend and colleague Tony Badran, writing on this website, dismissed both these arguments and presented one of his own. “In reality, what’s remarkable is not that the administration lacks a strategy; it doesn’t,” he maintained. “Rather, it’s that it has been pursuing a consciously pro-Iranian strategy.” As Badran sees it, the United States seeks to reduce its “profile” in the Middle East, and “establishing a new equilibrium with Iran is essential” to this.

Each argument has something going for it, yet each is also unsatisfactory as a broad, one-stop explanation for American behavior. Perhaps that’s because all policy must forever adapt to changing circumstances, so that what may be true in one context is not necessarily true in another. For instance, avoidance has, indeed, been a principal American motivation since the outset of the fighting in Syria, but that doesn’t prevent, when possible, the pursuit of a more hard-nosed strategy of bleeding America’s enemies.

More important is what America’s approach to Syria means for its own standing and for its allies. To Badran, the American tilt to Iran has come at the expense of its traditional regional alliances, losing America much influence in the region. Yet while the Obama administration favors a new relationship with Tehran, nothing indicates it will permit Iranian hegemony over the region.

That it has not actively hindered Iran may have other explanations, including the fact that Obama does not want to devote American time and resources to a region that has sucked up an inordinate amount of American energies and that offers few political rewards. Containing Iran costs money and Obama is continuing to struggle with a vulnerable American economy, while enjoying no real domestic mandate to re-engage actively in the Middle East.

The vacuum in Syria, which the Americans helped perpetuate through their inaction, has allowed jihadist groups to thrive. Even if America implicitly supports Iran and Hezbollah today against the jihadists, its initial inaction reinforces the view that Obama was motivated to a large extent by avoidance of Syria, and why Washington is compelled to welcome containment of the jihadists, even by its enemies.

The jihadists pose a problem not only for Jordan and Israel: they also can spread across borders to places such as Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, all countries the United States wants to keep stable. Badran’s theory, like that of a cynical America allowing its enemies to destroy each other, is a time-specific conclusion, applying only to a period after the jihadists were in place. Yet for well over a year – almost two – jihadists were not a major factor in Syria, and yet during that time the Americans simply allowed the situation to fester.

America’s main allies, Jordan and Israel, were partly behind this caution. Both countries were, and remain, concerned that a sudden collapse of the Assad regime would create extremist blowback that can ultimately harm them. Jordan’s reluctance to countenance a southern offensive against Damascus is a manifestation of this mood.

As for Israel, it always benefited from an implicit understanding with the Assad regime to keep the Golan front quiet. The Syrian war has shattered this arrangement, though it’s difficult to sustain a view that the Obama administration is tilting toward Iran and Hezbollah when the latter has exploited Syria’s chaos to attack Israelis in the Golan.  

Two things must be kept in mind when analyzing the Obama administration’s Syria policy. The first is that not all its actions, or inactions, are the result of a prearranged plan. Very frequently governments do stupid things because political realities crowd in and impose decisions that are far from optimal.

There are also domestic factors at play, and they are many. Obama has no enthusiasm for the Middle East. Americans are tired of the region and its problems and have repeatedly expressed a strong unwillingness to get involved in Syria. That doesn’t contradict the theories about America’s behavior in Syria, but it does lend more credence to the assumption that, far from being carefully thought-out, America’s Syria strategy is defined more by what America seeks to evade rather than what it hopes to achieve.

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