Politics & Policy

A Strategy for Syria

Any U.S. strikes should be shaped by long-term goals.

Although we don’t often remember this nowadays, the Reagan era was one of painful and often paralyzing foreign-policy debate. Ranging from Nicaragua, Angola, and Cambodia to the overarching challenge of the Soviet Union, the argument was usually basically the same. Republicans insisted that military pressure was essential to diplomatic leverage, whereas Democrats invariably sought to separate the two, treating military force as provocative and incompatible with diplomacy.

That old argument is now once again rearing its head. In this respect, the draft Syria resolution that President Obama has sent to Congressis seriously flawed. It would authorize force “in connection with the use of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction” but not in connection with any of our ultimate goals in Syria.

The “whereas” clauses highlight the resolution’s fatal defect:

Whereas, the objective of the United States’ use of military force in connection with this authorization should be to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction;

Whereas, the conflict in Syria will only be resolved through a negotiated political settlement, and Congress calls on all parties to the conflict in Syria to participate urgently and constructively in the Geneva process.. . .

The problem is that, in the current situation, only “military force” can push Syria to “a negotiated political settlement.” It doesn’t make any sense to separate the two. And yet, in statements by President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and others, the administration has embraced a foolish position of proactively ensuring that any strikes will not serve our broader goals in the Syrian conflict. In particular, the strikes will be carefully designed not to alter the momentum on the ground, which now clearly favors the dictator Bashar Assad and his allies — Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham were quick to seize on this fatal error: “We cannot in good conscience support isolated military strikes in Syria that are not part of an overall strategy that can change the momentum on the battlefield, achieve the president’s stated goal of Assad’s removal from power, and bring an end to this conflict, which is a growing threat to our national security interests.”

Senators McCain and Graham have it exactly right. The coming debate over the administration’s Syria resolution gives Congress an opportunity to modify the language of the resolution, in the direction of making sure that military force actually serves some strategic purpose. Members of Congress must move fast to amend the resolution. Congress should not support any resolution that does not, in addition to targeting chemical weapons, also aim to turn the tide against Assad and pressure him to seek a negotiated settlement.

The administration’s repeated references to “the Geneva process” are particularly illuminating as we near the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War between Israel and Egypt. During that conflict, the parties also looked to a conference in Geneva to negotiate a peaceful settlement. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brilliantly capitalized on the fact that Israeli forces had surrounded a large part of the Egyptian army around the southern end of the Suez Canal.

The momentum favored the Israelis, and the U.S. deftly used that leverage to accomplish major strategic goals of long-term significance. The Geneva Conference of 1973ushered in a new Middle East: Soviet influence was dramatically diminished, and with it the power of extremist elements; the U.S. became entrenched as the dominant stabilizing force in the region; and the foundations were laid for peace between Israel and most of its Arab neighbors, leading to the historic Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and ending the era of Arab-Israeli wars to the present day.

In the current circumstances, with Assad on the ascendant, an international conference would do the opposite: It would confirm Assad’s victory; elevate the influence of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia; and diminish our own. Without a shift in momentum in favor of the rebels, a negotiated settlement could be a major strategic setback for the United States, and will prove that Assad was right to wage a genocidal war against his own people. How can U.S. strikes serve even the limited purpose of deterring the use of chemical weapons if Assad ultimately wins?

Many conservatives are worried that Syria’s rebels have been heavily infiltrated by al-Qaeda and other jihadist elements. It should be no surprise that extremist influence has waxed among the rebels, given that nobody is helping the moderates. But as Elizabeth O’Bagy wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in perhaps the most valuable commentary I’ve yet seen on the Syrian conflict, the moderates are alive and well among the Syrian rebels, particularly the Free Syrian Army. Helping them in measured ways could well produce a favorable outcome to this disastrous conflict.

Though the momentum currently favors the Syrian dictatorship, that should not distract us from the essential weakness of Assad’s strategic position. He is virtually surrounded by hostile powers: To the south, Jordan is hosting U.S. and other forces in support of the rebels; the Sunni and Kurdish areas of Iraq lie to the east; and a powerful enemy — Turkey — sits ominously on Syria’s northern border. The government-controlled areas of Syria are to the west: the Mediterranean coast and the region that lies along the Lebanese border. Assad’s lifelines are (1) the Mediterranean ports, where Russia has a significant (though not large) naval installation, (2) the airfields, through which he receives support from Iran and Russia, and (3) the Hezbollah sanctuary in Lebanon.

The U.S. should work to cut those lifelines, and it could easily do so without boots on the ground. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is an easy legal justification for blockading the government’s Mediterranean ports, cutting Damascus off from the support of the Russian navy. The Russians will bluster, but they can be safely ignored — for they have no vital strategic interests at stake, and would never go to war to protect Assad. Military strikes could render most of the government’s airfields unusable in a matter of hours. And anti-Hezbollah elements in Lebanon could help to constrict the Lebanese border — though given Hezbollah’s political influence inside Lebanon, that will be a major challenge. A negotiated settlement will be far more likely if a strengthened Syrian opposition can hammer the Assad regime against the anvil of U.S. power.

The perennial problem of U.S. foreign policy is how easily we lose sight of long-range strategic goals. As Kissinger once wrote, the essence of statecraft is “to extract, from the compulsion of circumstances, an element of choice.” Alas, all too often, the U.S. government defaults to the piecemeal management of crises as they arise, with little regard to such long-range goals. That has been the story of Obama’s response to the crises of the Arab Spring.

The U.S. must think backwards from the Middle East that it wants to achieve. That means, first and foremost, diminishing Iran’s pernicious influence and, eventually, expelling that influence from the eastern Mediterranean altogether. The Islamic Revolution of Iran has been successful nowhere outside of Iran except in Lebanon, and has reached into that country only because of Iran’s alliance with Syria, which has provided a strategic bridge to the Levant. But Syria is not a Shiite country, nor is anyone in Syria, including Assad, a true believer in the Islamic Revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Cutting Iran off from its crucial Syrian ally is not only possible, it is probably only a matter of time.

In Syria, the objective is a negotiated settlement that results in a unity government and a democratic constitution. It likely doesn’t matter for now that the Syrian rebel forces include strong jihadi elements. If we can help the rebels reverse the momentum on the ground, an international conference can bring a united movement to the fore and confirm the influence of moderate elements in shaping a future Syria. Just as important, such a settlement will diminish the influence of Iran and Russia within Syria and elevate the influence of America’s allies in Turkey and among the Arab states.

That, in turn, will leave Hezbollah and the extremists among the Palestinians significantly isolated, removing the major obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

The situation in Syria is horrifying — and harrowing for the American national-security establishment to manage. But the simple truth is that we are facing a major strategic opportunity, however much it may resemble the eye of a needle.

The administration is not merely failing to exploit that opportunity, it is insisting on the foolish Democratic mantra that military pressure is incompatible with diplomacy.

The Democrats lost that argument in the 1980s. Military pressure brought the Soviet Union to the breaking point without the U.S. having to fire a shot. More important for our purposes today, military pressure in the form of the Nicaraguan Contras forced the Sandinistas to accept free elections in a negotiated settlement early in the administration of George H.W. Bush — an achievement that would not have been possible if the Democrats had had their way. Secretary of State James Baker won that argument where Republicans can win the argument today: in Congress.

The first step towards capitalizing on our opportunity in Syria is for Congress to ensure that any strikes on Syria serve the Obama’s administration’s own diplomatic goals: changing the momentum on the ground and eventually removing Assad from power in a negotiated settlement.

If the Syria resolution cannot be modified to meet these goals, then military strikes will be pointless by design, and should be opposed.

—Mario Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee. 

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola, a former White House speechwriter and environmental adviser, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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