Washington’s Syria Policy Battle: Interventionists versus Non-Interventionists

Two distinct camps are forming to battle over Syria policy in Washington.

The first is made up of the neocons, who are busy fitting the Arab Spring into US strategic interests as they see them.  John Bolton, Michael Doran, and Elliott Abrams have been leading the charge in articulating this argument.

The second group are the “realists,” with a liberal coating.  Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has articulated a “don’t get involved” argument.

The first want to take down Assad’s Syria and the second do not.  The first group believe that flipping Syria’s orientation from being pro-Iran and anti-Israel to inverse is a vital US strategic goal, the second do not.  The first see it as part of a broader effort to help friends and hurt enemies.  They see Israel and Saudi Arabia as America’s main allies in the region and want to build them up.  They want to crush Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, and Hamas.  Syria is important because of Iran, America’s number one enemy.  They tend to depict the battle in the Middle East as a struggle between good and evil, freedom versus tyranny.

The second see shades of gray.  They see an ugly civil war lurking behind the surface of democracy promotion and are not sure Washington would be wise to get sucked into further expensive commitments that have more to do with messy emerging national identities and less to do with US interests.

The neocons have a number of strengths.  Clarity is first among them.  Second is the nature of the Assad regime, which is oppressive and run by a family surrounded by a narrow elite, dominated by Alawis, a minority community unpopular among a broad section of the Sunni population.  The regime has failed to deliver sufficient economic growth to reverse the growing pool of unemployed youth and to raise the standard of living for most Syrians.  The country is suffering from all the ills of a growing income gap, drought, and bad policies.  Reform has been too slow and many believe it will never come because of the vested interests of the narrow and highly corrupt elite at the top.  A growing number of Syrians argue that the entire system must be destroyed and Syria must rebuild itself.  Increasingly, leaders of the Syrian uprising are beginning to embrace the ideas being put forward by the neocons.  In order to win full US backing, they are pushing for acceptance of a complete strategic reversal of Syria’s foreign policy goals.

The neocons are not advocating direct US military involvement in Syria today.  They understand this is not politically feasible.  But they are preparing the grounds for a much higher level of military commitment in the future.  They understand full well that, in order to take down the Assad regime and counter the force of the Syrian military, the Syrian opposition will need to develop a full military option.  To do so, it will need major US and NATO backing.  This will not be a fight for the faint of heart.

Their strategy for angling the US toward making such a commitment in the future is economic sanctions.  Broad economic sanctions imposed on Syria by the EU would have major moral implications down the road.  Should Syrians start to starve, as they surely would if real sanctions are imposed, the moral argument for intervention and military escalation would improve.  Should the poorest and most vulnerable Syrians begin to expire, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s, military intervention would become necessary to end the suffering and starvation.  Liberals would have to support the military option in such a case.  Today, most do not.  Sanctions imposed now will make military intervention in the future imperative.  Liberals embraced the invasion of Iraq in large part because of the moral argument.  Saddam was starving his people.  It would be hard to resist such an argument.

Europeans governments have so far resisted imposing blanket trade sanctions on Syria for this exact reason.  Once we see European governments impose devastating sanctions on Damascus, we may safely assume that they have accepted the notion of greater military involvement down the line in order to solve the humanitarian problem that sanctions will create.  Perhaps they will not support a ground invasion as was done in Iraq, but they could support establishing a no-fly zone and arming and training a proper Syrian insurgency, as was done in Libya.  Of course, in Syria it will be a much bigger and more expensive operation as Syria has no frozen assets that can be diverted to fund the opposition.  They Syrian army is much tougher than Libya’s was.

The realists argue that the US should not get militarily involved.  They argue that Assad is too strong, and that the US is trying to prune its military commitments rather than grow them.  The Assad regime still has the support of important sections of the population.  It is not a clear question of good versus evil in Syria; rather, the struggle for power reflects deeper civil and sectarian divisions in Syria.  The Syrian opposition is hopelessly divided.  Perhaps it will develop a leadership, but that will take time and must be left to emerge organically.  The US should not tie its cart so closely to Israel and Saudi Arabia because both countries are pursuing policies which are not good for US interests in the long run.  What is more, the realists do not believe that the US should take sides in the broader religious war being fought between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East.  The US wants to check Iranian power and dissuade it from going nuclear, but it does not want to enter into the religious war.  Most importantly, the US has too many military commitments in the Middle East, a region that has sucked up far too much of Washington’s time and money over the last decade.  Greater involvement in Syria is not popular.  In the end, this is a Syrian battle and the US cannot decide its outcome.

Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma.  Read his blog Syria Comment at <www.joshualandis.com/blog/>.  This article was first published in Syria Comment on 24 August 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.  See, also, Joshua Landis, “What Is behind Assad’s Violence? Three Opinions” (Syria Comment, 23 August 2011); Joshua Landis, “Valarie, an American Business Owner in Latakia, Tells Her Story of Gun Boats, Rimal al-Janubi, the Evacuation, and Miliatry Operations” (Syria Comment, 25 August 2011).

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