Syria, the next Afghanistan?

The Flock isn’t moving that way now, but I still defend the Obama Administration’s military and diplomatic approach to the Libyan civil war.  Qaddafi was mentally unstable, mentally unstable people are dangerous, and his regime was an ideal breeding ground for extremism.  If things hadn’t changed, they’d only have continued to get worse. Better for us to have supported the more moderate elements than to have allowed the extremists to make Libya their own, as would have eventually happened (and still could).

Of course, no one would defend the non-optimal way this administration has handled other aspects of its Libya policy, including embassy security, public communications, and congressional relations.  This being an election year, the most focus is on the security and communications aspects, but in the long run, it may prove to be the least consequential of those failures — that is, for everyone but the families of those who died.  The administration’s failure to sell its no-footprint intervention to Congress and the people, on the other hand, subsequently hobbled it when a far more consequential conflict arose in Syria.

Part of this must be because this administration just doesn’t seem interested in expending capital on foreign policy, period.  Another part must have been the unintelligent, short-sighted, and opportunistic criticism of some Republicans.  In retrospect, the administration’s no-footprint strategy for overthrowing Qaddafi could prove to have served, and conserved, our nation’s interests, power, and resources more effectively than our heavy-footprint occupation of Iraq did.  And just as the anti-war opportunism of Democrats who voted for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has harmed America’s ability to mobilize is population for necessary interventions — whatever you think those are — Republicans’ opportunistic isolationism also done us harm by nudging this administration toward paralysis in Syria.

In the foreign policy of post-World War II America, there have been many internal conflicts in which the United States had a stake in the outcome because one of the parties espoused a statist or nihilistic world view based on envy or resentment.  Those emotions are magnetically attracted to America, and America inevitably becomes the object of their malice.  What both parties fail to recognize, at least in our national conversation, is that Syria is moving in a direction that may eventually make a direct U.S. intervention essential to our national security.  There is still a window during which we might achieve those essential goals without intervention, but it’s closing fast.  There may still be an opportunity to identify, support, and empower potential allies among the Syrian rebels.  The political conditions were more ripe for that six months ago than they are now, and six months from now, it will probably be too late.  It may already be too late.  And because one day, we’ll have the same decision to make about North Korea, I’d like to see us get things right this time.

So while Libya may yet form a relatively representative and moderate government, the administration’s indecisive approach to Syria is failing in ways that become more frightening each month.  Unlike this administration, Qatar and Saudi Arabia aren’t restrained about arming their friends, and unsurprisingly, their friends are our enemies.  Their preferential arming and funding of the most extremist elements of the Syrian rebels are turning Syria into a replay of Afghanistan in the early 1980s.  The Syrian rebels now have man-portable surface-to-air missiles.  If present trends continue, they’ll also soon have Aleppo, Damascus, very substantial stockpiles of chemical weapons, and the means to deliver them throughout the region.  At that point, would doing nothing be even worse than direct intervention?  The Syrian conflict has already begun to spread across borders.  Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias are both fighting on Assad’s side.  Syria and its proxies are murdering Lebanese officials, and there are violent protests on the streets of Beirut in reaction to that.  We’re now facing the very real prospect of a regional Shiite-Sunni / Arab-Kurd conflict in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.  The conflict could spread to Jordan, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia itself.  Any of those countries, or regions within them, could come under the domination of terrorists.

It is probably too late for a grand bargain with secular elements of the opposition, in which they agree to expel or eliminate the terrorists and extremists among them.  The extremists are already too strong for that.  The best we can hope for now is to strengthen the hand of “moderate” elements — I speak in relative, not absolute terms here — just enough to maximize their influence in post-Assad Syria and prevent the complete domination of the extremists.  This may now be down to a choice between a government that looks like Hamas today or one that looks like the Taliban in the 1990s.  Finding ourselves in this unfolding nightmare might be this administration’s greatest foreign policy failure, an even greater failure than its dithering while Iran’s mullahs suppressed the Green Revolution.

4 comments

  1. Jim says:

    I would imagine the biggest difference between Libya and Syria would be that Libya had a united revolt again Qaddafi, and the NTC was backed by all militant powers involved. This paved the road for post-revolution democracy.

    This isn’t so in Syria. Syria’s revolutionary forces appear to be driven by warlords with little interest in implementing democracy. While all parties involved can agree that they want Assad out, there is no consensus about what to replace him with. It seems with each passing day that post-Assad Syria will be no better-off. So while the US may be able to buy the affections of some revolutionary forces, they can’t back them all, and in the end they will likely end up propping-up a dictator.

    Syria is a worst-case scenario for the Arab Spring. At this point, hope is all but lost for democratic reform. And there likely is no correct response the US administration can have, as all roads appear to lead to a dictatorship and a likely succession of revolutions as one weak power is overthrown by another. In lack of a viable, popular, and democratic force to back, the best they can do is to stand back and hope for the best.

  2. Glans says:

    Divisions within Bashar Al Assad’s Alawite base may become important now, according to this Reuters report by Khaled Yacoub Oweis. I think Obama is smart to stay out of it. When the Russians lose their only Mediterranean base without the US lifting a finger, Putin will be in awe of Obama’s black magic.

  3. Doug M. says:

    As your blog post notes, and as the comments so far agree, it probably is best to stay “officially” out of the war in Syria. As you noted, the best opportunities for picking a group to back was six months ago. Where I differ in these assessments is in the opinion that the group we should have backed was the Assad regime itself. Say what you will about the likely real crimes of the regime, at least it was stable after a fashion, and early secret intervention could have kept it that way.

    Our choosing the wrong side has already yielded doubtful fruit in Egypt and sent the message to our friends around the world that all the back slapping, glad-handing and smiles a nation may get from the US will mean nothing when the real trouble begins. After a 30-year steady relationship with Mubarak, we left him in the dust almost immediately when the protests started. We owed him more than that, an offer at impartial adjudication at least. But our administration took the easy path, dumped him, and watched the radicals take over. That story ain’t over yet, and the worst is yet to come.

    But back to Syria. The Assad regime is the enemy we know; the enemy we understand after a fashion. The shiite/sunni, turk/kurd, secular/religious problems the blog author notes could spread due to this conflict could have been avoided by enabling the Assad regime to stop the revolt in its infancy. The harsh fact about geopolitics is that the political suffering of a nation means little when compared to the stability of an entire region of the world. By propping-up Assad we could have begun courting him away from the Iranian sphere of influence and into a ore moderate position. We could have shown common interest with Russia, and thawed an increasingly frigid relationship. Would any of that bore fruit? Perhaps, perhaps not. We could have done many things, but we didn’t do anything. We watched and waited and now the inmates are running the asylum…again.

    You make a salient point when comparing this to the North Korean situation. If we aren’t working as closely in secret with the Chinese as we are openly with the South Koreans, the problems we are seeing in Syria will seem like child’s play in comparison.

  4. Glans says:

    Hillary Clinton is reorganizing the Syrian opposition. The Syrian National Council can no longer be the face of the opposition. People with more credibility within Syria are needed. Here’s the story, with video, at Al Jazeera.

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