The prominence of Russian-made helicopters in Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and desperate efforts to hang on to power puts the Syrian war in a new light. It’s getting difficult to categorize the conflict simply as a humanitarian crisis or a “teacup war” of secondary significance. Rather, Syria’s civil war is increasingly fought under a great-power cloud that hasn’t been seen in the Middle East for decades.
Most of Washington would rather ignore the darkening forecast. In one of his periodic Washington Post op-eds, Henry Kissinger warned that a “Syrian intervention risks upsetting [the] global order.” While Kissinger went on to acknowledge that the fall of Assad’s regime would suit the national interests of the United States in both humanitarian and strategic terms, he concluded that an armed intervention would fail to meet his two tests for U.S. involvement. First, there was no consensus on what kind of regime would replace Assad’s. Second, there was no assurance that the “political objective”—call it “victory”—could be achieved “in a domestically sustainable time period.”
In short, Kissinger spoke in the voice of regretful realism. From this perspective, the Syrian civil war is an unfortunate event, a human catastrophe, a strategic opportunity to remove a regime that’s been a longtime pest, but, if it requires a serious and enduring American commitment, not a reason to upset the international order.
This appears to reflect the thinking of the Obama administration. The president said last August that the time had come for Assad “to step aside,” but has yet to do anything to force the issue.
The problem with this sort of realism is that it isn’t really realistic, insofar as it fails to appreciate the balance of power. If Assad stays, the global order will be very much affected, and one of the most significant features of the post-Cold War order will be threatened. In particular, the United States’ ability to push for fundamental political change in the greater Middle East with a free hand will be severely curtailed. The Syrian crisis then is a big deal, not only in the region, but also in global terms.
Once upon a time, the Middle East was thought to be a square on the Cold War chessboard, part of the larger “game of thrones” with the Soviet Union. The United States had to curry favor with a host of regional autocrats, lest the Russians accumulate a larger roster of thugs. Washington had the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, Moscow had a natural rapport with Baath party bosses in Syria and Iraq, and the Egyptians teased both sides until they satisfied their honor in the 1973 war with Israel—itself a conflict that sparked a nerve-racking U.S.-Soviet faceoff. The Carter Doctrine, formulated in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, held that the United States would resist the efforts of any outside power to dominate the region.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great game in the Middle East changed profoundly, even though American security interests did not. Saddam Hussein thought that the end of the Cold War gave him a green light to invade Kuwait, but he discovered that the Carter Doctrine had been expanded to apply to bids for hegemony that came from inside the region as well.
Still, during the decade following Operation Desert Storm, the United States opted to contain Iraq rather than depose Saddam. A safe haven was established for Kurds in the north, and “no-fly” zones were maintained in the north and the south, with a “no-drive” zone in the south to protect Kuwait. Substantial U.S. air and land forces remained in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with naval forces elsewhere in the Gulf. Keeping Saddam “in his box” meant staying in his face. Thus by the time Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003, Iraq’s air defenses had already been suppressed, making the decisive march to Baghdad a three-week sprint. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the need for “regime change” had supplanted past predilections for containment.
Although George W. Bush did little to push the “friendly” autocrats in Egypt or the Persian Gulf states to reform, he was willing to back his “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” with American military power to see through the regime-change commitments already made. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has sought to shelter himself and the United States from the winds of change in the Middle East. This is the theme that runs from his “New Beginnings” address at Cairo University in June 2009, to his response to Iranian protests, through his Iraq and Afghanistan policies, to his standoffish approach to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, to “leading from behind” in Libya, and now to the Syria crisis.
As he explained in Cairo, Obama believes this is a “time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world” that is “rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.” Obama’s prime directive was to reestablish “mutual interest” and “mutual respect” between the United States and Muslim peoples, and to assert that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” He promised also to be “respectful of the sovereignty of nations” and to engage in negotiations with Iran “without preconditions and on the basis of mutual respect.”
Ironically, as Obama yearned for the “engagement” and realpolitik of a bygone era, the Muslims of the greater Middle East yearned for political change. Less than 10 days after the Cairo address, Iranians took to the streets to protest what they believed was a stolen election. The White House went silent. Iranian protesters responded by chanting, “Obama! Obama! Either you are with us or with them!” Hoping for a deal to slow Iran’s nuclear program, the administration kept its open hand extended to the mullahs even during Tehran’s crackdown.
Obama’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 was equally uncertain, even regarding the revolt in Libya, which the White House now counts as one of its foreign policy successes. In February 2011, protesters in Benghazi and elsewhere surged into the streets, and by early March, the administration declared that Qaddafi had “lost his legitimacy to lead, and must go.” But just as a no-fly zone was established, the administration announced that the United States would fall back into a supporting role once NATO assumed command. The president welcomed getting rid of Qaddafi but added that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” The administration would countenance regime change, but didn’t want too many American fingerprints on it, and certainly no responsibility for what might come after.
The Syria conflict—now officially designated as a “civil war” by the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief—has similarly paralyzed Obama, and with far greater consequences. After the uprising began in March 2011, it became apparent that Russia and China would prevent any repeat of the Libya resolution at the U.N. They permitted a nonbinding peace plan drafted by former secretary general Kofi Annan, which has had no effect whatsoever, and a condemnation of the regime’s indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry. In short, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. Middle East policy is once again subject to larger great power issues, and in this case, what amounts to a de facto veto by Moscow, backed by Beijing.
This week’s contretemps over the Syrian use of Russian-made attack helicopters underscores both the emerging proxy war character of the conflict and the Obama administration’s unwillingness to consider effective measures. Specifically, the White House has refused to back the Syrian opposition against an Iranian ally in a war that is ongoing, is certain to continue, is likely to expand, and whose outcome will matter.
“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week. The attack choppers would “escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she contended, rightly. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov countered that it was only sending weapons for “self-defense.” No regrets. In fact, the Russians are extremely pleased with themselves—they’re being courted just as in the Soviet days.
The Chinese have tried to remain in Moscow’s shadow, but they are equally opposed to taking actions that would put the Assad regime in jeopardy. This is not just the usual Chinese whinging over “sovereignty.” This week French foreign minister Laurent Fabius proposed escalating economic sanctions on Syria, but in Beijing, spokesman Liu Weimin responded that “China disapproves of one-sided sanctions and pressuring.”
The Syria standoff has already become a full-blown balance of power tussle, sucking in regional and global powers on both sides. China, Russia, and Iran back Assad, while the Syrian opposition is funded and armed by a variety of Gulf states. Turkey and Iraq are both inundated with Syrian refugees, and Ankara is increasingly angry that the Assad regime hosts Kurdish terrorists. In sum, Syria is becoming exactly the kind of nightmare that the region and the world have come to expect the United States to prevent, and which, indeed, until now, American administrations of both parties have taken great pains to preclude.
Until now. Obama has insisted that the “tide of war” across the Middle East is “receding.” It’s not just that American troops have been withdrawn from Iraq, are being more rapidly withdrawn from Afghanistan, or were not employed on the ground in Libya. It is the president’s belief that they need not—should not—be used again. This is an unrealistic belief, one that ignores balance-of-power politics. The survival of the Assad regime, saved by its Russian, Chinese, and Iranian sponsors, would upset the international order far beyond the troubles created by the regime’s demise.
Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.