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The Syrian Conundrum

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Syria’s civil war is fast becoming one of the Obama administration’s greatest foreign policy challenges, for the moment even surpassing Iran’s march toward nuclear weaponry in its urgency. Together, both issues have effectively derailed the president’s long-range intention to focus on Asia and the emerging economic and military developments in China and other nations in the so-called Asian Pivot.

While Iran requires prompt attention and action, the volatile situation in Syria – particularly the growing presence of radical Islamists in the ranks of the opposition to President Assad – requires immediate decisions. But Mr. Obama’s options are limited and the effects of any action he might take are not at all clear.

Adding to the mix is the “red line” President Obama declared in connection with Syria’s use of poison gas against the rebels or civilians. With evidence mounting that Syria did indeed use Sarin gas, at some point he will have to act on his threat of serious consequences or risk having the U.S. perceived as a paper tiger all over the Third World and particularly in Tehran and Pyongyang.

But the case for military action is not exactly open and shut. The New York Times last week railed against Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for contending that “the way forward on Syria is clear.” Both have urged that the United States should be arming the rebels and establishing a no-fly zone. Seems logical at first blush. If we want to get rid of President Assad and his government – which we say we want to do – why not back his opponents to the hilt? But as the Times noted:

For all their exhortations, what the senators and like-minded critics have not offered is a coherent argument for how a more muscular approach might be accomplished without dragging the United States into another extended and costly war and how it might yield the kind of influence and good will for this country that the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have not….

Unlike Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham…the president has been trying to disentangle the United States from overseas conflicts and, as a result, has been very cautious about military involvement in Syria.

We would add that Syria is reputed to posses one of the most formidable air defense systems in the world, built with the assistance of the Russians who wanted to deter a Western intervention in Syria similar to those in Bosnia and Libya, which Russia opposed. So U.S. involvement on the side of the rebels would hardly be clean and easy.

Further, Islamists have increasingly been driving the anti-Assad forces and are establishing Islamic institutions, including Sharia law, in areas they control. Ominously, the Times reported that “Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.”

And radical Islamists are closing in on al-Safira, home to one of Syria’s key facilities for the production of chemical weapons. According to Britain’s Telegraph,

[A]mong the rebel lines in al-Safira flutters the black flag of the al-Nusra Brigade, the jihadist group that recently declared its allegiance to al Qaeda. Known for their fighting prowess honed in Iraq, they are now taking the lead in nearly every frontline in the Syrian war….

The Telegraph further notes the prospect of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction falling under al Qaeda control:

Such grim possibilities are now uppermost in the minds of Western officials as they try to work out how to prevent Syria’s vast chemical stockpiles being unleashed, be it by President Assad on his own people, or by his more extreme opponents in the outside world.

Ari Ratner, a former Middle East adviser in the Obama State Department and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, observed, “We have no illusions about the prospect of engaging with the Assad regime – it must still go – but we are also very reticent to support the more hard-line rebels.”

On the other hand, many experienced Middle East hands believe the time is ripe for U.S. intervention on the side of the rebels. Dennis Ross, former senior Middle East adviser to several presidents, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that the time is indeed now:

There can be no doubt that the conflict in Syria confronts the United States with terrible challenges. The humanitarian catastrophe gets worse by the day: Nearly a quarter of Syria’s population may now be displaced from their homes, and the death toll approaches 80,000 – and continues to rise inexorably.

But it is not just our conscience that is affected by this gruesome war. America’s interests are also involved because the Syrian conflict in unlikely to remain confined to Syria. As the country unravels, more refugees will flee to neighboring states and more armed groups will gain strength – threatening each of Syria’s neighbors with increased instability….

But it is not just the flow of refugees that endangers Syria’s neighbors and the region. The impending disintegration of the Syrian state means that it will no longer have centralized control of its chemical weapons. If nothing is done beforehand to gain control of these weapons – or destroy them – it is not only Syria’s neighbors that will be in grave danger.

As to the issue of the central role of jihadists in the rebellion and the U.S. effectively supporting them, Mr. Ross offers a somewhat vague solution: “If we are concerned that Islamists are too powerful and could come to power, the answer is surely not to hope that Assad does not fall too quickly. The answer must be to strengthen the capabilities of those who seek a nonsectarian, inclusive Syria in the future.”

So the dilemma for U.S. policymakers is real and profound. For us, the overriding concern must be whether the world will now perceive America as war weary and not interested in backing up its interests with its unparalleled military power. In modern times such power does not guarantee success and in fact often leads to a quagmire. This is of particular concern now that President Obama has drawn his “red line” with Syria as he had previously with Iran.

Without the fear of U.S. power as a deterrent, disruptions on the international scene will proliferate, threatening American interests. Yet the inherent difficulties in finding a pathway through the morass of competing considerations are manifest. President Obama has an unenviable task and some very tough decisions ahead.

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