Following the August 21 chemical attacks on East Ghouta outside of Damascus, the specter of US intervention in Syria sparked heavy debate over the course of action or inaction the government should take in response. Government officials, academics, pundits, and talking-heads offered their opinions on what the response to chemical weapons use should be, and how the US should proceed in regards to influencing the final outcome of Syria’s civil war. There has perhaps not been a period of more intense scrutiny of Syria in the American public conversation since the conflict began in the spring of 2011.
The chemical weapons distraction
The debate over chemical weapons is an important one, but in the context of the conflict as a whole, a distraction from the lacking substantive conversation about holistic policy. President Obama was reluctant to pursue a military option to his self-imposed “red line” on chemical weapons use. In large part, the president put himself in an undesirable position of having to make a unilateral decision based on the actions of a third-party or damage his own credibility. The way current public opinion stands, this is a lose-lose situation. For those arguing that military inaction was an issue of US credibility, America has invaded and occupied two foreign nations in the past decade. No other country on earth has that track record. I think US credibility on the issue of military intervention is fine. The president’s credibility as an individual is another matter. I don’t think the American people are ready to risk blow-back on saving one man’s reputation.
Having said that, it is important to acknowledge the leadership dilemma President Obama faces. As the leader of the free world (if we can claim exclusive rights to that anymore) there is undoubtedly a personal struggle over the decision of what precedent to set with his response. Even the non-interventionists (like myself) should recognize this.
Assad is not the magic kingpin
Advocacy groups and interventionist policy wonks have been arguing for greater military intervention in Syria long before chemical weapons were used by what seems to be both Assad and the rebel opposition. If we are to be fair, the information made available to those without a security clearance leaves questions about the certainty of culpability in the case of the August 21 attacks and those preceding it. From a logical standpoint, Bashar al-Assad has nothing to gain from using chemical weapons, and everything to lose. Personally, I think there is enough evidence to claim that both the rebels and the Assad regime have used chemical weapons in the last several months. Israeli and German intelligence claim that the regime ordered chemical weapons attacks, but state that the order did not come from the top of the chain of command.
I use the phrase “Assad regime” in the previous paragraph because the semantics of how we talk about this particular actor in the conflict is important. How we view Assad and the ruling regime in Syria is key to how we envision an outcome. It is also critical to influencing how we approach our engagement in the civil war. Bashar Assad began the process of being groomed to assume leadership of Syria after his older brother, Bassel al-Assad’s, untimely death. Bashar was viewed with an air of hope for change and reform in Syria after the brutality of his father Hafez al-Assad, the man who crafted the modern security state in Syria.
In an interview with NPR last week, David W. Lesch, author of The New Lion of Damascus, discussed his personal experiences with the authoritarian Syrian president. A key point put forward was that Bashar Assad cannot be simplified into a convenient caricature. He is as much, or more, a product of the pre-existing regime structure than his own intrinsic evil. Once a hope for reform, Lesch says he eventually began to believe the surreal world of the sycophants placed around him. In Egypt, Mubarak was removed from power, but many of the remnants of the regime remain intact, and untouched. The tight grasp of survival has not loosened to give room for revolutionary reform. This should be a clear illustration that the problem is larger than one man.
A solution of inclusivity
The likes of politicians such as John McCain, pro-opposition advocacy groups like the Syrian Emergency Task Force, and Mideast specialists in the line of Shadi Hamid, argue for a policy of increased materiel and training support for the “vetted” rebel opposition; that is, the non-jihadists groups. In short, the “bad guys” that are mixed in with the “good guys” we want to win.
The Obama administration has not put forward a “Syria strategy”, but the president has made clear that he sees an endgame in Syria without Assad. The US has already supplied the“vetted” rebel opposition with small arms and conducts training of rebel forces through the CIA in Jordan. We have claimed to pick a winner and a loser, the winner stated to be the Syrian people. However, with these actions, we have started down the road of an exclusive solution in Syria. By default, this guarantees some unavoidable problems in the future. The most powerful role the United States could hold in Syria is as a neutral third-party arbiter. As the world’s superpower, we have given up that ability and destined ourselves to champion one side in this war. It is already clear that the only truly “good” side in Syria is the ongoing non-violent resistance, along with those Syrians who humbly suffer the chaos unleashed by a brutal regime and an armed rebellion.
In supporting an almost exclusively Sunni opposition, there is the real possibility and current reality of marginalizing minority groups in Syria. These minority groups, especially the Alawites, are the key to a functional and peaceful Syria after the civil war. At the moment, the US is on the way to helping create a new insurgency in a post-Assad Syria. In Iraq, the dissolving of the Baathist party created an overnight devolution of infrastructure in the country, and a growing anti-American insurgency. It is a convenient cautionary tale, yes, but one we would do well to learn from. In order for an unfractured, peaceful state to emerge (if possible) the old regime must be part of the transition process. An exclusive strategy gives the regime even more reason to hang onto power. If they have everything to lose and no foreseeable security in the future, it is the status-quo or death.
As repeated by Syria expert Joshua Landis, the US cannot solve the internal problems of Syria militarily. There are limitations on our ability to intervene, and those must be acknowledged. Using our wealth and power to support armed solutions to this war is folly, but will be sold by advocates of armed intervention in the package of moral obligation. In reality, it is a contingency based on achieving a desired result through calculated risk mitigation. As I have written previously, a number of actors have stakes in a desired outcome in Syria that benefits themselves more than the Syrian people. The United States had the opportunity to roll back the influence of those parties with a vision for Syria obscured by sectarianism. The warring groups in Syria need a leader that can plot a path of peaceful pluralism for a pluralistic society. Instead, we have chosen sectarianism, the same as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Qatar.
The Obama administration will tell you that we have exhausted all diplomatic options. This may be true, if your standards for diplomacy is to be left underwhelmed. We have yet to see bold and courageous diplomacy by our president. So far, he has only marginalized Assad, Iran, and Russia. We cannot decide the outcome of this civil war. What we can do is guide it towards a peaceful and inclusive resolution as much as is within our power. Our efforts would go farther to put as much commitment into humanitarian aid, refugee support, and courageous diplomacy as we have put to military solutions to real or imagined problems in the past decade. Our actions teach. What are we teaching to the students of American action?