There are many reasons that President Obama doesn’t want to get involved in Syria. And when I say involved, I’m not talking about providing humanitarian assistance or participating in the Geneva process. I mean significantly militarizing the U.S. role by either supporting the opposition with sophisticated military equipment or by directly applying U.S. military force — or both.
It’s also been clear for some time now that the president’s eminently defensible policy of not getting involved in Syria cannot possibly work — if working means pressuring President Bashar Assad to leave power and ending Syria’s civil war. John Kerry’s comments about the policy’s limits, continued humanitarian horrors on the ground, the failing Geneva effort, and Damascus’s foot-dragging on chemical weapons only offer new confirmation that, by doing nothing, the United States is changing nothing.
Yet it is more than likely that no real shift in America’s limited, risk-averse strategy on Syria is in the offing. Obama has been stunningly clear on why. Indeed, reading David Remnick’s New Yorker interview with the president, it is refreshing to hear such honesty and clarity — whether you agree with the policy or not:
“I am haunted by what’s happened. I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war. It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.”
Yet there is one reason for the president’s caution that he almost never mentions — and it may be one of the most compelling. Not surprisingly, it is derivative of Obama’s most important foreign-policy objective in the Middle East: a nuclear deal with Iran.
Aside from another al-Qaida attack on the homeland, Iran is the only foreign-policy issue that has the power to mess up the remaining years of Obama’s presidency. If diplomacy fails and Iran moves to break out and weaponize, or even come close to being able to make a deliverable weapon, the risks of three very unpleasant things happening go up: first, Obama getting blamed for being the leader on whose watch the mullahs got the bomb; second, Israel striking Iran; and third, America having to do the same thing, or getting dragged into an Israeli-Iran fight. The first development would leave Obama looking poor in the legacy department, weak and outfoxed. The latter two events would open up a box of very bad juju — and would risk things like plunging financial markets, rising oil prices, attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and proxy terror.
So, if at all possible, avoiding a confrontation with Iran is the president’s core goal in the Middle East. (And, if I’m reading him correctly, he also believes it might have the fringe benefit of helping stabilize the region.)
Where does Syria fit into all of this?
Simply put, to have any chance of getting things done with Iran, America needs to be talking with the Iranians — not shooting at them in Syria or anywhere else. Indeed, the last thing Obama wants or can afford now is direct military intervention in Syria that would lead to a proxy war; kill Iranian Revolutionary Guard units assisting Assad’s forces; or convince Tehran that U.S. policy is designed to encircle Syria’s Shia regime with a U.S.-backed Sunni arc of pressure.
Critics of the president’s Iran and Syria policy want him to pursue these objectives. Their argument holds that, if America brings Assad down, Iran will be more constrained and less of a threat, and that it will scale back its nuclear weapons ambitions.
This is an interesting take — and essentially great game strategy. It is also rooted in the assumption that Syria isn’t a vital Iranian interest and that backing Sunnis will make Iran nervous and more compliant. But while it is true that Syria isn’t as vital to Iran as Iraq, it is still very important. Without a friendly regime in Damascus, the mullahs really don’t have much access to Lebanon or Shia allies. The other assumption is much shakier. You could make an argument that a strategy of encirclement could actually accelerate Iranian nuclear ambitions as the Sunni-U.S. noose tightens.
Can I prove that Obama’s Syria policy is held hostage to his Iran gambit? No. But Iran is unquestionably an important factor in his cautious approach to the ongoing civil war. Indeed, it stretches the bounds of credulity to suggest that, last September, when war clouds were gathering over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Obama’s Iran calculus did not figure into his reluctance to use force in Syria. At the time, a secret U.S.-Iranian negotiating channel was already operating.
It’s no surprise why the president wouldn’t want to acknowledge Iran explicitly in his Syria policy. If he did, it would appear that he was sacrificing moral, humanitarian goals for a colder, strategic purpose and making nice with Iran while the mullahs help Assad perpetrate atrocities. This would only rile his critics even more. (The reality, of course, is that our Syria policy is amoral but not necessarily immoral. We are taking other considerations into account to make a decision – what a surprise.)
The pressing question now is whether, having made his policy choices, Obama can actually achieve his two Middle East priorities: to get Assad to the negotiating table where he can be convinced to give up his rule, and to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Based on my time in government and the world in which we live, I very much doubt Obama will succeed. These days, that kind of heroic diplomacy just doesn’t seem possible. I can only hope that the Iranian thing actually works out. Otherwise, Obama’s critics will be all over him for failing in two Middle Eastern countries — and the world will be left with a bunch of mullahs with nukes and a Syrian regime that continues to perpetrate wrongs, defying both U.S. and international sanction.
Aaron David Miller, FP columnist, is vice president for new initiatives and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.