from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Prolonging the Conflict in Syria

April 15, 2013

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The debate in Washington about Syria has picked up a bit lately.  The Obama administration is stepping up its aid to the rebellion and the civil war will no doubt be on the President Obama’s agenda when he meets with a parade of regional leaders at the White House starting next week. Although many members of Congress—taking cues from their constituents who are weary of the Middle East—are resolutely opposed to American involvement in Syria, others have expressed frustration that the United States is not doing more to bring the crisis to an end.  Like all things related to Syria there is little agreement even among the people who would like to see a more robust policy on what form a more active approach to the conflict would take.

The state of the debate essentially revolves around two options, which have been articulated before, but they contain some new twists:

1)    Arm the rebels with the kind of weapons that can tip the battlefield advantage and establish a no fly zone.  In the process of pouring guns into Syria and denying Assad the ability to use planes and helicopters Washington will place itself on the side of morality and demonstrate to the Iranians, who are providing men and materiel for the fight, that Washington is not going to hide behind the Turks, Qataris, and Saudis.  There are, this argument goes, consequences to inaction in Syria not least of which is the continuation of the war and a likely increase in Iranian regional adventurism.

2)    A diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict is possible, but only if Washington “engages with the Iranians.”  The logic here is fairly straight forward—Tehran is continuing to support to the Assad regime because Iran has interests at stake in Syria and thus far the only way to protect these interests is by joining the fight.  If, however, a deal can be reached with Tehran where its position in Damascus would not be fatally compromised with Assad’s ouster, the war can be brought to an end sooner rather than later.

The problem with both “solutions” is that they are likely to do the exact opposite of what they are intended.  There is no doubt that ramping up support for the rebels and eliminating the one clear advantage Assad has—airpower—can make a significant difference.  Yet almost everyone agrees that the fight will not be over when the Syrian president flees and/or is killed.  Tehran and the remaining supporters of the Assad regime will likely burn Syria down in order to deny their opponents a victory or at least, bleed the rebellion badly on its way to one.  What good will a no fly zone do then? Not much.  Then there is the thorny problem of what to do after Assad is gone.  The impulse will be to support the development of a democratic, prosperous Syria, but that is hard to do in a war zone (see, Iraq 2003-present).  Regardless of what Washington does, the Syrians, Iranians, Turks, Saudis, Qataris, and others like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are going to fight it out in Syria for a long time.

The diplomatic option is not the equivalent to the Leverettian “Grand Bargain” that never was, but it has similar problems.  Proponents of engagement always assume that the “engagee” shares the same interests or can be made to share interests through dogged diplomacy.  Yet Iranian and American interests conflict sharply in Syria.  Washington is unlikely to settle for a diplomatic solution in which a post-Assad Syria remains a place from which Iran can continue to support Hizballah and Hamas; and Tehran is not going to accept a deal where its ability to extend its influence in the region is sharply curtailed.  In addition, the engagers tend to forget that a deal with the Iranians is not going to sit well with the rebels, Turks, Saudis, and Qataris.  They will likely do everything possible to preclude or undermine such a deal, which would no doubt entail a lot more violence.  Some might argue that each of these actors can be bought off in some way that would improve the chances of an Iranian solution, but that is highly unlikely.  The rebellion wants to chase Iran out of Syria; the Saudis are deeply paranoid of all things Iran, especially an American dialogue with the Iranians; and Tehran’s gains from any agreement that protects its interests is a net loss for both Ankara and Doha.

I once thought the use of American power in Syria could make a difference.  More than a year later, I have serious doubts about getting involved in someone else’s civil war. It seems that Syria is a problem that has no answer.

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