What to do about Syria?
Thoughts toward a strategy

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Arab League Special Envoy for Syria Kofi Annan speaks while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listens at the State Department on June 8, 2012. The two were meeting on the situation in Syria.

Article Highlights

  • In the days after Saddam’s ouster, conditions were optimal (if nonetheless imperfect) for overthrowing Assad

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  • Chances of overthrowing Assad now are much more remote, given widespread infiltration of anti-Assad forces by #AlQaeda

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  • US intervention couldn't be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia

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  • Unsurprisingly, the @UnitedNations has failed, is failing, and will continue to fail to resolve the Syria conflict

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  • Both Russia and China think Obama is weak, that America is declining, and that they can ignore our views on Syria

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As hostilities in Syria roll on unabated, the civilian casualties rise because of combat operations in urban areas and execution-style killings. In response, calls for U.S. military intervention of one sort or another to aid the opposition increase, while the Obama administration dithers over whether to continue relying on the United Nations Security Council and former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.

But what are the American interests at stake, and what is the best way to protect them? Although it is easy to concentrate on the stomach-churning television images, we should operate on the basis of strategy, not emotion. That does not mean doing nothing. But neither does it mean knee-jerk reactions instead of careful analysis.

Syria’s Assad family–Baath party dictatorship had nothing to recommend it before the current conflict, other than its being the devil we knew. Now, it is increasingly an Iranian satellite under Tehran’s growing regional influence. Syria remains a threat to Israel; has continuing aspirations to control Lebanon while serving as a conduit to supply and support the terrorist group Hezbollah; provides a base of operations for Russian military activity in the Middle East; and is quite possibly the site of ongoing, illicit nuclear-weapons activity by Iran and North Korea, despite Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007.

Accordingly, regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest as well as the interests of Israel and our Arab friends in the region, who see nothing but danger for themselves if Iran’s hegemonic ambitions unfold successfully. Why Republicans and Democrats alike have coddled Syria’s tyrants over the years is extraordinarily difficult to understand. Of course, as with overthrowing Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi, there is the question of what will replace a concededly distasteful regime. And today, that uncertainty is a major factor constraining our options for dealing with Syria’s conflict.

It would have been one thing to work with the Syrian diaspora to remove Assad and the Baath party when we had a massive military presence in Iraq, right on Syria’s border. In the days just after Saddam’s ouster in 2003, conditions were optimal (if nonetheless imperfect) for overthrowing Assad and replacing his regime with something compatible with American interests. We would not have needed to use U.S. ground forces. Our mere presence in Iraq could have precluded Iran — or, what we see today, an Iraq under Iran’s influence — from trying to protect Assad.

That possibility is now much more remote, given the widespread infiltration of the anti-Assad forces by al-Qaeda and other terrorists. In truth, we do not know enough about the opposition’s political or military leadership (which currently, at least, appears confused and divided) to predict who would prevail in the immediate aftermath of Assad’s overthrow. In such circumstances, the risk of a radical Islamist regime’s replacing Assad is considerably higher than it would have been if we had moved to oust him years ago. A relatively orderly exit by Assad is one thing. A disorderly, indeed chaotic exit is quite another, especially given the risk that Syria’s chemical- and biological-weapons assets, and possibly nuclear assets, might fall into hands even worse than Assad’s.
"We are blinking at reality if we do not recognize that, following Assad’s ouster, especially if the violence grew, the bloodlust would be high and the risk of large-scale massacres of Alawites all too real." - John R. Bolton
There is one other important consideration. Assad and his father routinely butchered their Sunni political opponents to protect their political base in the Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. If the civilians whose bodies we have seen recently on television were the victims of Alawite militias or Syrian government forces, it is, sadly, more of the same. There is little doubt that the Sunni desire for revenge is strong. After years of oppression and brutality, how could it not be? Accordingly, we are blinking at reality if we do not recognize that, following Assad’s ouster, especially if the violence grew, the bloodlust would be high and the risk of large-scale massacres of Alawites all too real. How would we feel if U.S. weapons were used in such massacres? Without a substantial on-the-ground troop presence, we could no more prevent them than we can prevent the current killings of civilians.\

Advocates of U.S. intervention argue that, if we are unwilling to supply weapons to the opposition, we can at least declare a no-fly zone along the Turkish border and continue to supply non-lethal assistance. This less visible approach implicitly acknowledges that Arab states determined to prevent Iran from consolidating its hold over Syria are now arming the rebels and will continue to do so. Of course, they will arm factions they believe are congenial to their interests, and not necessarily those congenial to ours, a fact we can do little to change. Indeed, any level of U.S. support, if it turns out to be effective, implies the same potential political and humanitarian problems as does U.S. support that is truly robust. The more effective our aid is, the more likely the opposition is to prevail. The issue is whether we want that to happen when we have so little understanding of, let alone influence over, what a successor regime would be like.

Assad remains in power because of Russia and Iran, with China supporting him in the background. Russia has been providing arms, economic and financial assistance, and full political backing to the Syrian government. Iran has done the same and more. According to credible reports, officers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are aiding Syrian-government forces and even directing them in combat. While China has no significant direct stake in Assad’s future, it does have a stake in staying close to Russia, in hopes that Moscow will support Beijing on issues where China’s interests are much stronger, such as North Korea and, potentially, China’s assertive territorial claims in the South and East China Seas. On June 1, the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to condemn the violence against Syria’s civilians, and only three countries voted no: Russia, China, and Cuba.

Both Russia and Iran are prepared to shed a lot of Syrian blood, civilian or otherwise, to keep Assad in power, because it is in their interests, as they perceive them, to do so. And neither Moscow nor Tehran is much swayed by emotional arguments or by that perennial bugaboo for Western diplomats: “isolation” from the international community. Consider the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from Western capitals at the end of May. Does anyone seriously think Assad will change course because his diplomats now have to return to Damascus? Do any of us doubt that the Europeans (and Obama) will quietly welcome those Syrian diplomats back in due course if Assad prevails?

Significantly, U.S. intervention could not be confined to Syria and would inevitably entail confronting Iran and possibly Russia. This the Obama administration is unwilling to do, although it should.

In the case of Russia, such a confrontation would likely break the famous “reset” button beyond repair. As a president waiting for reelection so he can be more “flexible” toward Moscow, Obama is simply incapable of contemplating this step.

In the case of Iran, U.S. military assistance to Syrian rebels would almost certainly end any prospect of further negotiations over Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. In fact, that would be no great loss, since Iran was never going to negotiate away its longstanding nuclear-weapons aspirations, a reality that Obama is congenitally unable to acknowledge. Syria today is the focal point of the ancient Sunni–Shia conflict, which is well beyond America’s power to resolve. Rather than encourage more fighting in Syria, we should concentrate on eliminating Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program. So doing would make our Arab friends less worried by, and more able on their own to rebuff, Iran’s politico-military adventurism around the region.

Unsurprisingly, the United Nations has failed, is failing, and will continue to fail to resolve the Syria conflict. The Security Council is and will remain hopelessly divided, given Russian and Chinese intransigence. Kofi Annan’s ill-fated ceasefire plan and his overall approach prove beyond dispute that negotiations require a negotiator with something in his back pocket other than a white handkerchief. So long as the various Syrian factions believe they can prevail militarily, they have no incentive to negotiate or compromise. Even the Obama administration now seems to recognize that the U.N. is an empty vessel.

"The gravest risk of American involvement is that [Obama's] administration and Iran might find common ground in the Middle East chess game." - John R. BoltonObama is not up to the job in Syria. The gravest risk of American involvement is that his administration and Iran might find common ground in the Middle East chess game: Iran would allow Assad to fall, losing its pawn, and in exchange Obama would agree to do even less than he is doing now to stop Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, allowing Iran to protect its queen. The prospect of such a nightmare scenario, which the Europeans could well accept, is palpable.

The case of Libya provides no encouragement. Unlike Assad, Qaddafi had zero outside support. In any event, post-Qaddafi Libya is hardly something to boast about. Indeed, Libya’s prospects themselves demonstrate that the chimerical “responsibility to protect” doctrine under which Obama justified U.S. intervention is not tethered either to reality or to American interests. To extend “responsibility to protect” to Syria without contemplating the larger consequences for our interests worldwide would simply be irresponsible. Advancing those interests sensibly might make it possible to ameliorate the situation in Syria, but we must first set our logic and priorities in order.

Thus, neither U.S. military assistance to the opposition nor current administration policy, which has stumbled from failure to failure over the past year, will advance legitimate American interests. If we assume, however, that Obama wakes up to reality — or, more likely, that the conflict in Syria drags on until Governor Romney’s January 20, 2013, inauguration — what should we conclude the United States ought to do? Or must we simply watch the killing continue?

First and foremost, we should cut Syria off from its major supporters. The television images from Syria will not change permanently until the underlying strategic terrain changes permanently. Russia should be told in no uncertain terms that it can forget about sustained good relations with the United States as long as it continues to back Assad. We should resume full-scale, indeed accelerated, efforts to construct the limited missile-defense system designed by George W. Bush to protect American territory not against Russia but against rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. But we should immediately make it clear to Moscow that we will begin to consider broadening our missile-defense program to deal with Russian and Chinese ballistic-missile capabilities. We should also announce our withdrawal from the New START arms-control treaty, and our utter disinterest in negotiations to prevent an “arms race” in space. Let Moscow and Beijing think about all that for a while.

The magnitude of such a shift as a response to the conflict in Syria may seem startling, but each of these proposals is meritorious on its own terms. Wrapping several major policy redirections around the Syria problem thus advances multiple objectives simultaneously. Both Russia and China think Obama is weak, that America is declining, and that they can ignore our views on Syria and many other issues with complete impunity. It is time for a wake-up call to the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai.

Next, we should tell Iran that our patience with their decade-long ploy of using diplomacy to gain time to advance their nuclear-weapons program has ended. Tehran should face a stark choice, and we can leave to their imagination what will happen if they fail immediately to dismantle all aspects of their existing nuclear effort. We should also reverse the fantasy still trumpeted by Obama that, despite its repeated violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty over 20 years, Iran is somehow entitled to a “peaceful” nuclear program. Until there is a new, trustworthy regime in Tehran, there can be no claim to benefits or “rights” under a treaty Iran has grossly abused. We should introduce this new reality to our European friends as well, perhaps by simply being unambiguous with them.

Finally, in Syria itself, we should do now what we could have begun to do ten years ago (and what the Obama White House at least says it is doing now): find Syrian rebel leaders who are truly secular and who oppose radical Islam; who will disavow al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups; and who will reject Russian and Iranian hegemony over their country. We will need some reason to believe that this opposition can prevail against not only the Assad regime but also the terrorists and fanatics who also oppose Assad. This must be not a faith-based judgment but a clear-eyed assessment of reality. Such is the kind of opposition that, assuming it exists, we should support, aiming for regime change in Damascus when — and only when — it becomes feasible on our terms. On this matter, too, we should tell our European allies that we want their support for something other than semiotic diplomacy.

If we had pursued these kinds of policies after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, we might today be in a very different place in the Middle East and have avoided much of the ongoing bloodshed. Better late than never.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at AEI.

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