On Wednesday, reports surfaced of a mass chemical-weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs that human rights activists claim killed hundreds of civilians, bringing Syria’s continuing civil war back onto the White House’s foreign policy radar, even as the crisis in Egypt worsens.
But the Obama administration should resist the temptation to intervene more forcefully in Syria’s civil war. A victory by either side would be equally undesirable for the United States.
At this point, a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests.
Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel.
But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquillity on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria.
Things looked far less gloomy when the rebellion began two years ago. At the time, it seemed that Syrian society as a whole had emerged from the grip of fear to demand an end to Mr. Assad’s dictatorship. Back then, it was realistic to hope that moderates of one sort or another would replace the Assad regime, because they make up a large share of the population. It was also reasonable to expect that the fighting would not last long, because neighboring Turkey, a much larger country with a powerful army and a long border with Syria, would exert its power to end the war.
As soon as the violence began in Syria in mid-2011, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, loudly demanded that it end. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, Mr. Assad’s spokesmen publicly ridiculed Mr. Erdogan, while his armed forces proceeded to shoot down a Turkish fighter jet, before repeatedly firing artillery rounds into Turkish territory and setting off lethal car bombs at a Turkish border crossing. To everyone’s surprise, there was no significant retaliation. The reason is that Turkey has large and restless minority populations that don’t trust their own government, which itself does not trust its own army. The result has been paralysis instead of power, leaving Mr. Erdogan an impotent spectator of the civil war on his doorstep.
Consequently, instead of a Turkey-based and Turkish-supervised rebellion that the United States could have supported with weapons, intelligence and advice, Syria is plagued by anarchic violence.
The war is now being waged by petty warlords and dangerous extremists of every sort: Taliban-style Salafist fanatics who beat and kill even devout Sunnis because they fail to ape their alien ways; Sunni extremists who have been murdering innocent Alawites and Christians merely because of their religion; and jihadis from Iraq and all over the world who have advertised their intention to turn Syria into a base for global jihad aimed at Europe and the United States.
Given this depressing state of affairs, a decisive outcome for either side would be unacceptable for the United States. An Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the entire Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda terrorism.
There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.
By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.
That this is now the best option is unfortunate, indeed tragic, but favoring it is not a cruel imposition on the people of Syria, because a great majority of them are facing exactly the same predicament.
Non-Sunni Syrians can expect only social exclusion or even outright massacre if the rebels win, while the nonfundamentalist Sunni majority would face renewed political oppression if Mr. Assad wins. And if the rebels win, moderate Sunnis would be politically marginalized under fundamentalist rulers, who would also impose draconian prohibitions.
Maintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.
This strategy actually approximates the Obama administration’s policy so far. Those who condemn the president’s prudent restraint as cynical passivity must come clean with the only possible alternative: a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime.
That could lead to a Syria under American occupation. And very few Americans today are likely to support another costly military adventure in the Middle East.
A decisive move in any direction would endanger America; at this stage, stalemate is the only viable policy option left.
Edward N. Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.