Lost in the debate over responding to Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve gas is the fact that the United States has other interests in the Syrian civil war, like mitigating the effects of the war on Syria’s neighbors—Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel—and countering the regional ambitions of Assad’s key ally, Iran. Unfortunately, the president has consistently failed to advance these arguments over the last two years. The White House has also been consistent in one other respect: It has repeatedly blamed others for its failures.
When the uprising began in March 2011, administration officials said their “tempered response” was driven by the fears of American allies, like Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that Assad’s “overthrow could unleash even wider sectarian violence.” This wasn’t true—the Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren corrected the record—but that hardly stopped the administration from seeking to evade responsibility. Knowing that Russia would shoot down any forceful action against Assad, or even relatively strong resolutions at the U.N. Security Council, the White House repeatedly used the Russian veto by proxy. Thus, with the uncertain support on the Hill for military action against Assad, it’s hard not to think that Obama has merely looked to Congress to play the Kremlin’s part. Instead of making the call on his own, the president is looking to others to get him out of this jam—if you think it’s so important to uphold the credibility of the United States, then you do it. And if the strike goes pear-shaped, then your name is on this mess, too.
Curiously, other American officials just want to win. Sen. John McCain is pressing the White House for a more comprehensive strategy, one that drives Assad from power. McCain says that Obama is “willing to upgrade the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army.” To date, however, the administration still hasn’t sent the rebels any lethal military aid, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon was told not to present strike options that might help topple Assad. In other words, Obama has no intention of tilting the balance of power against Assad.
In the past, administration officials have offered three reasons for not seeking regime change: The concern that al Qaeda would fill the vacuum left by Assad’s fall; the fear that toppling Iran’s key ally would anger Tehran, with whom the White House still hopes to cut a deal; and most importantly, the deep desire of the president to avoid his own version of the Iraq war. However, events over the last week show that regardless of what happens on the Hill, or the efficacy of the strikes should Congress authorize them, the administration’s position is untenable.
Obama doesn’t want to bring down Assad, and yet he also wanted to stay out of Syria’s civil war entirely. But in spite of his best efforts, he may be on the verge of getting sucked in to it. Even the most limited response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons may touch off a dynamic that Obama is incapable of controlling, which is precisely why he sought to avoid any involvement in the first place. If it seems ironic that words got this highly scripted president into trouble, the reality is that even if Obama had never said anything about red lines he’d have reached this crossroads eventually.
Given the scope of American interests in the Middle East, the extensive network of our alliances and the confrontational nature of our adversaries there, the region has its own inexorable dynamic that cannot help but involve the United States. If the Persian Gulf had not been an American lake for almost 80 years, if Saudi Arabia didn’t have the world’s largest known reserves of oil, if Turkey wasn’t a NATO member, if Jordan wasn’t Washington’s most reliable Arab partner, if Israel wasn’t a strategic ally beloved by most Americans, if Iran’s clerical regime wasn’t revolutionary, if Assad was half as clever as his supporters and detractors believe, it might all be different. But it’s not. It’s the Middle East and we’re the regional power, no matter how hard Obama may try to resist it. The question then is whether he will continue simply to react to events or try instead to shape them to the advantage of American interests. If Obama seeks peace—if he wants to avoid another Iraq, if he wants to block al Qaeda, and if he still wants to sit with Iran—he should prepare for regime change in Syria.
Maybe Obama is in a funk. Everything he believed about the Middle East turned out to be wrong. He sought to improve U.S. standing in the Muslim world where, he was certain, Bush’s bellicose, imperial style had lost America all credibility. It was no doubt confusing for him then when Gulf Arab allies nonetheless sought Bush-style leadership and protection from America. They told him they wanted a forward-leaning position on Iran, which he discounted as a siren song trying to distract him from Arab-Israeli peace. The idea that he would get both sides to sign, where so many other president had tried and failed, also proved an illusion.
Because Obama did not like to think strategically, in terms of nations and balance of power, it was easy to focus on his drone war against al Qaeda. Iran, a real nation-state with an army, navy, air force, assets around the region, and marching toward a nuclear program was a problem best kicked down the road. And while drones targeted al Qaeda figures from the Red Sea to the Asian sub-continent, the administration would promote “moderate” Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood as an antidote to the extremists—except in Syria. In Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and other Arab Spring states, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as a means to sideline al Qaeda. But with Syria, the White House argued that strengthening the Free Syrian Army by training and arming it was only going to help al Qaeda.
The approach to Syria was inconsistent because it was not really a policy—it was rather a ruse meant to disarm domestic critics. Between al Qaeda and the Iranian-led resistance front, the administration let on, there are no good guys to back in Syria. “Let Allah sort it out,” echoed Sarah Palin. The White House and its surrogates have repeatedly cited the war-weariness of the American public for refusing to get bogged down in a conflict average Americans don’t understand, but framing the Syrian conflict like an Alien vs. Predator sequel was always a cynical ploy—a “false choice,” to use the president’s favorite phrase. It was meant to obscure the fact that the United States has key interests at stake, and that there might be actors in Syria worth backing.
The longer the Syrian conflict drags on the more likely it is to harm U.S. allies on Syria’s borders. There are at least half a million refugees already in Jordan, a problem that threatens to destabilize if not bring down the Hashemite kingdom, but what concerns the White House is preserving the state institutions of the Assad family in Syria. Presumably, American policymakers are vaguely aware that two and a half years of civil war have already destroyed whatever institutions existed previously, most of them merely subsidiaries of Assad’s larger criminal enterprise to enrich his family. Whenever the war ends, someone is going to have to turn on the lights in Syria, and someone else is going to have to pick up the garbage and bury the dead, and the United States is invariably going to be a part of that project.
But Obama would rather we avert our eyes from this coming Arab catastrophe, because more than anything he fears getting saddled with his own Iraq. And now the Arabs, the Turks, the Europeans, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham all want to hang Syria around his neck. Indeed, it’s a fate worthy of a Greek tragedy for a man who saw first his candidacy and then his presidency as a rebuke of his predecessor’s Mesopotamian expedition.
But as the last week is showing, the way out is through. If the administration wants to keep al Qaeda from growing in Syria, it should strengthen the Free Syrian Army and make it accountable to the American superpower that will ensure its victory. If the president doesn’t want Syria turning into his Iraq, the model to learn from is Iraq. No matter how much Obama may seek to limit American strikes on Syria, or the effect of the Syrian civil war on U.S. interests, the region has its own dynamics. The next few weeks will show whether he intends to drive them, or be driven by them.