Hands Off Syria: Learning a Harsh Lesson

It seems inconceivable that U.S. decision-makers would be considering military 300px-no_war_on_syria-svgintervention in Syria given our recent dismal record of accomplishment when it comes to meddling in Middle Eastern conflicts. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led not to the blossoming of democracy and free market economics, as neoconservatives hoped, but instead destabilized the country and led to nightmarish sectarian violence. The U.S. occupation fueled anti-Western sentiment and acted as a boon for jihadist recruitment. These, in turn, created the conditions for the ascendancy of Islamic State, its 2014 capture of Mosul and its spread into Syria. The U.S. had also helped make possible the ISIS expansion into Syria by training and supplying Syrian rebels, a CIA operation now regarded as a failure and a waste of billions of dollars. Yet, despite this string of calamities, the Beltway “foreign policy elite” is chomping at the bit for a more hawkish Syria strategy than President Barack Obama has been willing to give them. With a Hillary Clinton on November 8 almost assured, it seems very likely that those elites will get their druthers.

U.S. elections rarely concern themselves with issues, but this year in particular we have heard more about pneumonia, tax returns and e-mails than about policy positions. It was only during the debates that Clinton came out clearly in favor of a no-fly zone in Syria — not to bring down the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, but to prevent the Assad government from bombing civilians in rebel-held territory. The obvious problem with this is that Russia is actively assisting Assad, and Moscow would use surface-to-air missile systems so the bombings could continue. Assuming, however, that the bombings did end, how would that prevent the sieges leading to starvation in Homs? How would a n0-fly zone stop the car bombs and mortar shells in East Aleppo? These questions are becoming secondary and even tertiary to the insistence that the U.S. do something, anything, to combat the war crimes being committed by Assad’s forces with Russian support.

There is a compelling moral argument to stop those crimes. Who can see the images of the 320px-wounded_civilians_arrive_at_hospital_aleppodisplaced, traumatized people in Syria and not feel a visceral urge to stop the suffering? At the same time, however, very few advocates of escalation openly call for open war, especially a war between two global powers. The question therefore becomes, “How can we have 100% safe military intervention?” In other words, how can we have war without the casualties? It is an absurd premise, but it is the one upon which modern U.S. foreign policy typically rests. According to this dysfunctional thinking, unmanned drones and “smart” bombs translate to interventions that are more affordable domestically because there are “no boots on the ground.” Vietnam and Iraq became untenable for the U.S. government in part because of widely circulated images of U.S. soldiers wounded and dying in hostile environs characterized by insurgents striking from the shadows. Granted, U.S. bombings and drone strikes cause plenty of “collateral damage” but the deaths of innocent non-Americans are tolerated if they serve the “higher purpose” of U.S. foreign policy.

For example, it became imperative in 2011 for the West to intervene in the Libyan civil war to prevent the massacre of dissidents by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s loyalists. The NATO air campaign that followed helped bring down Qaddafi, but it also killed at least 72 civilians, one-third of them children. The Obama administration thought it had escaped the errors of Afghanistan and Iraq by not committing to “regime-change,”but by neglecting reconstruction entirely has led to Libya becoming a breeding ground for militias associated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. Five years after the NATO bombings, the U.S. is now bombing Libya again, this time in the hopes of dislocating the jihadist bases located there. Obama now considers the Libya intervention the “worst mistake” of his time in office.

His soon-to-be successor, Hillary Clinton, had been the swing vote that had green-lighted the 2011 intervention. In 2002, she had been one of the many U.S. senators to vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq war, although she now claims to regret it. Her stances on Libya and 320px-us_navy_110319-n-7293m-003_uss_barry_28ddg_5229_fires_tomahawk_cruise_missiles_in_support_of_operation_odyssey_dawnSyria suggest that her regret may have more to do with electoral calculus than the learning of any lessons about the high price of so-called “low-risk intervention.” Publicly, she blames the failure of Libya on the rebels themselves: “[Libya] is a perfect case where people who’ve never had that opportunity to run anything, manage anything, even participate in meaningful politics, understandably are not even sure what questions to ask.” The absence of strong institutions in Libya, however, was plain for anyone to foresee. Qaddafi’s political power was based on tribal networks and alliances, and without power centralized in his hands, a power vacuum formed that was filled by religious warlords. It was exactly what had happened in Iraq after Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party was purged from government post-invasion: the U.S. policy of “de-Baathification” led to the undermining and collapse of state power, leading to unrest and violence.

There is every reason to believe that the same would happen in Syria, in the unlikely event that Assad could be forced from power. The Assad family has for decades laden the government with relatives and sycophants. Ironically, the individuals who could have posed any internal threat to Assad were killed in a July 2012 rebel attack. As in countless other regimes across the world, the government has been ordered to conform to a binary choice: the status quo or anarchy. In such situations, for a peaceful transition to occur, the change has to be supported by the leader as well as the most powerful institutions. In Syria today, Assad remains firmly in control, with Russian and Iranian support — and no shortage of external enemies to blame his problems on, from ISIS to the United States.

Even if Vladimir Putin is bluffing and Russia backs down rather than stand by Assad until 320px-al-nusra_front_members_in_maarrat_al-numanthe bitter end, it will take rebels storming Damascus, Aleppo and other key cities. Such a scenario would mean even more dead and displaced civilians, to say nothing of even more damage to the basic infrastructure. Who fills the void left by Assad? Most likely, it will either be ISIS or the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (otherwise known as the Al-Nusra Front, or al-Qaeda in the Levant). Instead of Bashar al-Assad, Syria will either be controlled by fanatics promoting worldwide jihad or “just” jihad in one region. The only way that the U.S. gets a government it favors is through hands-on reconstruction, and again, evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq shows how unsuccessful that can be.

It must be stressed that this deviling choice — between brutal autocrats and barbaric zealots — can also be credited, at least in part, to U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, the U.S. lent its support to corrupt authoritarian Middle Eastern leaders if they opposed communism and aided us in the obtaining of oil. In 1953, the CIA infamously saddam_rumsfeldmasterminded the coup that overthrew democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh of Iran. When the Iranian clergy revolted against the U.S.-supported monarchy in 1979, Washington aided Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the ensuing Iran-Iraq war. Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria as a military dictator from 1971 to 2000, slowly gained U.S. trust for his reputation as a pragmatist. Assad supported the nationalist Baath Party in Syria not out of ideology, but its pan-Arabism provided him with a political platform that he would not otherwise have had as a member of a religious minority. After the 1973 Arab–Israeli War proved that the Soviet Union would not actually back its Arab allies against Israel, Syria joined the region-wide shift into the U.S. sphere of influence. In 1991, Syria even joined the U.S.-led coalition in the first Gulf War against Iraq. When Hafez did and was succeeded by his son Bashar, there was speculation that he would keep Syria a bulwark against religious and political radicals while simultaneously reforming his regime to be more open and accountable. Of course, rather than share power, the Assad family has consolidated its own and destroyed the opposition.

That the U.S. supports a large number of dictators globally is hardly news. Yet not enough attention is paid to how we also support one of the strongholds of radical Islam, the 320px-flag_of_saudi_arabia-svgKingdom of Saudi Arabia. The House of Saud had come to power in 1932 by partnering with the local clergy, who preached Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam that promotes a fundamentalist religious lifestyle. After discovering rich oil fields in the country in 1937, the U.S. government struck a deal with the Saudi royals: the U.S. would enjoy privileged access to Saudi petroleum as long as it stayed out of Saudi affairs, including its religious practices. To this day, the U.S. government stands by Riyadh, even as it carries out terrible human rights abuses. We also support it even as it sponsors the exporting of Salafism around the world, where its literal and extreme interpretation of Islam has fostered the growth of al-Qaeda in the Middle East, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and other jihadists. (Qatar, another oil-rich Gulf autocracy, is also a key sponsor of al-Qaeda, Libyan jihadists, and most notably has provided an office for exiled Taliban leaders in the capital of Doha.)

There is no shortage of recent examples of blind U.S. support for Saudi Arabia. One was President Obama vetoing bipartisan legislation that made it possible for families who lost loved ones in the September 11, 2001 attacks to sue the Saudi government for its complicity (Congress overturned the veto). Another was a “triple-tap” bombing by Saudi planes of a funeral in Yemen that killed 140 people using U.S. munitions. This was so egregious that a U.S. official said that Saudi Arabia did not have a “blank check” to commit war crimes. This was a slap on the wrist compared to the heavy-handed rhetoric the U.S. government uses against its enemies, but in the context of U.S.-Saudi relations, the incident stands out as a rare case of Washington daring to chastise Saudi Arabia.

The conflict in Yemen, widely ignored in the Western media, is worth noting because it also features an al-Qaeda affiliate — Ansar al-Sharia — fighting on the side of Saudi Arabia and its coalition (all U.S. allies) against the Houthi government. Yemen, by the way, is suffering a major humanitarian catastrophe, with a historic drought and water shortage, all exacerbated by a civil war. Interestingly, the U.S. and its “foreign policy elite” are not ringing any alarm bells to intervene in the Yemeni situation.

Perhaps because Saudi Arabia called dibs first.

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