The debacle in Syria is the definition of a no-win dilemma for the United States. No wonder President Obama has been reluctant to act on this complex, treacherous foreign policy challenge that is likely to end badly no matter what we do.
The appalling use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad and his army, and the killing of tens of thousands of his own people, forced Obama’s hand. The United States could not ignore that flouting of international law and basic humanity. Intervention is the right thing to do. But Americans should have no illusion that it will end well.
The hope is that pressure on Assad will bring about a peaceful transition to a representative government that provides stability to Syria and the Middle East. The Clinton administration’s no-fly zone in the Serbians’ war on Bosnia accomplished this. But Syria is different.
Russian and Iranian interests in the pivotal Middle Eastern nation are much higher than Russian interests were in Bosnia. The Bosnia rebel leaders were also willing to work with the Clinton administration and had more incentives, in the long run, to accept suggestions from Washington.
In Syria, the fractious coalition—if you can even call it that—presents a substantially bigger challenge. The odds are long that Washington could help cobble together a peaceful transition government in Syria that could be effective and have the staying power of the revamped Bosnian government.
Making matters worse, the leadership of the uprising now appears to have links to al-Qaida and Hezbollah and, for U.S. interests, may be worse than the butcher Assad.
Still, we have to stand against the slaughter of civilians if we can help to stop it.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday argued for air strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. He has been a proponent of providing more arms to moderate Syrian rebels, which sounds reasonable—but what constitutes a moderate in this case?
The Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization in Syria, is packed with leaders who would like to impose Islamic law. And the al Nusra Front, the al-Qaida-aligned force fighting in Syria’s largest city, has been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. None of the major rebel groups is a likely long-term ally. If U.S.-aided rebels oust Assad, we might gain some leverage—but that didn’t turn out so well when the U.S. supported the Taliban in Afghanistan fighting the Soviet Union 35 years ago.
Leaving Assad in power is more distasteful, however. Obama called for his ouster in 2011 after a violent crackdown on protesters. A U.N. report released this month said, “War crimes and crimes against humanity have become a daily reality in Syria where the harrowing accounts of victims have seared themselves on our conscience.”
Human Rights Watch issued a report three years ago documenting atrocities in Syria, noting that Bashar al-Assad “is truly his father’s son … this is a regime of monsters pretending to be humans.”
Assad has the backing of Iran and Russia. President Vladimir Putin counts Assad as his biggest ally in the Middle East and will only turn on him if there is assurance of a friendly successor. Good luck with that.
These are the realities that have kept Obama out of it, despite calls from commentators and advisers to intervene earlier.
The use of chemical weapons changes the game; the Syrian people are victims, and we have to be on their side. But a decade from now, we’re unlikely to be cheering this intervention the way we now do a peaceful Bosnia.