Defense & National Security

Should America’s Syria strategy be one of non-intervention?

Syria’s bloody civil war promises to end with an anti-American outcome no matter which side wins.  That is why our Syria policy must focus on America’s Middle East interests and not the latest atrocity.  Stay out of Syria.

The news is full of heart breaking pictures of bloody atrocities like the one last week in the Syrian village of Houla that claimed 90 lives, including 32 children.  The death toll from the war exceeds 10,000 and there is no sign of peace.  Even the United Nations’ six-point ceasefire initiative failed and there are fresh reports the fighting is spreading to next door Lebanon while possibly morphing into a sectarian war.

As one diplomatic effort after another fails to end the brutal violence, the Obama administration changed its Syria policy.  The Associated Press reports President Barack Obama is preparing a plan with Arab allies to arm the Syrian rebels.   Until now the U.S. remained neutral providing only humanitarian aid and non-lethal equipment to Syrian rebels. 

Obviously Obama’s new plan puts America squarely in the rebels’ camp.  That’s a radical policy shift given that for the past three years Obama sent a stream of envoys to Damascus to meet with Syria’s President Bashir al-Assad, confident a new start with Assad could rehabilitate the rogue dictator.   

But Obama’s naiveté regarding Assad is astounding if not paradoxical. Last year as Obama called for Libya’s Gaddafi to step down less than two weeks after the Libyan uprising, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Syria’s Assad a “reformer”  a month after Syrian security forces brutalized unarmed protesters.  Meanwhile Obama urged Assad to “exercise restraint,” “respect the rights of citizens,”  and “bring about a reform agenda,”  but didn’t call for him to “step aside” until more than six months after the regime’s brutality started.

Now the sides are understandably irreconcilable and Assad is just one among many with bloody hands who must “step aside.” The dictator surrounded himself with numerous security forces and a loyal 300,000 man military which shares responsibility for the atrocities.  And his foreign allies are just as committed to his survival as regime sycophants.

Syria is Iran’s best Middle East ally because Damascus provides the Persian hegemon a land bridge to the Mediterranean Sea and a base of operations to maintain a lifeline to its terror proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.   Iran will do practically anything to keep Assad in power.

Damascus is Russia’s best ally in the Middle East as well.  It buys Russian-made arms and permits Moscow’s warships use of Syrian ports and supports President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist vision. 

Assad worked with Syria’s allies in crafting a strategy to stay in power.  Specifically, Assad uses his security forces to kill and imprison internal enemies and creates regional distractions using allies like Hezbollah to stir-up tensions in Lebanon and others to follow.  

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran supply Damascus with weapons, keeps her afloat financially through trade and loans, defends Assad at the United Nations, and presents a credible collective military threat to nations that might consider joining the war against Syria.

Should Assad survive this war he will be more anti-American than before and much more dependent on both Tehran and Moscow.   This outcome will bolster Iran’s regional influence, help Russia solidify its Middle East foothold, and make Hezbollah more of a threat to Lebanon and Israel.  Surviving also gives Assad a new lease on power to do everything possible to sabotage U.S. interests and facilitate terrorism and harm Israel.

By comparison Assad’s rebel enemies are a hodgepodge of Salafists, al-Qaeda and Syrian Muslim Brotherhood members; exiled secularists, and military deserters who share a common hatred for the dictator.  Their cause earned significant Arab and Western sympathy as well as logistical support, but not a single nation has as yet joined the rebels’ fight.  

The anti-Assad war strategy is simple albeit naïve.  The Arab League led by Saudi Arabia and Western supporters will supply the rebels with arms and humanitarian goods like medicine and food until Assad falls, which could take years if ever.   Call that formula an “exhaustion strategy.”

The problem with the “exhaustion strategy” is it leaves the initiative with Assad and could lead to a larger conflict.  However, should the rebels prevail, the question everyone should ask is: Who will take power in Damascus? 

The evidence suggests Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood is best positioned to take power in Damascus.  It is the best organized and already controls the Syrian National Council, the organization created by the U.S. Government through Turkey to lead the opposition movement.  The Brothers make no secret that under their leadership Syria will become a Shari’a-complicit country that will be known for being anti-Semitic and anti-American. 

What then should be America’s policy regarding Syria?  Should America keep Obama’s “exhaustion strategy” that keeps us in league with the anti-American rebels? 

That is a wrongheaded approach because it leaves the initiative with Assad, keeps the region indefinitely unstable, and potentially partners the U.S. with an unsavory anti-American group. 

However, before deciding on the right policy we should answer two additional questions: What are America’s national interests in Syria’s civil war and what price are we willing to pay to protect those interests? 

America’s interests are simple, but not necessarily vital to our security, and not easily achieved or cheap.  America seeks to stop Iran’s hegemonic activities in Syria and her support for Hezbollah.  America wants the future Syrian government to be at peace with all its neighbors, especially Israel and Lebanon.   Finally, America wants to minimize Moscow’s expansionist designs.

There are three obvious alternatives to Obama’s “exhaustion strategy;” only two potentially help achieve our Middle East interests but at a potentially unacceptable cost.

First, America could build a coalition of the willing and invade Syria as it did Iraq. This has the best chance to achieve our national interests but no one is seriously contemplating that costly alternative.

Second, some partners favor launching a Libya-style operation that provides air cover for rebel ground forces equipped with heavy weapons and assisted by Western advisors.  Of course any time a nation puts advisors into a conflict there is always the possibility that role could grow vis-à-vis Vietnam and before long the conflict gets out of hand.

Meanwhile, an interim Syrian government must be formed that agrees to eschew Iran’s influence and adopt a democratic government that will live at peace with its neighbors, especially Israel.  Keeping that government from becoming a Shari’a compliant state may be a deal breaker but one we accepted in Libya, Tunisia and soon in Egypt.

Finally, do nothing and let the civil war take its course.  Don’t provide arms or humanitarian assistance and accept the bloody consequences which will likely be anti-American no matter the outcome.  

The third option is the only realistic course as America no longer has the resources to join every war.  Syria’s civil war is a human tragedy but one among many begging for dwindling American resources.  Let Syria’s neighbors help the rebels if they must, but America should keep its powder dry for wars that truly threaten our vital national interests.  And the risk of Russian expansion into the region should Assad survive is real, but will have to be dealt with in other ways.

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