Thursday, 24 July 2014

Is Obama's hesitancy endangering the world? Part 3: The Syria story

The Syrian situation is grim with many complex moving parts. But it is crucial to discuss if we’re to know whether United States President Barack Obama’s non-intervention policy is detrimental, neutral or positive for US interests and world security.

The international community wants US bombs on Syrian targets to stop the bloodshed, they say, even though this idea is generally poorly thought out and would be unlikely to decisively conclude the fighting. Nevertheless, Mr Obama is pleaded with to send US missiles into Syria.

Syria came under siege by domestic popular unrest soon after the so-called Arab Spring broke out in the Middle East in 2011. Mr al Assad is now essentially the strongest warlord in what can only be called a geographical representation - rather than a country.

Presently, the situation on the ground is locked in a stalemate between regime forces and potentially hundreds of disparate and mutually exclusive opposition groups. Many of the initial demonstrators have now been superseded by brutal Islamist forces looking create a Muslim state out of the chaos.

No militant group controls more than a tiny fraction of Syria. Fighting between and among these groups is limiting their ability to coalesce into a single-front fighting force against the al Assad regime. On top of this, the conflict has evolved into a proxy war. The pro-democracy groups are now asking the US for help; the Islamic groups receive assistance from the Gulf States; and the regime receives funds and personnel from both Russia and Iran.

The Obama administration threatened multiple times to intervene militarily in Syria if more chemical weapons were used. They were used, but the US has so far not fired one missile at regime forces. His “red line” on chemical weapons was belligerently stepped over without a forceful response. This, coupled with an estimated 100,000 war deaths, has sullied the American reputation for a strong defensive foreign policy in the eyes of moral people.

Back in 2011, there was a small window to use military force and end the conflict early. But while hindsight is crystal clear, it must be remembered how murky everything seemed three years ago.

The whole Middle East was in danger of immolation. The crisis caught the world’s best intelligence agencies off-guard as they scrambled to predict what was coming next. Syria initially looked to be a repeat of the dynamics in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt so surely the al Assad government would collapse too.

Pink: Controlled by the Syrian government, 
Yellow: Controlled by Kurdish forces, 
Grey: Controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, 
Green: Controlled by other rebels
But it didn’t and the window for easy intervention closed. As the conflict grew, the players changed and the potential for mistakes increased. Mr Obama explains that his hesitancy grew from the fear of uncontrollable Islamists grasping power from the vacuum. Equally disturbing for him, the US military would be intervening to boost one religious sect over another, certain nations over others and some ethnic groups over other groups. That is the perennial Middle East problem of layers, and Syria is a particularly acute case.

The US military would have no problem removing Mr al Assad in short shrift with airpower. But bomb-assessment damage is difficult from the air and it is impossible to man a checkpoint from a fighter aircraft. Ground troops would be necessary for total regime change which would inevitably lead to mission creep and casualties. America learned that sobering lesson in Iraq.

Removing Mr al Assad would not solve the Islamist or sectarian problem either. And the last thing Mr Obama wants is dead US soldiers and pilots as frustrated Syrians turn on the new American aggressors. Mr Obama wisely decided not to commit troops. Instead, he covertly delivered weapons and training, but only to endorsed rebel groups.

Ultimately, Syria is a horrific conflict but it is largely contained. Some fighting spilled into Lebanon, but it was curtailed by Iran-backed Hezbollah and was not a sustained attack. The Lebanese population is in no mood to join the Syrian rebels in an uprising.

Iraq is under some threat from an Islamist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS) operating from Syria. But Iraq’s patron Iran is committed to maintaining stability in that country and will do everything it can to keep IS at bay. Turkey is under no threat from Syria, neither is Jordan, Israel nor Iran. The fighting only truly affects Syria and Mr Obama knows this.

On the positive side – from a Western perspective - the Syrian conflict demands the concentration of Hezbollah and their sponsor Iran, depleting their resources as they prop up the allied al Assad regime. Which brings to mind the old phrase of never interrupting your enemy when they’re doing something foolish.

So long as Iran focuses on Syria, it cannot concentrate on other targets of interest. Iran may also lose important players, such as military commanders and intelligence officers. Every Iranian or Hezbollah loss in Syria is a US gain.

The US strategy for the region is not under threat. None of the trade routes through the Middle East are affected. Oil still flows, US allies are mostly protected, enemies are distracted and people are still talking.

The assessment is that Mr Obama’s non-intervention in Syria has benefited US interests in some ways, but it has also been detrimental in others. Overall, the situation in Syria is currently in a beneficial framework for US interests, but that could change in the future.

Map of Syria's ethno-religious composition in 1976
The Obama administration may have to rethink its Syrian policy if returning Islamists to the West conduct a large-scale terrorist attack. Large numbers of Islamist fighters have travelled from Europe and other countries. So the calculus of non-intervention may have to be re-assessed eventually. Presently however, the decisions to not send troops into Syria slightly benefits the US and international community as the players sort the fighting out by themselves.

Throughout his presidency Mr Obama pursued an ideology of non-intervention. He has decided to wait for results rather than rush in. This strategy is risky in the best of times, but with both Ukraine and Syria it seems to be the best of a bunch of bad options.

Limited wars tend to be long and difficult, so America needs a clear sense of what it’s trying to achieve. As US Admiral Mike Mullen puts it, “I am tired of interventionists picking up a stick without a strategy, without knowing the political and diplomatic outcome.”

Although wars cannot be avoided altogether, in future America is aiming to fight them less often and more wisely. The US learned a deep lesson in Iraq about intervention without an endgame, and it learned about the limits of airpower in Libya and Bosnia. Mr Obama wants the US to catch its breath. This is the first year in over a decade where America is closing its long wars and reassessing its strategy.

Whether Mr Obama knows what’s coming next is unknown. But he has a track record of calm rationality when facing witheringly complex scenarios. There may be good reasons to commit US troops to battle in the future, but America may finally be using adult judgement.

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