Politics & Policy

Assad: An Arab Problem

The U.S. doesn’t have a big role to play in Syria.

As Bashar Assad toys with the ill-fated United Nations peace plan for Syria, some have called for a U.S.-led intervention in yet another Arab conflict. Some support American action as a strategic opportunity to deal a deathblow to Iran’s favorite proxy; others push on purely humanitarian grounds. But all of them ignore a fundamental reality: Assad is an Arab problem. This is their fight, not ours.

While the hawks here in the U.S. may respond that no country in the region could match the hard-power options at America’s disposal, that doesn’t mean the intervention should fall upon our shoulders. And those who believe America has a moral obligation to act largely assume that an effort intended to be a replay of NATO in Kosovo, 1999, won’t turn into America in Beirut, 1982. By getting too involved, we could very make well make things worse — in a country with chemical weapons, no less.

In addition, our historical culpability for the Syrian mess is markedly different from other Arab Spring states. Unlike Egypt, where it was Uncle Sam’s dollars and friendship that helped keep a pro-Western despot in power for decades, Syria has long been the junior-varsity member of the Axis of Evil. The Alawite kleptocrats running the show in Damascus have kept their country on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979. Assad is not a U.S. puppet, but a hobgoblin.

None of this is to say that, if it were possible, Assad shouldn’t be forced out forthwith. Any questions that lingered about the fairness of comparing Assad to Saddam and Qaddafi were answered by his regime’s murdering over 9,000 Syrians. But America shouldn’t do the heavy lifting for largely Islamist insurgents in Homs or Hama.

In a region that generally soaked itself in post-colonial pity until the Arab Spring, a unique opportunity presents itself for Muslims to take the reins and free an oppressed Sunni population.

Geography will probably determine a lot for the fate of Syria. With the exception of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s neighbors are turning against Assad, and apart from Israel, all happen to be Muslim-majority states. Assad is a Ba’athist dictator surrounded by Muslim militaries and seasoned insurgents with more than enough resources to hasten his departure, if they throw themselves into the task.

With that in mind, Turkey also has to play a leading role. As a NATO member, it has the capability to protect refugees and work effectively through diplomatic channels, though actively arming anti-Assad fighters will probably be left to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While there are obvious risks, the Turks have to deal with this problem one way or another. Tightening the screws on Assad would present Ankara with the opportunity to act as the regional powerhouse it aspires to be (and perhaps allow it to exercise some latent imperial urges).

Even if Turkey and nearby Arab states balk at playing a big role in Syria, the U.S. should avoid getting drawn into another messy fight in the Middle East for which we can’t even articulate our desired outcome. Do we want the Muslim Brotherhood to emerge as the rulers of Syria (a likely outcome if Assad falls)? Would Israeli security be better served by a hardline Sunni Islamist government? If the result is to be of ambiguous benefit to us, there is no reason American lives and resources should be risked to encourage that outcome.

Assuming the opposition survives Assad’s latest crackdown, and Turkey can provide some relief to the nascent insurgency, future U.S. support to third parties to train and equip the rebels would be a low-risk and appropriate response. But the line should be drawn far from a U.S. ground deployment, or even an aerial campaign.

Discretion being the better part of valor, American policy makers should accept that we have a limited ability to shape Syria and the broader Arab world. We want freedom for all peoples, but we can’t ensure it through force of arms, and shouldn’t try. It’s time for Washington to establish a bright line between protecting Americans’ liberties and assisting Muslims and other oppressed peoples in fighting for their own. 

— Buck Sexton is a former Central Intelligence Agency officer with the Counterterrorism Center and the Office of Iraq Analysis. Currently, he is national-security editor at theblaze.com. 


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