Why Syria Will Teach Washington The Wrong Lesson

There are, to put it bluntly, no more ‘good’ guys left in Syria – just bad guys and worse.
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    This Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 photo, shows damages at the entrance of a Syrian military academy besieged by rebels during heavy clashes with government forces north of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras)

    This Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012 photo, shows damages at the entrance of a Syrian military academy besieged by rebels during heavy clashes with government forces north of Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/Narciso Contreras)


    Two days before Christmas, just as Americans were finishing their holiday shopping, an important article on the ongoing civil war in Syria was published by Foreign Policy magazine that reinforces the wisdom of American non-intervention in that deadly, confusing conflict. Official Washington, however, is almost guaranteed to conclude the opposite – that the U.S. should have in fact intervened this past September when allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians gave the West a smoking-gun casus belli. If we’re not careful, this sentiment may yet drag us into yet another Mideast War in the not-too-distant future.

    By way of summary, the gist of the Foreign Policy story and a supporting piece published a month earlier paint a picture of a Syria torn apart by a multiplicity of externally-funded armed opposition groups that sometimes cooperate, sometimes fight one another as they collectively try to bring down the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. If there were elements in the Syrian opposition that could have at one point been easily identified as ‘good guys’ that the average American could identify with, then their influence has since been swept aside by anti-Western salafist groups that are presently the most effective anti-regime fighters. There are, to put it bluntly, no more ‘good’ guys left in Syria – just bad guys and worse.

    Moreover, as the Foreign Policy author reports, these salafist groups have recently become unified – insofar as the word can be at all applied to the inchoate anti-Assad opposition – under a common banner called the Syrian Islamic Front. Generally anti-Western in ideological orientation, anti-democratic in philosophy, and hardline Islamist in practice, the SIF has come to dominate the battlefield at least partly due to generous support from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Indeed, reports indicate that as early as the fall of 2012 that of the aid flowing to the Syrian opposition, the vast majority is going to the anti-Western Islamists now fighting under the banner of the Islamic Front.

    This has in turn created an evil dynamic all its own. First, within Syria itself the power of Islamic Front forces means that opposition rebels need to work with them in order to secure battlefield victories against pro-Assad forces – either directly through joint operations or indirectly via receiving arms and other supplies from them. This means that to stay on the good side of the most powerful rebel faction, the larger Syrian opposition has increasingly frozen out Washington and other Western actors seeking to influence events within Syria’s borders.

    Second, aid, success, and succor from the Gulf monarchies seeking to oust Assad has meant Syria has become a central rallying point for jihadists from around the region and as far away as Central Asia. Again, if reports are to be believed, more jihadis are now flocking to Syria than to Afghanistan at the height of the Soviet occupation and, in an obvious parallel with the war the U.S. is currently fighting there, groups in Syria are now also operating across the border in Iraq. Apparently, it would seem, with much success as the U.S. government was recently forced to rush weapons, including drones and hellfire missiles, to aid its beleaguered allies in Baghdad.

    This, as has been pointed out by many, puts the U.S. in the odd position of aiding an Iranian-backed regime in Baghdad against Sunni salafist rebels while, at the same time, covertly assisting those same rebels – or at least ideologically similar groups – against a similarly Iranian-backed regime in Syria. If this seems confusing and counterproductive, you would be right. At the very least such inconsistency and the grim reality that there are no ‘good actors’ in Syria worthy of U.S. support would seem to suggest that non-intervention, after the loud clamoring for it in the aftermath of a chemical weapon attack on civilians residing in a Damascus suburb earlier this year, was a wise decision. After all, if your enemies are fighting one another – as Assad and the Sunni salafists surely are – the best course of action is to give them room and let them have at it.

    Unfortunately, as logical as this sounds America’s perennial interventionists deem this outcome – one where our enemies weaken each other all while the U.S. does nothing – as the worst one possible. This is because they cannot imagine a world where the U.S. cannot decisively intervene somewhere to tip the scales to its own advantage. All it takes, they argue, is the will to act. Act, they say, and all will be made right by the swift, hard use of American power.

    Such arguments were well on display earlier this year when it looked like the U.S. might, in fact, act to oust the Assad from Damascus. In May, for instance, the editorial board of the Washington Post – long a hotbed of U.S. interventionism – argued that non-intervention would lead to precisely the outcome we are seeing now – a Syrian rebel movement dominated by anti-Western Islamists and a conflict that is spilling over into neighboring countries. American military intervention, argued the Post’s editorial, would bring the conflict to a quick conclusion and leave pro-Western forces in a much better position, certainly one better than which they now find themselves.

    All this, of course, belies reality on the ground and over a decade’s-worth of history of U.S. intervention in the region. From Iraq to Libya, each armed intervention into the Arab world by U.S. forces has only created a far more complex and costly post-intervention environment that the U.S., inevitably, has been responsible for at great cost in blood and treasure. It should be remembered that not one intervention has gone according to the interventionist’s plans, and inevitably each armed interaction with that part of the world merely seems to bog American further down in the depressing, no-win politics of the Middle East at a time when average Americans want nothing more than to disengage from the Middle East and the wider Islamic world as quickly as possible.

    Just such a sentiment was quite evident when the American public ardently rejected armed intervention into Syria’s civil war this past September. Then, nearly seven-in-ten Americans saw airstrikes or other forms of military action as all but useless in shaping a positive outcome in Syria, forcing President Barack Obama to put the decision to intervene into the hands of Congress and giving time for a face-saving deal on Syria’s chemical weapons to be worked out between Moscow and Washington. The deal nicely allowed the U.S. to avoid military action but did little to otherwise end the conflict or dampen the bloodshed.

    What’s more, that bloodshed looks only set to continue as the war becomes even more of a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of whom now view the outcome of Syria’s civil war as deadly important to their own security and prestige.

    For Iran, which is now in the process of working out a long-term deal with Washington on the fate of its nuclear program, the survival of Assad in Damascus can be viewed as something of a consolation prize for making a deal acceptable to Washington. Let us keep Assad and our influence in both Syria and Lebanon, Tehran seems to be saying, and we might give you a workable deal on our nuclear program.

    For Saudi Arabia, which is feeling betrayed by Washington, ousting Assad and crushing Tehran’s aspirations have become even more a focal point for the royal despots who rule the Arabian peninsula. Riyadh, along with Israel, have been at the forefront of those calling for strikes on Iran over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and it has recently taken the step of offering Lebanon, whose military is overshadowed by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, $3 billion in military assistance.

    Coupled with Riyadh’s refusal to take a seat on the U.N. Security Council due to that body’s inability to deal with either Iran’s nuclear program or the civil war in Syria, it’s clear that Saudi Arabia is deadly earnest about not just containing Tehran, but rolling back as much of its influence as possible by whatever means necessary.

    This of course makes Washington’s tenuous Middle East balancing act all the more difficult. If America moves to appease Saudi Arabia, for instance, it risks losing any hope for a deal with Iran – a longstanding goal of President Obama’s regional diplomacy. If, on the other hand, Washington moves to reassure Iran, it risks alienating Saudi Arabia, and its oil, even further. Given that it is from Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf states from which most anti-Western salafist funding comes from, the risks stemming from an alienated and angry Riyadh could be quite profound.

    All this means that America faces only lose-lose propositions in the Middle East. All the more reason, it seems, to hasten our retreat from this quagmire as quickly and fully as possible. After all, if a wider regional war is about to begin then the worst place to be when the shooting starts is in the middle where both sides are shooting at you. America’s hawks may think otherwise, but it is clear to anyone looking objectively at our situation that we are long past the point where we can salvage anything resembling a ‘win’ worthy of any further expenditure of American blood. If the region is to burn due to centuries-old hate and religious division fueled by modern petro-dollars, it can only be for the good if we do all we can to avoid being cast into the flames with it.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.


    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.

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      • dmaak112

        Jeffrey Cavanaugh’s article makes a credible argument for US non-intervention in the Syrian civil war. However, America’s hands are not clean in bringing about the present tragic situation. From 2005, U.S. money has been used to undermine and then to encourage the rebellion. WikiLeaks revealed that some $6 million dollars have gone to opposition groups like satellite television. Washington used the Middle East Partnership Initiative through the Democracy Council. From the start, Washington led the way in condemning and isolating Bashar al-Asad. Mainstream media picked up and relayed unconfirmed stories from YouTube and Twitter. US military presence in Jordan and Turkey became bases of logistical support from providing intelligence to communication equipment to other material support. Jordan and Turkey received extensive coverage of its humanitarian effort as the first trickle of refugees came in–but who remembers the coverage of the Syrian government when tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled their salafist persecutors? Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon became conduits for jihadists, arms and money. Soon after consultations with the US, Turkey became aggressive with al-Asad. Sending troops to the border, exchanging cross border fire, the intrusion of an out dated Turkey fighter jet into Syrian air space, etc.

        Our hands are not clean. When Syria refused to jettison Iran at Washington’s request, did President Obama put into play Strategy B–regime change in Damascus? Or did the president and his team decided to exploit those discontents into a larger movement to oust the government? In either case, those responsible for our policies failed on so many levels. Did they think that Bashar al-Asad and his government would meekly fade away in the face of protests and armed rebels? Did they think that supporting the rebels would avoid sectarian and ethnic division? Did they believe that extremist religious fanatics would fail to capitalize on the opportunity to regain strength by claiming the role of knocking off Asad? Did the wonks of DC envision the ripple effect the fall of the Syrian regime would have on Iraq or Lebanon? Or what a resurgence of Islamic extremism would have throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world? Did the geniuses of the think tanks and the departments of State and Defense envision the disintegration of country and the human tragedy that Syria has become? Was there no one who advised that regime change in Damascus could not be achieved by rebels, that Bashar al-Asad would be better to work with than the cohorts of 9-11, that a stable Syria was more in out interest than a broken state that could export violence and cause upheaval in the adjacent countries?

        Our alliances with authoritarian regimes like Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, et al is proof that our commitment to democracy is a sham. We only apply it when it appears convenient. The blue print that our nation is bent on following, especially the last twenty to thirty years, has brought us grief. As Chalmers Johnson wrote, “History has shown that the most important virtue in the conduct of international relations is prudence—being cautious and discreet in actions, circumspect and sensible in what one says, suspicious of ideology, and slow to jump to conclusions.” What the American people need, and will not get, is a new framework for our global aspirations.