According to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama risks looking like a “fool” if he decides not to intervene militarily in Syria’s continuing civil war. Likening the situation to his decision to intervene in Kosovo in 1999, Mr. Clinton said Tuesday that if he hadn’t used force to stop Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing, critics might have said: “You could have stopped this by dropping a few bombs. Why didn’t you do it?” Mr. Clinton believes that Mr. Obama could end up looking like a “total wuss” if he doesn’t intervene. And it seems he’s going act.
The recent recapture of the strategic town of Qusair by forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad and the White House’s public acknowledgment that chemical weapons have been employed by the Syrian regime — thereby crossing a “red line” — persuaded Mr. Obama to adopt the doctrine of intervention and provide arms to the rebels. He shouldn’t have.
Lacking a grand strategy, Mr. Obama has become a victim of rhetorical entrapment over the course of the Arab Spring — from calling on foreign leaders to leave (with no plan to forcibly remove them) to publicly drawing red lines on the use of chemical weapons, and then being obliged to fulfill the threat.
For nearly two years, the Obama administration has described the Syrian regime as having “lost all legitimacy” and “clinging to power.” And yet, it has surprisingly endured. That’s because neither assertion is really accurate. Mr. Assad still has strong support from many Syrians, including members of the Sunni urban class. While the assistance Syria receives from its external allies, like Iran and Russia, is important, it would be inconsequential if the Assad regime were not backed by a significant portion of the population.
Interventionists tend to detach their actions from longer-term consequences. This myopia is often coupled with a prevalent misunderstanding of the political and cultural context of where they want to intervene. Both problems are present in the current American approach to Syria.
The Syrian revolution isn’t democratic or secular; the more than 90,000 fatalities are the result of a civil war, not a genocide — and human rights violations have been committed on both sides.
Moreover, the rebels don’t have the support or trust of a clear majority of the population, and the political opposition is neither credible nor representative. Ethnic cleansing against minorities is more likely to occur under a rebel-led government than under Mr. Assad; likewise, the possibility of chemical weapons’ falling into the hands of terrorist groups only grows as the regime weakens.
And finally, a rebel victory is more likely to destabilize Iraq and Lebanon, and the inevitable disorder of a post-Assad Syria constitutes a greater threat to Israel than the status quo.
Not since the 2003 invasion of Iraq has American foreign policy experienced a strategic void so pervasive.
The responsible role of a lone superpower is not to pick sides in a civil war; it’s to help enable conflict resolution while maintaining a policy of neutrality. Instead, the United States came down on one side of a regional sectarian conflict, inadvertently fomenting Sunni hubris and Shiite fear — the same effects (but in reverse) caused by America’s involvement in the Iraq war.
Unlike in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the revolution in Syria involves upending a sectarian political order, and therefore it disrupts the fragile sectarian balance within the region. Absent “boots on the ground,” supplying rebels with arms or establishing a no-fly zone are half-measures that are unlikely to advance an endgame that serves American interests or alters Mr. Assad’s calculus to step aside — all the while, intensifying the lethality of the conflict without contributing toward a decisive end.
More important, by arming the rebels, Mr. Obama is not only placing the United States in an open proxy war with Russia and Iran, but also raising the stakes and consequently jeopardizing broader and more valuable American interests.
There is no doubt that weakening Mr. Assad’s allies, like Iran and Hezbollah, is in the United States’ interest. But intervening in Syria could also harm much more important American goals like securing Russia’s cooperation in addressing Iran’s nuclear program and maintaining stability in Iraq. There is also the risk that intervention will become counterproductive. Empowering American-favored rebel forces to confront the influence of the hard-line Islamist groups that are also fighting against Mr. Assad may backfire and intensify rivalries, causing the fault lines of the civil war to break down even further and turn the increasingly dominant hard-line Islamists against Western-backed rebels. Mr. Assad will then be fighting an insurgency that is fighting itself.
Strangely, despite having committed to arming the rebels, Mr. Obama has yet to exhaust diplomatic efforts, which were inadequate and poorly constructed from the start. The White House’s actions and rhetoric have deprived diplomacy of its most basic prerequisites. Once it called for Mr. Assad to step down in August 2011, the United States fully abdicated the role of a credible arbiter — the core ingredient for eventually moving civil wars toward power-sharing arrangements. Then Washington insisted that Mr. Assad’s departure was required for a political transition to begin. (Its position only recently evolved; now America believes negotiations must end with Mr. Assad’s departure.)
But what’s the point of negotiating a political settlement if the outcome is already predetermined? In order for diplomacy to gain traction, it is the United States, not Russia, that must make the greater compromise and rescind its demands about Mr. Assad’s stepping down as a predetermined outcome.
His current term as president will expire in May 2014, which could provide a face-saving mechanism for a political transition to take place while keeping the institutions of the state intact. If the United States and Russia could agree on that, negotiations could then expand to involve regional Sunni and Shiite powers, who could rein in their proxies in Syria, and finally to a local level, mediating between Assad loyalists and rebels.
Mr. Obama would have been wise to make a forceful diplomatic push first before succumbing to the naïveté of his pro-intervention critics. Intervention in Syria won’t end as Kosovo did for Mr. Clinton.
Syria is like Iraq, except worse.
Ramzy Mardini is an adjunct fellow at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. He served at the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in 2006.