It is a funny thing about American foreign policy. The Democrats are the peacenik party until they have an opportunity to send American soldiers off to die for no reason other than to make them feel good about their higher morality. This scenario is playing out again in Washington as the Democrat foreign policy elites begin beating the drums for a US intervention in Syria. We can expect the call to get stronger with the move of Samantha Power, an ardent believer in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine who once advocated sending in US military forces to protect the Palestinians from Israel, to the position of National Security Advisor.
The situation in Syria would present a huge challenge to even a competent Administration. Needless to say, the Obama Administration, which now dredging up the talent equivalent of a tee-ball team to fill positions in what promises to be a disastrous second term, is out of its depth.
The conflict takes place in a very fragile political ecosystem. To the north is Turkey, ostensibly Western leaning though now clearly headed in the direction of Iran unless the military intervenes. To the east are the unstable regimes in Iraq and Jordan. To the south is the de facto Syrian colony of Lebanon and Israel. The potent mix of refugees, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, and power politics by Iran and Russia have the potential to make life short but extraordinarily interesting for the residents of the region. There are a reported 92,000 dead and there may be as many as 1.7 million refugees, meaning that one in five Syrians have been killed or displaced since the civil war began in March 2011.
Syria is headed by the singularly unsavory government of Bashir Assad. He has shown himself to be every bit his father’s son in his determination to stay in power mostly because he really has nowhere to go.
To make matters worse, Assad is supported by Russia, ever eager to divert domestic attention from its slide into irrelevance, and Iran which sees itself as the dominant power in the Middle East. Though Iran is intervening chiefly through the use of Lebanese Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards have made an appearance in Syria.
But it isn’t like the alleged “Free Syria” opposition is any better. By all accounts it is mostly composed of al Qaeda or factions that make al Qaeda look completely reasonable by comparison. Summary executions, beheadings, and ritual cannibalism are but a few of the atrocities committed by the “Free Syria” forces.
Do not be deceived. There is no more a body of secular, free market, democrats dedicated to overthrowing Assad than there was a similar body of fighters in Libya.
There are ample strategic reasons for a significant US military intervention in Syria all interventions are not alike. While I think a very good case can be made for why Assad should go, I don’t find but the failed notion of humanitarian assistance followed by turning over that country to al Qaeda to be a compelling one.
For all the difficulties it presented, our intervention in Iraq removed Saddam Hussein and with the Anbar Awakening broke al Qaeda power and mystique. Until Obama decided that blaming Bush for a disaster was more politically advantageous than seizing a victory that had been gift wrapped for him, we were well on our way to changing the Middle East in a fundamental way. Nothing says seriousness like your Iraq envoy using his position as a sex tour.
For intervention to be worthwhile it requires either US forces or a viable local surrogate and it cannot be waged on the cheap. There is no such thing as a minor intervention. Each and every time we get intervene our national prestige is at risk. Somalia led to 9/11 by convincing al Qaeda that we could be defeated by inflicting only relatively minor losses when we showed that 18 KIA could convince us to retreat. Even if we do win we can score an own goal like creating al Qaeda safe havens in Bosnia and Kosovo and giving al Qaeda Libya and, more likely than not, Egypt. It is hard to look at any of these interventions and see where there was a net positive.
Russia and Iran have staked their national prestige on the survival of the Assad regime. They intend to prevail. Obama has frittered away ours by setting one “red line” after another. If anyone is willing to ally themselves with the US after Obama is done with the presidency it will be a miracle.
(As an aside, I’d note that R2P as practiced by American liberals does not apply to black people. Not a peep was made for intervention in the Rwanda genocide or when the Libyan freedom fighters we backed forcibly deported black Africans.)
While Syria has significant geopolitical importance we have neither the will to shape events to our own advantage nor a stake in either side prevailing.
The best outcome for the US in Syria is a protracted conflict which
- bleeds Hezbollah to death,
- removes Syrian and Iranian suzerainty over Lebanon,
- continues to draw al Qaeda fighters to a place where they can be killed,
- and, causes a rupture of the Russia-Iran alliance in a falling out of thieves.
A US intervention on the side of al Qaeda would be yet another policy driven by feel-good press releases that will in the best case scenario place al Qaeda in control of yet another country on the Mediterranean rim. If we lose we increase the influence of Russia and Iran.
Any intervention in Syria puts us at odds with both our national interests and our values.