Belmont Club

The Syrian Dilemma

President Obama’s failed attempt to pass a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the Assad regime’s attack on his domestic enemies in Qoms may mean that there are no more risk-free ways to both act and not to act against the government in Damascus.

In a 13-2 vote by the U.N. Security Council later on Saturday, however, Russia and China blocked a U.S.-sponsored resolution that would have backed a transition to democracy but did not call for regime change explicitly. That transition process was devised by the Arab League …

“The United States is disgusted,” U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said of the outcome. She said the U.N. was being “held hostage” by China and Russia.

She told the council that the two members would stop at nothing to “sell out the Syrian people and support a craven tyrant.”

The alternative of course, is for the United States and its allies to find some other way to move against Assad while guarding against the possibility that the successor regime may present an even greater threat to to their regional interests. That dilemma was expressed in a Foreign Policy Initiative essay.

The United States has a moral obligation to work with others to try and halt the continuing humanitarian crisis in Syria. But it also has a powerful strategic interest in seeing not only the collapse of the Assad regime, but also the emergence of a post-Assad Syria with moderate, representative government that respects human rights, upholds the rule of law, promotes stability in the Middle East, and dramatically weakens the region’s Iranian-led anti-American bloc.

The suggested options include soliciting more diplomatic condemnation from world powers — which has just failed — to supporting Syrian opposition groups, enforcing a no-fly-zone and limited retaliatory airstrikes. If all these options sound familiar, they should. I R A Q.

The principal objection to getting involved in Syria is why it should be different from Iraq. If vital US strategic interests are at stake in Syria then why was the position in Iraq so unimportant that it could almost be abandoned to Syria’s ally, Iran? Many of the very same Sunni tribes in Syria that America may have to work with are directly related to those over the border in Iraq. A cynic might say that the single most potent pressure the administration could have brought to bear on Damascus was to have kept a presence in Iraq.

But having spent a whole campaign arguing that America’s strategic fulcrum lay in Afghanistan it will be hard indeed to justify a return to the region so soon after having departed. Such a revolving door would demonstrate all too clearly the revolving mental door of the administration, an apparatus which has the virtue of permitting constant motion without making progress. The price of choking Assad is making Obama look stupid.

Yet Jackson Diehl at the Washington Post now argues that Syria has become a vortex pulling in the principal Sunni and Shi’ite powers of the region.

The central drama in Syria is now a sectarian showdown, one that has been gathering force around the region since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Syria has precipitated a crucial test of strength between Sunnis and Shiites, and between Turkey and Iran. It has triggered existential crises for Palestinians, Kurds and the Shiite government of Iraq …

The emirates say their goal is Syrian democracy — but their motives are purely sectarian. Their target is not Assad but Iran, the Persian Shiite enemy of the Arab Sunni monarchies. Iran’s alliance with Syria, vital to its power in the Middle East, depends on a regime controlled by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The Arab emirates’ best ally against Iran is not the United States but the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is openly backing the Free Syrian Army. Erdogan, too, claims to be outraged by Assad’s brutality. But as a Sunni Islamist and the hugely ambitious leader of a rising power, he also perceives a strategic opportunity for Turkey to replace Iran as the preeminent outside influence in the former eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire.

In that narrative Syria is important insofar because it has drawn in outside power brokers, a role reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War. The difference between historical Spain and 21st century Syria is that America has not yet decided on which side to join. Neither side is very attractive. To the argument that it would be preferable to see both sides lose [which might well have been one’s attitude toward the Communists and the Fascists] the one word riposte is: geopolitics. Egypt is vital ground. That means that while there may be no good guys, it is impossible to be indifferent to who wins.

The area is too important to Europe, both in terms of proximity and energy usefulness to be ignored. And Europe is too weak to defend itself, thereby increasing the crucial reliance on America. But the administration in Washington has thrown away its best cards simply to assuage its irrational Left Wing.  Now it must act after removing the wherewithal with which to act. What if it has to act anyway? The problem with pure political expediency and opportunism is that it is punished by time.

With both Russia and China standing in the path of any inexpensive response to the Syrian attacks on oppositionists the West is left with only the expensive options. The Blue Plate special is off the menu. Obama was too grand to eat it. All that is available now is stale pate de fois gras at inflated prices, chased by a half-washed mayonnaise jar containing flat champagne. It is bad food at clip-joint rates, a phrase which some historian might apply to the Obama period as a whole.

But what did they expect? Those who expected something for nothing or a Messiah from Chicago were bound to be disappointed. The bill for the sheer folly of three years of administration incompetence is coming due at once. All the easy ways out are blocked and the administration has only now noticed.  What now? Does anybody know?


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