The Syrian civil war now threatens to split the Middle East along a Sunni-Shia chasm. The horrifying news reports Wednesday about the Assad government’s possible chemical attack on civilians, if proven true, mean that the Obama administration’s “red line” has been crossed yet again.
Thursday, both France and Turkey called for stronger action — including a possible use of force. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) renewed his call for a no-fly zone.
But does all this mean that the United States and the European Union will now follow a more assertive policy in Syria?
Sadly, that’s unlikely. For now, the Obama administration is still scrambling to walk back President Barack Obama’s vow from last year about any use of chemical weapons “changing the calculus.” The administration is not likely to become substantially forward-leaning in Syria — no matter what outside pressure is brought to bear.
Their likely reasoning is as follows:
First, Washington seems to have decided that “stability” in Syria — even if that means a continuing, limited civil war — is more important than a decisive victory over President Bashar al-Assad.
Second, the Obama administration is understandably hesitant to side with the rebel groups, which — in part due to U.S. unwillingness to actively assist moderate Syrian elements for the past two years — have become increasingly radicalized. Al Qaeda-allied extremists now make up a growing segment of the rebel movement, and some groups are reportedly creating “safe havens” within Syria and Iraq, similar to those in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Third, the administration believes that U.S. military intervention short of using ground troops is unlikely to lead to the creation of a new post-Assad regime that will be friendly to the United States, as the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, General Martin Dempsey, recently warned Congress about in a letter.
For these reasons, Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts months ago to arm the rebels were watered down by the administration to such a small level that it has had little impact on the ground.
The international community and Washington have let the Syrian conflict fester for so long that almost no good policy options remain. But continuing our hand-wringing and inaction has a serious cost.
In Syria itself, the longer Assad remains in power, the more violent and sectarian the struggle will become, and the more it will open the door to al Qaeda. It grows ever more unlikely that any moderate regime can succeed him. We are already beginning to see the return of al Qaeda, which was on the ropes in 2008-9 and is now roaring back in both Iraq and Syria. This could be a serious blow to an administration that has made the defeat of al Qaeda a centerpiece of its national security strategy.
Meanwhile, Syria’s sectarian war between Sunnis and Alawite Shi’ites has already spread beyond its borders. The civil war — backed by the Sunni Arab states on one side and Shi’ite Iran/Hezbollah on the other — is massively destabilizing to Iraq. Without the U.S. presence there, the fighting threatens the fragile Baghdad government. It is also spreading chaos into Lebanon, where political violence has been reported; Jordan, which is a long-standing U.S. ally; Saudi Arabia, which has an Shia minority and is in the midst of an unstable royal succession period, and Turkey, which has a restive Kurdish minority.
To prevent this parade of horribles, the United States needs to initiate a more robust policy — but one that still stops short of U.S. ground troops in Syria. Such a policy could prove effective. But it would require the administration to:
Massively increase both lethal and non-lethal aid to rebel groups vetted by the U.S. as not allied with al Qaeda or other extremists. Such aid should not include anti-aircraft weapons, which could fall into terrorist hands. Lean heavily on Arab states, such as Qatar, which have actively supported the hard-liner Islamist factions in the Syrian conflict, to stop their counterproductive policy. Make a credible threat to Assad of providing U.S. air support to the Syrian opposition — if that opposition is able to unite. Then work actively toward that end. Significantly step-up diplomacy and increase security aid to Iraq to stop al Qaeda’s resurgence and its efforts to promote sectarian violence there. Increase U.S. intelligence services’ efforts to pry Syrian Alawite business and military leaders away from loyalty to Assad, including offers of amnesty and shelter abroad. With the death toll in Syria approaching 120,000, the number of Iraqis killed over 10 years of war there, the entire region threatens to be engulfed in a conflict that could have repercussions for at least a generation. The United States and EU can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines and watch this chaos unfold.
One hopes that U.S. military intervention will not be necessary. But if the Obama administration seeks “stability,” a more active policy is necessary now to prevent the need for full intervention.
Anja Manuel served in the State Department from 2005 to 2007, working on policy for Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. She is now a principal, with Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Robert Gates, in RiceHadleyGates LLC, a strategic consulting firm. She is also a lecturer at Stanford University. Any opinions expressed here are the author's own.