from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Syria: Are We Trying to Lose?

September 3, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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It’s hard to win if you’re not trying. What are we trying to do in Syria?

Today’s Wall Street Journal carries a story about the failure of the United States, three months after saying we would arm the Syrian rebels, to get one bullet through to them. The Journal explains:

The delay, in part, reflects a broader U.S. approach rarely discussed publicly but that underpins its decision-making, according to former and current U.S. officials: The Obama administration doesn’t want to tip the balance in favor of the opposition for fear the outcome may be even worse for U.S. interests than the current stalemate....

The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn’t want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week. The administration doesn’t want U.S. airstrikes, for example, tipping the balance of the conflict because it fears Islamists will fill the void if the Assad regime falls, according to briefing participants, which included lawmakers and their aides.

Thousands of Syrians are fighting and dying to free their country of a regime they hate, one that has killed 100,000 (and perhaps many more) of their countrymen and made millions into refugees and displaced persons-- and used chemical weapons against its own population. There are also jihadis and Islamists in that fight.  But instead of strengthening the nationalist, non-jihadi forces with lethal and non-lethal aid so that they could win, overthrowing the regime and then preventing Islamist groups from taking power, what has the Obama administration done? Tried not to tip the balance, tried not to win, and apparently taken the view that we just want the fight to go on and on.

Now the administration is saying we have to do a military strike against Syria because Assad used chemical weapons to kill citizens. I happen to agree with that policy. But is it not odd to strike at him for killing citizens, if we have a policy that by design lengthens the conflict, assuring that there will be yet more deaths and more refugees? Perhaps this is something Republicans in Congress can address when the administration seeks their votes. Iran and Hezbollah, and for that matter Russia, have a policy: to win. And winning means Assad stays in power. In good conscience, can we ask Syrian rebels to fight on if we do not seek victory- if we seek to prolong the conflict because we want just enough "balance" on the ground to permit us to negotiate a Syria deal with Russia?

That policy is so foolish, so redolent of misunderstanding of international politics, war, and Putin’s Russia that I would call it inconceivable-- were it not for this administration’s grossly incompetent handling of Syria for  two years now, since the rebellion began.

 

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