The Obama administration’s aimless “bob and weave” strategy in the Middle East has been highlighted by a particularly feckless brand of denial when it has come to Syria. Taking a page from the Palestinian playbook, POTUS and his senior advisors have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity in Syria.
Consider that the Administration fundamentally misunderstood Syria’s centrality to the power politics of the region, with the obvious territorial implications for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the political/religious implications for the Saudis and the Gulf states, and the strategic implications for the Israelis, Iranians, Russians and Chinese.
If there is a “Great Game” afoot in the world today, where the regional balance of power is being determined, it is in Syria.
The Administration also miscalculated the impact of an “Arab Spring”-esque revolt in a Sunni majority country run by a minority sect of Shia-ism. At the critical, initial period,when revolt turned to violence, the Administration failed to act boldly to support the nascent- at the time jihadi-less – rebel cause, which represented a genuine strategic opportunity to end the Assad regime in a morally defensible way. Had the US taken early action, there could have been manifold benefits to US interests and regional stability, including the quick end of more than a generation of Iranian efforts to create Shia crescent from Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, marginalizing Hezbollah in Lebanon and thwarting Russian mischief-making in the Middle East. It would have cemented US influence and credibility in the Middle East, and put an Obama stamp on the post-Bush foreign policy.
Instead, we have had two years of vacillation, indifference and avoidance, supported by empty threats. Other powers have not been idle while the US has dithered.
Realizing the true stakes, Iran and Russia went all-in to support Assad. As a result they were largely responsible for tipping the battlefield balance back to the Assad regime when it once appeared that the Syrian government was on the verge of collapse.
Assad’s unexpected comeback was a severe setback to the Sunni rebel cause, and the knock-on impact of that loss created a religious clarion call to Sunnis throughout the region that attracted a new mix of volatile volunteers to the rebels, mostly representing the most radical jihadist groups, as hostile to the West as the Shia-associated regime in Damascus. As a result, it polluted the ability of the US and West to safely and effectively arm the rebels without putting Western security in future jeopardy if the wrong group obtained advanced weapons.
Today, US influence and credibility are so low that Syria has felt comfortable in using its cache of chemical weapons in the conflict – in limited, isolated incidents last December – and, allegedly, in more shocking and obvious fashion last week; the worst chemical weapons attack since Saddam Hussein gassed his Shia citizens. This, despite President Obama’s warning from a year ago that the use of such weapons would be a “red line” for the US. It now appears, however, that after this latest chemical weapons attack, the Obama administration has apparently been rousted from its policy stupor and has decided to act. In a sharp break from previous strategy, it appears that the President is considering military action against Syria in a matter of days.
But to what end? It is crucial to US security interests, and above all to US credibility in the region, that any military action serves serious strategic objectives. However, by focusing on the chemical weapons attack, to the apparent exclusion of the wider civil war and its ongoing impacts, the Administration appears to be settling on a use of military force that will likely be perceived as facile as US policy before the most recent WMD developments, making a bad strategic posture worse.
According to news sources, as the Administration has contemplated military action, the President has already ruled out a “no fly zone” and any “boots on the ground” in Syria. That almost certainly limits the US to the kinds of symbolic attacks that were standard operating procedure in US foreign policy before 9-11. Rarely did these attacks do more than allow the US to feel self-satisfied that it had done something. Eliot Cohen, a teacher at Johns Hopkins, aptly called these attacks, “therapeutic bombing,” that is, therapeutic for the leaders ordering the bombing.
While the US media will breathlessly chronicle any pending attack on Syria as proof of Obama’s bone fides as a modern day Hannibal, it is doubtful that Bashar Assad, who has ordered the murder of 100,000 of his own people to keep power, will be very much troubled to lose a few buildings or damage to military installations as a result of the US attack. Assad knows the Russians, Iranians, and to a lesser extent, the Chinese, will make good on whatever the US destroys. Hezbollah will send more fighters.
Assad also knows the most crucial truth; that nothing the US is contemplating will change the dynamics of the most important fight in Syria, the balance of power on the ground, where Assad continues to make sustainable, if incremental gains. Any limited US attack will be an annoying distraction, perhaps it will set the fight back a bit. Perhaps senior leaders or soldiers will be killed. But Assad has already suffered much worse and prevailed. It is hard to see how any limited US strike will impact Assad’s thinking or course.
The only way that the US can credibly act in Syria is to do what is not currently on the table – boldly challenge the balance that Assad and his allies are protecting.
- Take down the Syrian air force which provides a critical advantage to government troops against the rebels. Target the aircraft, helicopters and facilities that support them. If there are aircraft in the sky, let them be allied aircraft.
- Degrade the command and control network. Force the the Syrian high command to resort to paper messages as the only way to communicate.
-Target the artillery battalions that, chemical weapons or not, are slowly laying waste to Syria, one town at a time, with untold human casualities. Taking a page from the Afghan playbook, coordinate Allied airpower with rebel ground operations to target Syrian forces. This supports the rebels without giving them arms that could be turned against the US later.
- Use drones to patrol Syrian WMD dumps and installations 24/7 and attack any vehicle leaving those facilities. Perhaps we can’t secure the weapons without significant boots on the ground. But we can deny the Syrians the ability to access those weapons.
These are only a few, creative options.
Of course, these actions wouldn’t be cheap, short term or without risk. We wouldn’t be able to do it with just missiles. Planes and lives would be at risk. It wouldn’t be over in a day or two. There would need to be a longer term commitment. It is unlikely that the Russians and Iranians would just sit back quietly as their client state is dismantled of its best means of defense. And even if the US were 100 percent successful in every way, there is no guarantee that a rebel victory would not end in the creation, at least initially, of a fairly radical Sunni interim government, in amicable to US interests and potentially destabilizing to the region.
But consider the alternative. Should Assad prevail and the rebel cause collapse, the human toll of the conflict will be even worse as Assad takes retribution on Sunnis, regardless of their involvement with the rebels. It would confirm the power of Russia. It would cement Iranian groundwork for a regional Shia-dominated coalition, emboldening Hezbollah and threatening Israel.
Now, consider the impact on American credibility and prestige if the US orders limited military attacks and Assad remains in power anyway. He will not only have beaten the rebels and the delivered a blow to the Saudis and others who have supported the rebels, he will have faced down a superpower.
This, not the President’s construct of responding to chemical weapons attacks, is the actual choice we have in Syria today. It is not ultimately about red lines (though if they are drawn, at a minimum they should be honored). By drawing a circle around the use of chemical weapons, the Administration is mistakenly focusing on a symptom instead of the source of conflict. Any military attack that follows that strategy may be satisfying tactically, but will ultimately fail the test of strategic consequence/success.
The old adage goes that once in a ditch, the first thing to do is stop digging. Sometimes doing something for the sake of doing it is worse than doing nothing at all.
Good advice as the President sets his path in Syria.