Foreign Policy / National Security / Politics

Time for a tough call on Syria

President Obama has waffled for too long on Syria.  It didn’t want to intervene but it was hesitant to do nothing.  The middle ground it chose is bad for Syrians, bad for the region, and bad for American foreign policy.  Obama has prioritized good politics above good policy long enough in Syria – he needs to make a choice.

The Syrian uprising is no longer a domestic affair.  It has become increasingly internationalized as outside powers are arming, training, and supporting the two opposing sides.

Iran and Russia are openly supporting the regime diplomatically.  Covertly, Iran is doing much more.  Reports in the Washington Post suggest that Iran is building and training a Syrian Shi’ite militia to support the Syrian armed forces.  Iran is also reportedly working through Hezbollah, the Shi’ite terrorist group that has been accused of supporting the Syrian regime.  Though unconfirmed, it seems highly likely that the 48 Iranian hostages captured by the Syrian rebels are members of the Iranian revolutionary guards or a Basij paramilitary group.  If this is the case, it suggests that Iran is more actively involved in Syria than we previously thought. Iran’s involvement is understandable. Syria is a historical ally and one of Tehran’s last friends in the Middle East, a region that is strategically important to it.

Iran isn’t the only country stacking the deck in Syria.  The United States along with Western and Arab allies are providing diplomatic support to the Syrian opposition.  The opposition is also receiving money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and safe havens in Turkey.  The New York Times reportedthat a team of CIA agents are on the ground channeling weapons to, supporting, and organizing the opposition in Turkey.  The result is that both the regime and the opposition are being supported by outside powers but neither side has received enough to win the conflict outright.  Fair is fair, right?  Aren’t we just evening the playing field?

Obama faced a difficult choice in Syria.  On one hand, direct military intervention was an unpalatable option.  Projections from the Pentagon estimate that it would take 75,000 ground troops to secure Syria.  Even a no-fly zone would be difficult to establish because, unlike Libya, the Syrian regime has advanced air defenses.  Over a decade of military operations has strained America’s military, economy, and public willingness to go to war.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated how difficult regime change and reconstruction efforts are.  In addition, the international community was not united in favor of intervention: Russia and China blocked UN resolutions authorizing intervention in Syria.  To top it off, Obama ran on a campaign in 2008 to end American involvement in the Middle East.  To launch an operation in Syria in the run-up to an election would be a bad political move.

On the other hand, to do nothing in Syria was also a bad option.  According to activists, violence in Syria has claimed over 20,000 lives.  Many critics are urging Obama and the international community to intervene in Syria for humanitarian reasons.  Others want to see an intervention to bring American values such as democracy to Syria.  Still others argue that the conflict is an opportunity to bring down a regime that supports terrorism and has close ties to Iran.  Pragmatists push for intervention to stop violence, refuges, weapons, and instability from spreading through the region.

The American government’s policy toward Syria is that Assad must go and the Obama Administration is working toward that objective by providing limited support to the opposition.  This compromise doesn’t require a military intervention and it allows the Administration to point to its limited efforts as evidence it is doing something.

While this limited support is a good political move, it is a bad strategic move.  In ‘The Delusion of Impartial Intervention’, Richard Betts, a Professor of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, argued that international interventions should be neither impartial nor limited.  Interventions of this type enable both sides to keep fighting, prolong conflicts, and make them more deadly.  Instead, Betts argues that international interventions should pick a side and intervene decisively enough to enable them to win quickly.  This has not been the U.S. strategy.

The Obama Administration needs to step back and consider its goals.  If its objective is to help the Syrian people, prevent a humanitarian crisis, or bring a quick end to Assad’s rule, it is doing it all wrong.  Its actions are instead making the crisis longer and more violent.  If Obama wants to intervene in Syria he should do it properly or not at all.  Politics is about making difficult decisions.  Neither option – intervening properly or standing by – is optimal.  In this case, compromise is worse.

This post is a reprint from an article published on DoubleThink Online. 

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