Michael Doran and Max Boot Outline a U.S. Strategy for Containing the Syrian Violence

by Reihan Salam

Late last month, Michael Doran of Brookings, author of a fascinating Foreign Affairs essay on “The Heirs of Nasser” published last spring, and Max Boot of the Council of Foreign Relations had a New York Times op-ed describing how the Obama administration might bolster the Syrian opposition and cultivate allies that could serve as a bulwark against extremism.

Doran and Boot argue that intervention is urgently required for four broad reasons: (1) to diminish Iranian influence, as Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world; (2) to prevent the conflict from spilling over into, and exacerbating interethnic tensions within, neighboring states; (3) to help ensure that the Syrian opposition isn’t dominated by Islamist elements hostile to U.S. interests; (4) to bolster relations with allies like Turkey and Qatar, both of which strongly favor a more forceful U.S. intervention; and (5) to mitigate the human rights disaster unfolding in Syria and thus to stem an ongoing refugee outflow. The authors argue that a Libya-style “lead from behind” effort could prove successful, but only if the U.S. commits air and naval assets to securing “safe zones” for civilians and opposition forces.

In “The Heirs of Nasser,” Doran describes Syria as central to Iran’s anti-status-quo coalition:

Under Nasser, Egypt opposed British and French imperialism, which it associated with Israel. Iran is taking a similar stand today against the United Kingdom’s “imperial successor”: the United States. And like Nasser, Iran has created an anti-status-quo coalition — made up of itself, Syria, and their proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. The DNA of Nasserism is certainly recognizable in the “resistance bloc” of Iran and its allies; Nasserist genes may have commingled with pan-Islamism, but the resemblance is nevertheless unmistakable.

So what might account for the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene more aggressively in Syria? My sense is that risk-aversion is overdetermined, particularly in light of the impending U.S. presidential election and the unfolding Iranian crisis. It is also true, however, that the Obama administration had made significant overtures to the Syrian regime, as Doran points out:

From the outset, the Obama administration has believed in the importance of pursuing a “comprehensive” settlement — meaning a peace treaty that includes not just the Palestinians but, in addition, all the Arab states, especially Syria. As the administration has failed to make any headway in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Syrian track has grown in importance. Consequently, Washington has chosen to treat Syria not as an adversary deserving containment but rather as a partner in the negotiations deserving of engagement. In fact, the Obama administration sees the peace process as an instrument for wooing Syria away from Iran. At the very least, Washington believes that by bringing Damascus to the negotiating table, it can give the Syrians an incentive to tamp down Arab-Israeli violence. But such a strategy fails to acknowledge that the Syrians understand the thinking in Washington all too well — they recognize the United States’ fervent desire for negotiations and see in it an opportunity to bargain. Damascus seeks to trade participation in diplomatic processes, which costs it nothing, for tangible benefits from Washington, including a relaxation of U.S. hostility. In short, the Syrians believe that they can have it both ways, reaping the rewards of tawreet without being held to account. And why would they think otherwise? After all, nobody held them responsible for similar double-dealing in Iraq, where they were accomplices to the murder of Americans.

The regional landscape has changed, obviously. But the Obama administration may have concluded that it is safer to wait and see what happens in Syria than to take steps that might spiral out of control.

There is another possibility: the U.S. might take action after the presidential election. 

I neglected to mention Jeffrey Goldberg’s latest Bloomberg View column, which takes President Obama to task for not having intervened in Syria and for having missed a number of strategic opportunities in the Middle East:

[A]ll we have from Obama is passivity, which is a recurring theme in the administration’s approach to the Middle East. So is “aggressive hedging,” a term used by the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid to describe Obama’s strange reluctance to clearly choose sides in the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

“There’s a widespread perception in the region that Obama is a weak, somewhat feckless president,” Hamid, who runs the Brookings Doha Center, told me. “Bush may have been hated, but he was also feared, and what we’ve learned in the Middle East is that fear, sometimes at least, can be a good thing. Obama’s aggressive hedging has alienated both sides of the Arab divide. Autocrats, particularly in the Gulf, think Obama naively supports Arab revolutionaries, while Arab protesters and revolutionaries seem to think the opposite.”

Goldberg is dismissive of the view that the presidential election is the key barrier:

If this were true, it would make him guilty of criminal negligence. Is he the sort of man who would deny innocent and endangered people help simply because greater engagement could complicate his re-election chances? I truly doubt it.

He offers a number of other hypotheses, one of which is that President Obama “isn’t quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is.”

Alas, Goldberg isn’t particularly impressed by Mitt Romney either.