Talkin’ Syria Intervention Blues
Published on: June 14, 2013
show comments
  • Brian

    Couple of thoughts- I’m not sure if I agree with your analogy about the Spanish Civil War. If Assad falls it will, as your colleague WRM has noted on several occasions, demonstrate to Tehran that we mean business when we say that Iranian nuclear capacity is “unacceptable.” It will also take away Iran’s only ally in the region, making their prospects for a war against the US much more perilous-and thus making them much more likely to negotiate.

    Also one of the reasons that I see for wanting to prevent Iranian nuclear capacity is that it will embolden them to enlarge their support for the many bands of thugs on their payroll. If Assad’s out of the picture, it will make it a lot harder for them to make those transfers. Thus, it would be a lot easier to live with a nuclear Iran.

    I guess I agree with your core argument that the US can still address the Iranian problem regardless of what happens in Syria, but still I think a post-Assad world makes that situation a lot easier.

    But a bigger point, I’m not sure that we will get dragged in further and further like you suggest. Dan Drezner argued over on Foreign Policy that this is part of an effort to suck Iran deeper into Syria. If that’s the administration strategy, then surely (sorry, hopefully) they’re going to deliberately limit themselves in their assistance to the rebels, and can avoid the slippery slope that you’re warning about.

    • I think you overestimate Syria’s importance to the Iran problem, and I KNOW you overestimate the Administration’s ability to plan shrewdly. What Drezner says might happen, but it’s not a plan.

  • Pave Low John

    At this point, our Syria policy is like watching a car wreck in slow motion. You almost want to look away, but you can’t. I’ve been expecting something like this for over a year and I still can’t quite believe we are preparing to conduct military operations in Syria because Bashar al-Assad crossed some ‘red line’ involving, of all things, WMD.

    I still can’t get over that last bit. WMD? What next, we send the Secretary of State to the UN to make our case for military action? Colin Powell must be laughing his ass off right about now. What is our plan if we get intel that Assad is handing over his chem stockpiles to Hezbollah? Even better, what if Israel decides to send a strike package to Iran just as we’re setting up a no-fly zone over southern Syra? I really feel sorry for the poor bastard they are going to pick to be the overall commander for this goat-rope.

    Well, since Eager Lion 2013 just wrapped up, I guess we can just keep those F-16s and Patriot batteries where they are and get some SF teams over there to start training the “freedom fighters” from across the border.

    Finally, the build up for this would have been a lot easier if we had kept some bases and personnel inside Iraq, but I guess wars tend to have their own timeline…

    • Former SectState Powell is not laughing his ass off. It’s true, as I said above, that the chemical weapons pretext is foolish, but there’s no direct parallel here. Mass regime murder amid a civil war wasn’t going on before March 2003 in Iraq, and chemical weapons are not really WMD, not that Sarin and VX are a lot nastier than mustard gas. Finally, lest anyone get the wrong idea, if you actually read the Duelfer Report, it shows that there were WMD programs and assets in Iraq, just not a lot of stockpiles, but it was the programs and assets that bothered us at least as much as stockpiles.The Adm. really screwed up how it spoke about that issue. The idea that there wasn’t any WMD in Iraq is simply not true.

      • Pave Low John

        You are correct, there was most certainly a WMD program in Iraq prior to 2003. What happened to the components and stockpiles might still be an open question, but I can distinctly remember doing plenty of chem warfare drills in Kuwait in 1998 (preparing for Operation Desert Fox, remember that one?) Everyone, including the Brits and Aussies I was co-located with at the time, believed that Iraq had chem weapons and the means to employ them.

        No, the only reason I suggested that the former SECSTATE might be watching this whole thing with amusement is in light of all the criticism he took for going to the UN and doing the right thing, especially from the anti-war Left. The last administration made plenty of missteps, but the lead up to OIF was not, in my mind, one of them. There were plenty of reasons to invade Iraq and WMD concerns was just one of several.

        Unfortunately, I don’t see how a no-fly zone really addresses the issue of chemical weapons, the source of all this “red-line” talk. Are we just expecting the rebels to hand it all over to us once they win the whole thing? What about all those Iranian and Hezbollah troops that are rumored to be operating in Syria? What if they start moving stuff around? You are right in your assessment of whether chem weapons deserve their place in the WMD trinity, but it does seem that the administration is hanging an awful lot on that aspect of the civil war.

        I did have a follow-up question, if you have the time to answer. Do you think a resolution to support rebel operations in Syria will be debated in Congress? Or do you think this will be done under the auspices of the War Powers Resolution, in a similar manner to our air operations in Libya?

        Great article, by the way, I’ve forwarded it to some guys I know that are still involved in the military advisory business.

        • A no-fly zone doesn’t address chemical weapons problems at all. What it can address is the coming battle of Aleppo–which, if the rebels lose up there is pretty much the end of organized resistance and the territorial contiguity of rebel forces. The regime can then go right to the border and shell the camps on the Turkish side, which I hope it does for a variety of reasons. But I doubt we can set up an effective zone that fast because we won’t want to do it alone, and setting out multilateral ROEs takes time. I’m glad we can’t, because if Aleppo is teetering anyway, then what will we do? Bombing runs–call out the Warthogs? Whatever it is, I don’t want to do it. A no-fly zone does not come without a great sucking sound.

          Will Congress debate this, you ask? I doubt it. This isn’t (yet) anything like a war–no boots on the ground. POTUS has all the executive authority he needs to do something stupid. I don’t think the Democrats will want it debated because it just gives the GOP a platform, and I don’t think the GOP will want to do it because its views are not popular. All the polls say, in essence, “What? Are you kidding?” But who am I to guess what that nutjob of an institution will do?

  • WigWag

    “Not that having to endure Bill Clinton lecture you on your supposed mistakes shouldn’t piss you off; what he said was completely inappropriate, even if in a supposedly “private” venue.” Adam Garfinkle


  • Anthony

    Shia crescent – vital interest. Now that ancient conflict has become more public, how does intervention benefit any United States long term interest (Sunni or Shite)? One could ask have Rice and Power captured Syrian policy going forward. You have written presciently on Libya and its potential for destabilization sans U.S. benefits, can we now expect Syrian repeat?

  • pashley

    What on earth is our vital interest in Syria?

    Probably nothing more than keeping the minorities from being scoured into exile, but since we allowed that to happen in Iraq, why now?

    And, we are arming the wrong side of the minorities. /headslap

    • I said we have no vital interest in Syria, so I take it your question is rhetorical, and not a misreading. Our interest concerns Iran, and while what happens in Syria is not trivial in that regard, it is not conclusive either. It is not worth a kinetic involvement, in my view.

  • Eric

    The hardnosed US realpolitik interest in Syria is for the war to continue.

    There are three reasons:

    1. It sucks in young Sunni jihadis who otherwise might take action against western targets.
    2. It sucks in Iran and bleeds them white.
    3. It bleeds Hezbollah also.

    Kazakhstan shows why this is the logical US response to the Iranian nuclear strategy.

    But no one can talk about this because it is as brutal and bloody as realpolitik can get.

    Yet the best US strategy is to keep the Syrian war going for as long as possible until all sides exhaust themselves utterly.

    Obama can’t ever say this though.

  • K2K

    Islam’s sectarian “divide” is between Sunni and all the not-Sunni sects. So, Iran, the only Shi’a majority state, provides an umbrella for many, not all, of the heretics, heretics as defined by Sunnis.
    The Alawites are really secret about their religious practice/doctrine, but it seems to incorporate some elements of early Christianity.

    The Shi’a crescent already exists, and the real problem is Sunni Absolutism, worse than the Catholic Church during it’s ‘convert or die’ centuries.

    A new wrinkle is Turkey. Four dead and 5,000 injured during two weeks of peaceful protests. Erdogan has been forcing Sunni islam on the Alevis.

    As for Russia? Consistent historically, albeit with gaps, in 1) protecting Orthodox Christians, and 2) a naval port in the Mediterranean if Russia can not control the Dardanelles.

    And, replyto WigWag: I agree – Bill Clinton was very appropriate in his criticism, public or private. There IS a civil war in what remains of the Democratic Party.

    There are still more than three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan from the Afghan-Soviet war. Maybe the USA should get in the refugee solution and mapmaking business. Ever since the post-WW2 idea of ending war via UN, all we get are endless, usually frozen, conflicts that continue to de-stabilize whole nations and millions of people.

    More mapmakers, fewer MANPADS.

  • John Burke

    I agree, mostly. I can see that overthrowing Assad would deprive Iran of its “only ally in the region,” but I don’t see that, if it could be achieved, as a critical factor in preventing Iran from going nuclear or more generally containing or taming Iran. In fact, an Iran without regional allies might be more determined to acquire nukes. In any case, Russian or Chinese help and support is more valuable to Iran.

    When this issue is turned around and the argument is made that an Assad victory will mean a Shiite crescent — Iran, Shia-led Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah — my question is, isn’t this what already existed with Assad in power before the rebellion broke out? So how is it a vital interest if the US to prevent it from happening?

    Finally, when the argument is made that we can’t just stand around and do nothing as the Syrian state breaks up, the sectarian war creates chaos with regional powers taking sides, my question is, why not? It’s far from a perfect analogy (few are perfect) but isn’t that more or less what we did through 15 years of the multi-sided brutal conflicts in Lebanon, 1975-1990 in which 120,000 people died and a million became refugees? Syria jumped in, as did others in the region. Israel invaded to clean out the PLO and that’s when the US made a mistake, sending in troops as part of a stabilizing force to rescue the PLO with the result that we lost 300 Marines and others.

    Eventually, the Lebanese belligerents got tired and outside powers, including the US helped arrange a complicated settlement and peace broke out — until the next time, which might be now.

    Who can say with confidence that if the Syrian conflict continues to rage for another decade with fighters drawn to both sides around the region that it will have any serious consequences for the US?

  • Jeffersonian Nate

    A well written, thoughtful article.

    A key point that is consistently left out of these arguments (to include this one) is that we don’t “control or shape” anything.

    Even after we support the opposition, send weapons, train them how to use them, impose no-fly zones, put troops on the deck, etc… we have little to no say in the outcome. Are we involved? Yes. In the sense that we are involved we have more power (although I would argue just more at stake) over the outcome than otherwise, but policymakers continually present the American people with a false choice between intervening for democratic values, human rights, etc… or doing nothing.

    Libya is the most recent example of having no ability to influence post-conflict outcomes. Unless we do nation building which a century of colonialism, and Iraq and Vietnam, show only marginal results we stand no chance of ensuring that the “right people” gain power in Syria.

    Furthermore, as the author notes there is no vital national interest before or after the “red line” was crossed. 93K deaths via bombs, rockets, firing squads, rounds, tanks, and grenades are totally acceptable – but don’t use chemical weapons to kill 150 people because now our vital national interests are at stake.

    Our foreign policy has been foolish and flawed for the better part of a century. We continue to follow that flawed example regardless of party in power.

    • We now know, thanks to some fine Washington Post reporting this past weekend, that the chemical weapons pretext was just that–a pretext. The decision was more or less made in late April. But it’s a stupid pretext for reasons you state, and also for one more: For an President who is the ultimate un-G.W.Bush, this is a very Bush-like thing to say, remembering Iraq.

  • Pingback: Fareed Zakaria On Youtube: ‘Stay Out Of Syria’ | Chris Navin()

  • Nathan Goodrich

    One sentiment that I ntend to see in comments on stories about Syria is some refrain of “just let the Muslims kill each other off”. Besides that niggling moral feeling, isn’t that a horribly dangerous position to take?

    Isn’t that exactly what happened in Soviet-era Afghanistan and in Algeria, where future terrorists cut their teeth in a seemingly local conflict? Wars don’t just create body counts: they create veteran survivors who know a whole lot about killing.

    None of this is to say that we should jump in head first. Arming the better elements of the rebels should have happened a long time ago, probably, but I’m also reluctant to get more deeply involved than that and perhaps a one-off bombing operation over the silly chemical weapons red line.

    I do think that purposely allowing a conflict to fester is incredibly naive though.

    • I agree with you–it can be very dangerous, because someone might win. In an earlier post I pointed out that this is how the Israeli leadership feels as well–they worry about a festering conflict next door even though the “wisdom” of the streets is, more or less, “let the bastards kill each other.”

      As for arming the rebels, well, OK; but this is also dangerous–as everyone I think knows. If we decide to arm only “moderate” or non-salafi rebels, that doesn’t guarantee that “our” clients will come out on top if Assad falls. Someone else will arm the badder guys, and be motivated to do so more if we arm the “good” guys. So there are no great or safe ideas here; only some that are less worse than others. As always, it’s a judgment call. My judgment is that if we want to prevent the Assad regime from winning, we can do that by dropping 2 or 3 air-fuel weapons in the right places, but we won’t be able to control who picks up the pieces. But I don;t think we can control that anyway, and an arms relationship creates a much louder sucking sound than just dropping a few big bombs and shutting up about it. One man’s opinion.

      • Nathan Goodrich

        The bomb solution you’ve proposed works for me as well. Any potential payoff is much less, but it is much less risky. I’m keying off the “arming rebels” idea still for two reasons:

        1. Recent news reports suggest this is the direction we’re headed.
        2. Bombing runs do nothing to head off the sectarian conflagration & I still have a Pollyanna idea in my head that it can be toned down.

        But yeah, lobbing a few bombs and then saying “eww yucky” toward the whole mess could work too.

    • John Burke

      Wait…the US role in arming the anti-Soviet mujahaddin in Afghanistan (acting through the Pakistanis) came in response to the Soviet invasion of that country. It was an opportunity at very low cost and with zero US troops to stick it to the cold war “main enemy.” Whatever else might be said about the wisdom of that, it cannot be said that the Syria conflict implicates any US grand strategy or that Iran poses a threat on the scale of the USSR.

  • Don’t draw “red lines” if you aren’t prepared to color them in.

  • Pave Low John

    I finally got around to watching that Charlie Rose interview with the President. It was…interesting. I highly recommend it watching it to anyone that wants to see how nebulous Obama’s statements are with reference to Syria. For instance, here is how the President explained his “goal” for the region:

    “Really, what we’re trying to do is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government, and over the long-term, stability and prosperity for the people of Syria,” said Obama.

    Got that? We’re going to take sides against extremists of all sorts. And we’ll be supporting the forces of moderation, tolerance, representative government and long-term stability and prosperity.

    With intentions that pure, what could go wrong?

    • The President has had better moments.

      What one wonders is whether his cluelessness is real or feigned. One hopes for the latter……but one fears the former.

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Adam, I just read this essay by you on Saudi Arabia right after 9/11.

    Has your position changed since then? If so why?

    • Your question is way off the point of the blog post, and I’m a little surprised that you could even find one of my essays from nearly a dozen years ago, written only a few days after 9/11, and published in a semi-obscure venue. Whatever led you to it, and why did you bother to read it?

      The essay was only partly about KSA, but yes, I stand by the analysis–all of it–and I actually think that the piece looks better and better with the passage of time. The only thing worth noting in that regard is that when I said the Ba’athi regime in Iraq had to go, I did not mean to say, of course, that we should go about it either urgently or in the stupidest possible way.

      • Matthew Brotchie

        I apologize that I was off base in posting that link without explanation. Ever since you have replied to my question concerning the persecution of Iraqi Christians in your last post I have been researching the rising trend of christian persecution and chaotic sectarianism. All over the Middle East and beyond, from Egypt to Tanzania, there seems to bea recurring pattern of church leaders, politicians, and the everyday working people belonging to various faiths point to the growing influence of exported Wahhabism (along with it, Qutbism) as the poison that is afflicting their communities. While I am not ignoring the various age old tensions that already existed in these countries, it seems this ideology that is supported with literally unlimited funds is pouring gasoline on all the respective fires.

        After exploring that issue, the main question for became “What is Saudi Arabia’s Grand Strategy?”. I believe this is a separate question to how our grand strategy may them. Since you have become my go-to expert on foreign policy (and how plutocracy works) I looked up what you had to say about it and the linked article is what Google lead me to.

        This major ally of ours obviously has an interest in Syria and it not’s paranoid to question it. From this blog I learned why our current grand strategy is hollow and how Jewcentricy causes blindness on a mass scale. While our intellectuals and pundits are staring into the Jewcentric eclipse for their various reason, I question who really is taking advantage of the slow and painful death of Pan-Arab-ism. I assume this vacuum will one day be absolutely filled and I’m not sure Iran has the ability to do it. Most importantly, I doubt the final and complete eradication of Christianity, Sufism, and all moderate forms of Shia and Sunni Islam from the Middle East is in our interest (or Israel’s). Thanks again for the blog.

        • Ah, now I see. No apology necessary.

          All I can add is that, looking back at the post-WWII history, the amount of Jewcentric drivel about Israeli lobby activities and so forth exceeds by orders of magnitude the attention paid to the oil lobby, whose epicenter has always been Aramco in Saudi Arabia and whose role in U.S. foreign policy decisions has generally been more important. Major Saudi financing of Wahhabist proselytism since the 1970s has stood traditional balances in the Muslim world on their heads. Wahhabi Islam a half century ago was considered by most educated Muslims to be esoteric, marginal, odd and a bit primitive. Today it’s become mainstream and, of course, quite dangerous. Sure all that money has made a big difference, and the American oil lobby has been complicit in the huge price rises that have produced that outsized income–because it suits the interests of big oil too. With allies like that……..

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Thanks for that.

    Speaking of the devil, did you read this?

    In the end would it be that surprising that KSA intelligence had a direct role in 9/11?

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Adam if you ever have some free time I would very much appreciate it(I’ll buy everyone I know a copy of your book for Christmas) if you could read this meticulously referenced work, that presents KSA behavior through out the War on Terror in a appalling context.

    I don’t have the expertise to know if this is
    all baseless.

    • It’s not baseless. I can’t vouch for every claim made, but the essence is correct. Moreover, none of this is new or controversial to area experts. Also, I know John Lehman for many years, and we spoke about this subject some time ago–don’t remember exactly when. So that part I know is correct.

      Two observations. First, I already mentioned to you, did I not, the under-appreciated power of the oil lobby? Everyone knows how powerful it was in the 1950s and 1960s, but it remains so. Go count the number of U.S. ambassadors to the Kingdom over the years who, after their tenure, got hired by Aramco or the Saudis to be lobbyists. Start with James Akins, perhaps. George W. Bush was/is an oilman from Texas–remember? But remember too that even if Bush 43 understood the Saudi role in all of this, it doesn’t follow that you call out publicly a senior leadership you may need to work with in future. Sometimes you need to deal with the devil, or at least shut up about his evil for the time being in case you need to deal with him later. That’s just the way it goes.

      Second, and very much related, you should NOT jump to the conclusion that the Saudi King and his most senior associates are behind all this. Saudi Arabia is an odd sort of regime–a cohabitation from the outset between the Al-Saud and the Al-Wahhab. Go read Robert Lacey’s marvelous if not somewhat dated book The Kingdom before you jump to any conclusions. You gotta know the history before you can understand contemporary Saudi Arabia.

      Now go buy a lot of my books to give as gifts.

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Thanks, this Christmas my family will have no choice but to learn about plutocracy and how to write about it.

    I actually just got Robert Lacey’s new book on the KSA. In it he pointed to the massive impact of Sayyid Qutb’s thought has had on the kingdom since the 70’s. Counter-terrorism expert J.M. Berger has told me he is still widely read among current jihadists today.

    In the terms of the “war of ideas” against radicalization, this is important to note:

    Allan Bloom’s Closing of The American Mind (which lead me to Fukuyama, and then to this magazine) still remains as the paramount book that explains how German nihilist thought has influenced America (the Nietzsche-ization of the Left or vice-versa). I believe this influence has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from the unlimited individualism you pointed out in the addendum of BROKEN to the financial “moral relativism” of modern banks who are indifferent towards their reputation.

    What’s not as widely known, is how this nihilism has influenced Islam.
    As Remi Braque explains in The Legend of the Middle Ages, Greek philosophy did not fail to “latch onto” Islamic thought and lead it to the Enlightenment. Rather,
    Islamic thought absorbed it with out separating reason from revelation. You can see how this works in thinkers such as Averroes, where Plato mixed with the Quran actually leads to a more totalitarian version of Jihad.

    Qutb’s thought is Islam that has absorbed the “active nihilism” of Nietzche, Heidegger . This rejection of modernity has more in common with Ernst Junger than with the Amish. I have always heard that the most educated jihadists are also the most zealous and easiest to recruit.

    The best exploration I have ever read on this type of radicalization is actually from Leo Strauss.
    His essay, German Nihilism.

    • Well, you’re thinking, but I think your thinking is a little narrow and over-eager.

      Before you start worshipping Leo Strauss, take a look at what Olivier Roi has to say about political Islam. I disagree with Olivier, whom I know, on many points, but the way he shows how modern jihadis are ultra-modern, if not Nietzschean, is very important. Again, Junger….. Look, the Germans did not influence everyone decisively. Just because you can show a consanguinity of thought does not mean you have established causality. Slow down; read for the long haul–which means at least 120 pages for every sentence ventured. And by the way, Ibn Rushd was a good guy; had he prevailed in his medieval contention with Ibn Ghazala, Islam and everyone else would be much the richer for it.

  • Matthew Brotchie

    In regards to the assumptions about this devil we apparently are forced to work with who has all the while been paying everyone off, I can only ask “Whats our plan?”

    We are now openly arming Al Qaeda in Syria which is now openly acting as a proxy for the KSA, who is now openly threatening to use these very same proxies to now rain nihislitc violence upon Iraq. (The report you read asserted that the majority of our casualties in Iraq were from Saudi suicide bombers and a Sunni insurgency funded by the KSA – they wanted sectarianism ) Apparently we never wanted a stable democracy in Iraq.
    Too bad.
    Did Lehman ever talk to you about Senator Bob Grahams book?

    • No, no, no–slow down. We are not arming al-Qaeda in Syria; we are trying hard not to. And Jabhat al-Nusra is not identical to al-Qaeda. And the Saudi GOVERNMENT is not pro-al-Qaeda: favoring a certain theology does not equate to supporting a particular group. The Saudi royals see al-Qaeda as a mortal threat, and the al-Qaeda leaders see the royals as compromised apostates. You are conflating when you should be distinguishing.

  • Matthew Brotchie

    Thanks for Oliver Roi, I will check him out. Funny, Brague actually has an essay literally called “Was Averros a “Good Guy”? in Legends of Medivale Ages.

    Do you think Bloom overstated his claims of the influence of German thought in America?
    I always thought his reply to Fukuyama’s original end of history article was fascinating.

    Both Bloom and Stanley Rosen have warned that some new manifestation of “active nihilism” would eventually arise in the west. Probably propaganda for the importance of philosophy, but who knows, if the future contains both genetic engineering and hyper inflation anything can happen.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.