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Published on: February 28, 2013
Foreign Policy Funnies: Obama Administration Pivots on Syria

Never let it be said that there is not considerable entertainment value in political life. Watching the First Lady at the Oscar ceremony trying to position herself for post-White House celebrity is pretty funny—to me at least. Gazing upon the affection that the Italian electorate still has for Silvio Berlusconi is more than amusing; it […]

Never let it be said that there is not considerable entertainment value in political life. Watching the First Lady at the Oscar ceremony trying to position herself for post-White House celebrity is pretty funny—to me at least. Gazing upon the affection that the Italian electorate still has for Silvio Berlusconi is more than amusing; it reminds me of the native Washingtonian endearment for Marion Berry, which is downright hilarious. Looming sequestration, I admit, is not so funny, but it certainly is bizarre; maybe John Waters will make a movie about it one day. Compared to all this, recent efforts by new Secretary of State John Kerry really don’t match up, but he’s a newbie in this job, so we should give him some time.

Here’s what I mean. On Monday, aboard Air Force II, Kerry admitted to the traveling press corps that he really didn’t have any new ideas on Syria. On Tuesday, on the ground in London I think, or maybe it was Berlin, he promised new ideas on Syria. And then, lo and behold, the very next day it became evident that U.S. policy toward Syria had changed, in the form of a willingness to provide nonlethal military equipment to the non-Islamist opposition.

You have to admit that this is pretty funny. First, the optic is that on Tuesday Kerry promises new ideas, and within 24 hours American policy changes; this never happens, considering how the interagency process works, and it certainly can’t happen in a White House-centric foreign policy system like the one we have today. Second, these guys have to be trying to pull our legs if they think that nonlethal assistance to the opposition is a remotely new idea. This sort of stuff may not be as entertaining as clowns at the circus, but at least there’s no admission fee to get inside the tent.

Obviously, the decision to shift policy toward the Syrian opposition has been a long time coming. It has little or nothing to do with Kerry’s becoming Secretary of State. That is just as well, because if there were ever a man who lacks credibility when it comes to understanding Syria, John Kerry is that man. He certainly does need new ideas, because his old ones were deeply pathetic.  He also needs new friends in Syria, because his old dear-hearts, Bashar and Asma, are no longer the toast of high society in Paris or Damascus.

* * *

Well, enough banter for now. Let’s get down to the serious issue at hand: Is the new U.S. disposition toward the Syrian opposition a good idea? To answer this question properly, we have to take a step back about two years to get some perspective on where we are, as opposed to where we could’ve been.

When the mayhem started in Syria back in March 2011, the Obama Administration’s attitude was to stay as far away from it as possible. An administration spokesman proclaimed that the United States would supply no equipment of any kind to the opposition, for fear that it would intensify the violence, and that weapons might end up in the hands of terrorists. These were plausible arguments, but they hid the real reason for the Administration’s passivity, which was the fear that any involvement would drag us into a level of commitment the President thought unwise. Here was a case where even leading from behind was judged to be too bold.

Unwise why? Why such passivity? It was over-determined by two central factors. First, by any measure, Syria is hard to do both militarily and politically compared to a place like Libya, which from a military point of view is an island (i.e., every target in the country worth attacking can be attacked from the sea). And second, the prospect of action was far too close to the election to be worth the risk. The more I behold the behavior of this Administration and this President, the more I have to conclude that political concerns outweighed concerns about political and military prudence. But as I say, either way, this was over-determined.

Since it is not possible to have no policy on any subject as telegenic as the Syrian civil war, the Obama Administration dutifully came up with what it claimed was a policy. This policy, so-called, shifted with time, but it basically consisted of a hope that Bashar al-Assad would emerge as the great conciliatory reformer of Syria, and that the medium for parlaying his conciliation into a broad political settlement would consist of the good offices of the Russian government. Thrown into the mix was a robust fantasy that a United Nations mediation effort could do more good than harm. This was such an unearthly delusion that I, at least, got some pretty good belly laughs out of it. All throughout this period we did not need John Kerry to be master of these political-theater-of-the-absurd ceremonies; Hillary Clinton did just fine. But I have to admit that even at the time I did not think the show was all that funny.

Now, I sympathized with the difficulty of the issue from the get-go, but already more than a year ago I was concerned that inaction could well make the situation much worse. In a post titled “The Wisdom of Sheikh Zubar”, I did my best to cobble together a plan that could drive the situation in Syria toward closure without putting American boots on the ground in the process. My concern was that if the situation were left to fester, several bad things would happen.

First, the toxins of Syria’s civil war would spread, to Lebanon, to Jordan, to Iraq, and to Turkey among the Kurds there and in other countries.

Second, as I and others warned, the longer the civil war went on, the more radical-Islamist the opposition would probably become, opening the way for an invitation to al-Qaeda and like-minded groups to thrive just adjacent to three U.S. allies (Turkey, Jordan and Israel).

Third, given the under-institutionalization of the Syrian state under a Ba’athi regime, a protracted civil war would destroy that state to a point that the country could split into pieces. And as we know from the Humpty Dumpty school of historical analysis, a country once split into pieces is hard to put back together again.

Looked at from a cold-blooded strategic perspective rather than the ever popular meliorist-humanitarian one, that latter outcome might not be entirely negative. But at the very least it constituted a form of playing with fire given the first two likely consequences of U.S. passivity.

And so here we are a year or so later, and all of this has come true. Toxins have spread, the opposition has become more Islamist, and the future of Syria as an integral state looks dimmer every day. So much for the idea that boldness should always be relegated to a last resort. If you like a metaphor, this notion is a little like advising a cancer victim to wait until the last minute for surgery.

* * *

It has been said many times before, including by me, but politics is ever the domain of unanticipatable irony. A year ago, for reasons I have just laid out, I believed that an effort, prudent but practical, to bring the civil war in Syria to a close (with Assad and the Ba’ath gone as a result) was the best of all possible alternatives. Now, just as U.S. policy has become more muscular, I’m not so sure.

First of all, while toxins have spread, so have defenses against them. Second, while the opposition has become more Islamist, it has not driven out other factions, and in recent months those factions have gained additional incentive to stop bickering among themselves. Third, some rearrangement of the borders in the region that date from the post-World War I settlement could be a good thing. I am thinking specifically of the establishment of a viable Kurdish state, with its core in the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq—already an independent entity in all but the formalities. Having such a basically pro-Western, non-Arab entity in that region might have its advantages (although I do not for a minute underestimate the amount of broken crockery it might take to bring such an entity into being).

And there is even a fourth reason why a continuation of the fighting, at least for a while, might bring benefits. The Islamist core of the Syrian opposition is called Jabhat al-Nusra, and it is ultra-radical Sunni in inspiration, along the lines of al-Qaeda. Rising rapidly to contend against it is from the west, staging now in Lebanon, is what is becoming a wing of the Iranian military in Syria, namely an expeditionary arm of Hizballah—and it is ultra-radical Shi’a in inspiration. To put it in an admittedly somewhat glib historical analogy, we are likely about to witness a replay of the Battle of Karbala. (Despite the fact that this battle took place in October 680, any sentient adult American who doesn’t know what it is, now more than a decade after September 11, 2001, ought to be ashamed of himself.)

Let me try to put this delicately, although it’s not easy. We have before us the prospect that a large number of men (and even some women) who thoroughly hate the United States of America and all it stands for are getting ready to slice each other from dimple to duodenum. Most of these guys are not the least afraid of fighting, and they are by any realistic measure we’re familiar with not afraid of dying. So why not let them? There have been many fights in history in which, for all practical purposes, both sides have lost. With any luck at all, and with perhaps a few dirty tricks added in for insurance, this could be one of them. I know this will sound harsh to some, but consider it this way: We have stood aside for two years with our thumbs up our you-know-what while more than 70,000 mostly innocent people have been killed; so why not stand aside for a little longer so that some mostly hateful and dangerous people can get killed?

* * *

In any event, the new U.S. policy of providing nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition may be less than meets the eye for another reason. What if we have already been complicit, sub rosa, in facilitating the movement of lethal assistance to the Syrian opposition? Now of course I would not know anything about this, but it at least looks like the Saudi government has purchased old-stock Yugoslav weapons for the Syrian opposition, and colluded with the Jordanian government to transport them from Croatia into Syria. Is it possible that an arrangement of this sort involving three countries with which the United States has quite close relationships—Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Croatia—could go forward without our knowledge and assent, if not our full-throated encouragement? (Croatian officials have denied selling weapons to anyone, but to all appearances they are the worst liars I have ever seen. This just gets funnier by the moment, doesn’t it?)

It won’t be long now, I suspect, before we can enjoy the next episode of the Kerry-Obama Syria policy show. My ribcage already aches from laughing, but I look forward to it all the same.

show comments
  • WigWag

    “Let me try to put this delicately, although it’s not easy. We have before us the prospect that a large number of men (and even some women) who thoroughly hate the United States of America and all it stands for are getting ready to slice each other from dimple to duodenum. Most of these guys are not the least afraid of fighting, and they are by any realistic measure we’re familiar with not afraid of dying. So why not let them? There have been many fights in history in which, for all practical purposes, both sides have lost. With any luck at all, and with perhaps a few dirty tricks added in for insurance, this could be one of them. I know this will sound harsh to some, but consider it this way: We have stood aside for two years with our thumbs up our you-know-what while more than 70,000 mostly innocent people have been killed; so why not stand aside for a little longer so that some mostly hateful and dangerous people can get killed?” (Adam Garfinkle)

    A similar though admittedly less compelling argument can be made about Egypt. If Walter Russell Mead is right, the weakest political faction in Egypt is the liberals. The strongest factions are the two Islamist factions, the Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood who have little love for each other.

    With the Egyptian economy imploding and facing imminent collapse might the best course of action for the United States be to stand aside and let Egypt tear itself apart. The United States could, if it wished, withhold economic and military aid and presumably it could hinder the IMF from approving any loan. Given it’s animosity to the Muslim Brotherhood a rescue package from Saudi Arabia or the wealthy Gulf States seems unlikely.

    I understand that the situations in Egypt and Syria are far from identical. The sectarian nature of the dispute in Syria is not recapitulated in Egypt and no particular faction in Egypt controls any particular region of the country.

    But putting aside the humanitarian concerns for a moment, is it possible that if the disintegration of Syria potentially has upsides for American strategic interests is it possible that there may be unexpected upsides for American strategic interests if Egypt collapses?

    Given the small chance that Egypt’s political liberals are likely prevail (not that there so great either) and given how horrendous the Salafists and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood are, is there any reason that we shouldn’t be standing on the sidelines rooting for if not promoting an Egyptian collapse?

    Just wondering.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      You’re right: Egypt is not the same as Syria in many, many ways. I’m not sure US interests fit with that sort of chaos in Egypt, but it may happen anyway. The Egyptian economy has tanked; unemployment for those under 30 is estimated at over 70%. This is part of formula for mass chaos and violence. We should be thinking about military contingencies just to protect Amcivs and to safeguard the security of the canal.

  • http://www.martinbermangorvine.com Martin Berman-Gorvine

    H.L. Mencken said it best in 1929: “The show remains engrossing, though it is no longer exhilarating. The horror of week after next will at least be a new one. It may be any one of ten dozen: I find myself vaguely eager to know which it is to be. Thus I advise against suicide. Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband’s clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.”

    • Adam Garfinkle

      This is terrific, thanks so much. It’s been years since I bathed in Mencken’s genius–nice to be reminded of it.

  • dan berg

    Off topic (apologize), but….would like to know your response to Joshua Hammer’s article in NY Review of Books ref. Mali.

    • Adam Garfinkle

      Have not read it yet; been very busy.

      • Adam Garfinkle

        Now I’ve read it. I’m not sure what sort of response you’re looking for. SO I’ll make just two brief points. First, it’s good that journalists are going to Mali to write the first draft of history. Second, even in-country anecdotes are not the same as analysis.

  • http://policytensor.com Anusar Farooqui

    Adam,

    The scenario you outline – with the central axis of the Syrian conflict shifting from regime vs assorted rebels to sunni extremists vs shi’i extremists – is both unlikely and not in US interest. It is unlikely because as soon as the Assad regime becomes weak enough to no longer to be the dominant player (so that Hezbollah strength becomes important in the military calculus), the regime is likely to buckle as the nut finally cracks and core elements head out the door in a stampede. It is also unlikely because the CIA has been coordinating weapons transfers with the result that even though they haven’t managed to keep arms out of al Nusra’s hands, the have managed to funnel enough to non-extremists so that these rebel groups are still dominant in the armed opposition.

    It is also not in US interest because this is not the First World War or the Battle of Karbala. That is, it is not as if opposing armies are going to wipe each other out. This is guerrilla war. With basically unlimited amounts of petrodollars and weapons flowing in, and an equally unlimited supply of manpower: if this scenario indeed comes about, it would mean the strengthening of both extremist groups. This may drag on for decades with shifting balances between warlords and instability emanating outwards towards important US clients with significant sectarians rifts: Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, even Jordan.

    You were right the first time. This needs to be contained now, before these dynamics become irreversible. This administration makes me want to wish that Bush was still in the White House.

    Anusar

  • http://www.the-american-interest.com Adam Garfinkle

    Well, we’ll see, won’t we?

    I never said my scenario would not cause a whole lot of grief. It will. But all of the available alternatives–and there are very, very few–are no better. I was forced to think this through because the Obama Administration isn’t going to do anything effective. This is one big duck-and-cover drill in place of a superpower foreign policy.

    But as for likely, yes, I think a vicious Sunni radical vs Shi’a radical contest IS likely. As I say, we ‘ll see who’s right and who’s not sometime in, I’d say, the next 18 months.

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