Facing the Brutal Reality of American Syrian Policy

The wailing over Syria has reached fever pitch -- even Kofi Annan said that without regime change, "[t]he future [emphasis added] is likely to be one of brutal oppression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war."  But the conversation about Western intervention hasn't changed since the proclamation of the NATO allies in Chicago; Secretary of State Clinton's whine that the Syrians "won't listen to us, maybe they'll listen to the Russians," and the musings of Washington's eminence grise, Henry Kissinger, who wrote that U.S. military force should only be used to achieve a strategic imperative, and removing al-Assad didn't rise to the level [1].

Still thinking that the "future" can be avoided, Annan has a new plan involving asking Iran to intercede on behalf of the Western powers.  The U.S. promptly objected, guaranteeing time for new fighting while the Western powers fight among themselves.  It hardly matters whether they are "right" or "wrong" from some mythically objective point of view.  They've staked their position, and while they might change their combined minds, it behooves everyone else to a) figure out what will likely happen next and b) plan accordingly.

The most likely outcome of a minority dictator (al-Assad) supplied with arms (Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea) and political support (Russia, China, and Iran) in an existential battle with the majority population (Sunnis) is continued killing until the majority is cowed.  To that extent, Annan's "future" is now, and this week's massacres are part of that process.

While asking Iran for help is a non-starter, asking Russia is not.  But hoping the Russians will stop the carnage and remove al-Assad in exchange for international recognition of Syria in Russia's sphere of influence begs the question.  Russia already has Syria in its sphere of influence, and al-Assad appears to have borrowed a page from the Russian handbook in Chechnya, where "kill them, level them, and kill their children" was the operative motto.  Casualty figures vary enormously, but in the two wars (1994-96 and 1999-2007), even Russia admits to more than 160,000 Chechen deaths -- so the real figure must be staggering.  But after the second "counterterrorism operation," elections in Chechnya produced a 99% victory for Putin in 2007 and an 89% victory for Medvedev in 2008.  Putin declared the operation at an end in 2009.

Al-Assad has a long way to go before the West can assume Russia will act on a humanitarian impulse that overrides a strategic Russian interest. 

The forecast, then, is for more fighting -- and more hand-wringing.  Mrs. Clinton said a few months ago that she is "incredibly sympathetic to the calls that somebody do something" but that "sometimes, overturning brutal regimes takes time and costs lives. I wish it weren't so."

To offer verbal support for "overturning a brutal regime" without providing the wherewithal ensures prolonged, agonizing fighting without hope of a successful ending [2].  The rebels can't small-arm and IED their way to victory.  If there is no workable plan for an achievable victory, at what point should military and civilian losses be cut [3]?  That is the precise -- and divisive -- question for the coalition in Afghanistan.  To fail to ask it about the Syrian rebels is leading precisely to the broader instability the West claims to worry about.

Fighting has already spilled into Lebanon, beginning with attacks on Sunnis in Lebanese border towns by Syrian forces.  Peace among Lebanese factions is always fragile, but now dissention has emerged among Shiites over the role of Hezb'allah.  Syria is essential to Hezb'allah for overland arms supplies, training grounds, and use of the banks for financial transactions.  The fall of Damascus would be disastrous.  And so, while Hezb'allah has been moving arms (maybe including missiles) from Syria to Lebanon, it is providing what support it can to al-Assad.  Many southern Lebanese Shiites, however, unhappy about the price they paid in 2006 for the Hezb'allah war with Israel, do not want to be on the front lines of another war if Lebanese Sunnis decide to fight Hezb'allah at home.

Syrian and Turkish Kurds are wild cards on the Syrian-Turkish border. 

There are already tens of thousands of refugees inside Syria, and in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.  There are international efforts to deal with them as a humanitarian issue, but at least in Jordan, they pose a security problem to the Kingdom as well.  

Israel faces the possibility that Hezb'allah will acquire parts of Syria's chemical and biological arsenal -- it already has missiles.  The U.S. has openly discussed drawing up a plan for limited military action to secure Syrian non-conventional capabilities if necessary.  One can assume that the IDF has drawn up a similar -- though perhaps not coordinated -- plan and will execute it if necessary.  Beyond that, Israel may be relieved to have so many of its adversaries (Iran, Hamas, Hezb'allah, Syria, and Lebanon) fighting each other.

Iran is fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime, an indication of its strategic interest in the preservation of al-Assad and his heterodox Shiite minority.  The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are also there, fighting for the replacement of the regime with a Sunni fundamentalist government.

Which leads finally to the question: what is the strategic imperative of the United States and the West?

If the priority is to stop Iran's quest for regional hegemony as well as its quest for nuclear capability, the removal of its primary regional ally would be crucial, and direct military action would be warranted.  Even a Muslim Brotherhood-associated government would be preferable to al-Assad then, because it would not be aligned with Iran.

If the removal of the current Syrian regime does not rise to the level of a strategic imperative, then the Western interest should be in protecting its friends -- Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon -- from the fallout. 

Sadly for Syrian people, the one thing that does not by itself constitute a strategic imperative is carnage. 

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.  She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.


[1] It matters less what he said than that he will carry a portion of the Republican establishment with him to meet the administration's goal of non-intervention.

 

[2] Indeed, in the same speech, Mrs. Clinton encouraged more Syrian citizens to join the uprising, knowing that the U.S. would do little to help them. "What about the people in Damascus, what about the people in Aleppo? Don't they know that their fellow Syrian men, women, and children are being slaughtered by their government? What are they going to do about it? When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?"

[3] There is a case to be made that the Confederacy lost the U.S. Civil War at Gettysburg and that, far from being a romantic hero, Gen. Robert E. Lee was responsible for the destruction of the South by insisting that the war continue when it couldn't be won.

The wailing over Syria has reached fever pitch -- even Kofi Annan said that without regime change, "[t]he future [emphasis added] is likely to be one of brutal oppression, massacres, sectarian violence and even all-out civil war."  But the conversation about Western intervention hasn't changed since the proclamation of the NATO allies in Chicago; Secretary of State Clinton's whine that the Syrians "won't listen to us, maybe they'll listen to the Russians," and the musings of Washington's eminence grise, Henry Kissinger, who wrote that U.S. military force should only be used to achieve a strategic imperative, and removing al-Assad didn't rise to the level [1].

Still thinking that the "future" can be avoided, Annan has a new plan involving asking Iran to intercede on behalf of the Western powers.  The U.S. promptly objected, guaranteeing time for new fighting while the Western powers fight among themselves.  It hardly matters whether they are "right" or "wrong" from some mythically objective point of view.  They've staked their position, and while they might change their combined minds, it behooves everyone else to a) figure out what will likely happen next and b) plan accordingly.

The most likely outcome of a minority dictator (al-Assad) supplied with arms (Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea) and political support (Russia, China, and Iran) in an existential battle with the majority population (Sunnis) is continued killing until the majority is cowed.  To that extent, Annan's "future" is now, and this week's massacres are part of that process.

While asking Iran for help is a non-starter, asking Russia is not.  But hoping the Russians will stop the carnage and remove al-Assad in exchange for international recognition of Syria in Russia's sphere of influence begs the question.  Russia already has Syria in its sphere of influence, and al-Assad appears to have borrowed a page from the Russian handbook in Chechnya, where "kill them, level them, and kill their children" was the operative motto.  Casualty figures vary enormously, but in the two wars (1994-96 and 1999-2007), even Russia admits to more than 160,000 Chechen deaths -- so the real figure must be staggering.  But after the second "counterterrorism operation," elections in Chechnya produced a 99% victory for Putin in 2007 and an 89% victory for Medvedev in 2008.  Putin declared the operation at an end in 2009.

Al-Assad has a long way to go before the West can assume Russia will act on a humanitarian impulse that overrides a strategic Russian interest. 

The forecast, then, is for more fighting -- and more hand-wringing.  Mrs. Clinton said a few months ago that she is "incredibly sympathetic to the calls that somebody do something" but that "sometimes, overturning brutal regimes takes time and costs lives. I wish it weren't so."

To offer verbal support for "overturning a brutal regime" without providing the wherewithal ensures prolonged, agonizing fighting without hope of a successful ending [2].  The rebels can't small-arm and IED their way to victory.  If there is no workable plan for an achievable victory, at what point should military and civilian losses be cut [3]?  That is the precise -- and divisive -- question for the coalition in Afghanistan.  To fail to ask it about the Syrian rebels is leading precisely to the broader instability the West claims to worry about.

Fighting has already spilled into Lebanon, beginning with attacks on Sunnis in Lebanese border towns by Syrian forces.  Peace among Lebanese factions is always fragile, but now dissention has emerged among Shiites over the role of Hezb'allah.  Syria is essential to Hezb'allah for overland arms supplies, training grounds, and use of the banks for financial transactions.  The fall of Damascus would be disastrous.  And so, while Hezb'allah has been moving arms (maybe including missiles) from Syria to Lebanon, it is providing what support it can to al-Assad.  Many southern Lebanese Shiites, however, unhappy about the price they paid in 2006 for the Hezb'allah war with Israel, do not want to be on the front lines of another war if Lebanese Sunnis decide to fight Hezb'allah at home.

Syrian and Turkish Kurds are wild cards on the Syrian-Turkish border. 

There are already tens of thousands of refugees inside Syria, and in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.  There are international efforts to deal with them as a humanitarian issue, but at least in Jordan, they pose a security problem to the Kingdom as well.  

Israel faces the possibility that Hezb'allah will acquire parts of Syria's chemical and biological arsenal -- it already has missiles.  The U.S. has openly discussed drawing up a plan for limited military action to secure Syrian non-conventional capabilities if necessary.  One can assume that the IDF has drawn up a similar -- though perhaps not coordinated -- plan and will execute it if necessary.  Beyond that, Israel may be relieved to have so many of its adversaries (Iran, Hamas, Hezb'allah, Syria, and Lebanon) fighting each other.

Iran is fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime, an indication of its strategic interest in the preservation of al-Assad and his heterodox Shiite minority.  The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are also there, fighting for the replacement of the regime with a Sunni fundamentalist government.

Which leads finally to the question: what is the strategic imperative of the United States and the West?

If the priority is to stop Iran's quest for regional hegemony as well as its quest for nuclear capability, the removal of its primary regional ally would be crucial, and direct military action would be warranted.  Even a Muslim Brotherhood-associated government would be preferable to al-Assad then, because it would not be aligned with Iran.

If the removal of the current Syrian regime does not rise to the level of a strategic imperative, then the Western interest should be in protecting its friends -- Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon -- from the fallout. 

Sadly for Syrian people, the one thing that does not by itself constitute a strategic imperative is carnage. 

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of The Jewish Policy Center.  She was previously senior director for security policy at JINSA and author of JINSA Reports from 1995-2011.


[1] It matters less what he said than that he will carry a portion of the Republican establishment with him to meet the administration's goal of non-intervention.

 

[2] Indeed, in the same speech, Mrs. Clinton encouraged more Syrian citizens to join the uprising, knowing that the U.S. would do little to help them. "What about the people in Damascus, what about the people in Aleppo? Don't they know that their fellow Syrian men, women, and children are being slaughtered by their government? What are they going to do about it? When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?"

[3] There is a case to be made that the Confederacy lost the U.S. Civil War at Gettysburg and that, far from being a romantic hero, Gen. Robert E. Lee was responsible for the destruction of the South by insisting that the war continue when it couldn't be won.

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