Belmont Club

The Road From Damascus

Lee Smith says it. “Assad is finished”. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Smith says, “the Arab League has condemned him, as have former allies Qatar and Turkey.” But most significantly the internal conflict has developed along Sunni-Allawite lines and the NYT is increasingly using the words incipient ‘civil war’ in reference to the struggle of the Allawite Assads to stay in power. The phrase is indicative of the Administration’s fear that Syria will crack up. The NYT writes: “Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen sectarian attacks on the rise, and really ugly sectarian attacks,” [an] Obama administration official said in Washington. The longer President Bashar al-Assad “stays in power, what you see in Homs, you’ll see across Syria.”

But the struggle to find someone to talk to Syria obscures the a more salient fact: Syria was the administration’s linchpin in its strategy to contain Iran. But now, as Lee Smith argues, Obama Plan A is as dead as a doornail. So what is Plan B?

The peace process that was supposed to galvanize a coalition of pro-American Arab states to take on the Islamic Republic is moribund. … Obama believed that getting Damascus at the negotiating table with Israel would cool the region, earn the president the confidence of Arab regimes and their subjects, and drive a wedge between the Syrians and the Iranians. … Obama’s engagement with Tehran also proved fruitless. …

Containment will fail too … it becomes obvious that no matter how many weapons are sold to the Saudis, Emiratis, and other Gulf Cooperation Council members, the coalition is worthless without a strong American presence on the front line. But, instead of maintaining a presence comprising hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, the White House is withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, the one forward position in the region that could have served a role similar to that of the American troops still in Germany.

So much for Plan A.

Lee Smith says that Syria has now become doubly important to Washington, but for the reasons the opposite of what it first imagined. It is now an example of the problem of how to hold the region together. The Arab Spring to mix metaphors, was also the Sunset of the old diplomatic model in Washington. Where once Syria could have been regarded as the keystone in an comprehensive edifice consisting of the Mubaraks, Khadaffys and Sauds of the region, Damascus is now the “weakest link” in chain of states holding the ruins of that tottering tower together.

The Arab Spring brought clarifying, if intemperate, weather: Damascus was key not because it was strong, but because it was feeble, the weakest link in a chain that extended from Hezbollah to Iran. The self-described “beating heart of Arabism” was nothing but a smoke and mirror show. Assad exported terrorism to Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere for the same reason his father did—to destabilize his neighbors before they could destabilize Syria.

If Assad is driven from Damascus, it may mean that destabilization will no longer be exported by ‘rogue states’ but only because the ‘rogue states’ in the region will have been supplanted by regimes in flux with an ample supply of home-grown destabilization of their own. The heart of Lee Smith’s argument — which is probably correct — is that the Administration has tried to “lead from behind” in the Middle East without being able to look through the windshield at what lies ahead. About all it knows is that whatever befall, it must never prove George Bush right.

The administration cannot imagine a post-Assad Syria because its vision is obscured by a post-Saddam Iraq. The Obama White House wants to avoid the sectarian bloodshed that split Baghdad. More than anything else, it wants to steer clear of anything that smacks of George W. Bush. Accordingly, the administration has petitioned the opposition to stay peaceful and include minorities in the Sunni-majority movement. A White House wary of Bush-style nation building has taken on the role of opposition building.

It’s too late for that. The opposition already exists on the ground. Administration spokesmen have perversely tried to discourage the opposition from taking up arms. It will only play into the regime’s hands, said a White House spokesman. It will cost the peaceful opposition international support.

But what’s the end game? Maybe the answer is that the administration is still thinking that question over. Amir Oren in Haaretz makes this point in an incidental, roundabout way. In a long article describing the former military and political alliance between Israel, Turkey and Iran during the days of the Shah, he chronicles the rising tensions between Tel Aviv and Teheran. At the end he drops an incidental bombshell.

Even more than the Israelis, the Americans are close to the boiling point vis-a-vis Iran, more because of its actions in Iraq than its nuclear efforts. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey issued warnings in this direction this week at a congressional hearing. On that very day – which was also the day that Gantz appeared in the Knesset – the head of the ruling Military Council in Egypt, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, hosted American Gen. James Mattis, head of CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command, which covers Egypt and Iran, Iraq and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

It will not come as a surprise if in the coming weeks, in response to the incrimination of the Revolutionary Guards for a large attack on the American forces pulling out of Iraq, the Americans will land a warning blow on an Iranian target. The table is wobbling and some of the options are in fact under it.

This suggests that the Administration has been kicking the can down the road. By adhering to idées fixe it has been fulfilling campaign promises and paying off political constituencies unmindful of the consequences.  In the end the administration may be in the ironical position of satisfying every one of its domestic political backers and yet producing a disaster.

Faced with the impossibility of conforming recent events in the Middle East to its old ‘engagement and containment’ narrative, the administration is pursuing a strategy of “leading from behind” which in practice amounts to hanging on to a rope and seeing where it drags them. The utter collapse of a diplomatic strategy predicated on a region dominated by strongmen has not yet been replaced by a new strategic vision. Simply put: the Obama administration does not know what it wants the future Middle East to look like because they cannot find a suitable picture in their ideological playbook.

But other forces may know what they want. Mshari al-Zaydi, writing in Al-arabiya says that the Arab Spring may yet turn out to be ‘The Muslim Brotherhood Spring’. “What we are seeing is a political Islamist tsunami occupying the scene and displacing the “civil” youth. In Libya, we find [religious] fundamentalists of all backgrounds, from those who have taken up arms, to those who are making speeches and giving sermons, inside the country and abroad, not to mention figures like Ali al-Salabi. Whilst in Tunisia, the [Islamist] al-Nahda party, and supporters of its leader Rashid Ghannouchi, are in the political ascendency. As for Yemen, we have the Islah [Reform] party, not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood and the Huthi rebels.”

Simply “leading from behind” — sending support to whoever topples the current ruler in a country is action without an goal. In Syria’s case, Lee Smith may well be right in saying that Assad is finished. But where does it lead? And can you see where we are going from behind?

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