Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure of talking to Duke University political scientist Peter Feaver, a veteran of the Clinton and Bush national security teams, about the U.S. role in the Syria conflict. Among many other things, Feaver is an expert on the interaction between military strategy and public opinion, and so his recent observations on the politics of how the Obama administration has handled the Syria conflict are of particular interest:
[The president's] current policy of not intervening decisively is popular enough — the polls show at best modest support for military intervention if WMD has been used and at worst profound reluctance about shouldering additional burdens in the region. Obama, in his ambivalence, has the comfort of being aligned with the public today. But this is a cold comfort, since his policy is failing, every bit and perhaps more so than Bush’s Iraq policy during the war’s darkest days. Once the public concludes that Obama has failed in Syria, it will not matter much that they initially supported the policies that yielded this failure.
Granted, the political salience of Syria is likely to be far less significant than that of Iraq, which could be part of the implicit strategy of the Obama administration’s arm’s-length approach. Feaver observes that the president’s approach to Libya was initially very much like his approach to Syria, the main difference being that in Libya the British and French eventually forced his hand.
The Obama administration is now inching towards intervention in Syria. As Feaver explained to me in detail, however, the prospects for an intervention are not nearly as encouraging now as they might have been earlier in the conflict. Had the U.S. government provided the Syrian opposition with extensive non-military assistance early on, U.S. policymakers would have more leverage over the opposition and more intelligence. This would have allowed U.S. policymakers to make an informed decision about providing the opposition, or rather the moderate, non-sectarian Syrian rebels, with military assistance, a stance that had been backed by the Central Intelligence Agency a year ago. President Obama decided against providing military assistance a year ago, presumably because he was concerned, not unreasonably, that doing so would mean that the U.S. would have at least partial “ownership” of the unfolding Syria crisis, and of any atrocities committed by the opposition.
Stephen Biddle, a political scientist at George Washington University and one of the national security intellectuals who helped inspire the surge strategy, reminds us that if our goal is to end the Syria conflict as soon as possible, providing the Syrian opposition with military assistance isn’t necessarily the right way to go. When one external faction backs the opposition, another external faction might back, or increase its support for, the ruling government. The result could be that while the influx of armaments increasing the level of violence in the country, the balance of power remains the same. In Syria, the ruling government’s chief allies have been Iran and Hezbollah, and to a much lesser extent Russia and China, both of which have largely limited their assistance to diplomatic efforts designed to foil U.S.-led efforts to rally the “international community” against the Assad regime. It is possible that Iran is now providing the Assad regime with as much support as it possibly can. Yet there is good reason to believe that Hezbollah could do much more — up to and including launching terror attacks on western targets in “retaliation” for U.S. and allied support for the Syrian opposition.
Basically, the situation stinks, and one wishes that we had done more sooner. I explore some of these issues in a new subscriber-only column for the Times of London.