Two distinct camps are forming to battle over Syria policy in Washington. The first is made up of the neoconservatives, who are busy fitting the Arab Spring into U.S. strategic interests as they see them. John Bolton, Michael Doran, andElliott Abrams have been leading the charge in articulating this argument.
The first group want to take down Assad’s Syria and the second do not. The first see it as a vital U.S. strategic goal, the second do not. The first see it as part of a broader effort to help your friends and hurt your enemies. They see Israel and Saudi Arabia as America’s main friends in the region and want to build them up. They want to crush Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.
Syria is important because of Iran, America’s number one enemy. They tend to depict the battle in the Middle East as a struggle between good and evil and freedom versus tyranny. The second group sees shades of gray. They see an ugly civil war lurking behind the surface of democracy promotion and are not sure Washington would be wise to get sucked into further expensive commitments that have more to do with messy emerging national identities and less to do with U.S. interests.
The neocons have a number of strengths. Clarity is first. Second is the nature of the Assad regime, which is oppressive and run by a family surrounded by a narrow elite, dominated by Alawis, who are a minority themselves and unpopular among a broad section of the Sunni population. The regime has failed to deliver sufficient economic growth to reverse the growing pool of unemployed youth and to raise the standard of living for most Syrians. The country is suffering from all the ills of a growing income gap, drought and bad policies. Reform has been too slow and many believe it will never come because of the vested interests of the narrow and highly corrupt elite at the top. A growing number of Syrians argue that the entire system must be destroyed and Syria must rebuild itself. Increasingly, leaders of the Syrian uprising are beginning to embrace the ideas being put forward by the neocons. In order to win full U.S. backing, they are pushing for acceptance of a complete strategic reversal of Syria’s foreign policy goals.
The neocons are not advocating direct U.S. military involvement in Syria today. They understand this is not politically feasible. But they are preparing the grounds for a much higher level of military commitment in the future. They understand full well that in order to take down the Assad regime and counter the force of the Syrian military, the Syrian opposition will need to develop a full military option. To do so, it will need major U.S. and NATO backing. This will not be a fight for the feint of heart.
Their strategy for angling the U.S. toward making such a commitment in the future is economic sanctions. Broad economic sanctions imposed on Syria by the European Union would have major moral implications down the road. Should Syrians start to starve, as they surely would if real sanctions are imposed, the moral argument for intervention and military escalation would improve.
Should the poorest and most vulnerable Syrians begin to expire, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s, military intervention would become necessary to end the suffering and starvation. Liberals would have to support the military option in such a case. Today, most do not. Sanctions imposed now will make military intervention in the future imperative. Liberals embraced the invasion of Iraq in large part because of the moral argument. Saddam was starving his people. It would be hard to resist such an argument.
European governments have so far resisted imposing blanket trade sanctions on Syria for this exact reason. Once we see European governments impose devastating sanctions on Damascus, we may safely assume that they have accepted the notion of greater military involvement down the line in order to solve the humanitarian problem that sanctions will create. Perhaps they will not support a ground invasion as was done in Iraq, but they could support establishing a no-fly-zone and arming and training a proper Syrian insurgency, as was done in Libya. Of course, in Syria it will be a much bigger and more expensive operation as Syria has no frozen assets that can be diverted to fund the opposition. They Syrian army is much tougher than Libya’s was.
The realists argue that the U.S. should not get militarily involved. They argue that Assad is too strong. The U.S. is trying to prune its military commitments not grow them. The Assad regime still has the support of important sections of the population. It is not a clear good versus evil battle but something reflects deeper civil and sectarian divisions in Syria. The Syrian opposition is hopelessly divided. Perhaps it will develop a leadership, but that will take time and must be left to emerge organically for the time being.
The U.S. should not tie its cart so closely to Israel and Saudi Arabia because both countries are pursuing policies which are not good for U.S. interests in the long run. What is more, the realists do not believe that the U.S. should take sides on the broader religious war being fought between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East. The U.S. wants to check Iranian power and dissuade it from going nuclear, but it does not want to enter into the religious war. Most importantly, the U.S. has too many military commitments in the Middle East, a region that has sucked up far too much of Washington’s time and money over the last decade. Greater involvement in Syria is not popular. In the end, this is a Syrian battle and the U.S. should not be trying to decide it.