Syria is turning out to be a sort of Spanish Civil War of our age, with Hezbollah and Iran playing the role of fascist Italy and Germany, and the Islamic nations and jihadists that of Stalin’s Russia, as the moderates disappear and the messy conflict becomes a proxy war for greater powers, with worse to come.
There were always problems for the Obama administration intervening in Syria besides the usual bad/worse choices in the Middle East between authoritarianism and Islamic extremism and the president’s own preference for sonorous sermons rather than rapid action.
For all of 2012, Barack Obama ran on the theme that he had removed the last troops from Iraq and soon would do the same in Afghanistan. So a third intervention in Syria was not to be a campaign talking point, especially after Benghazi.
Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and John Kerry were all on record saying that Assad’s Syria was more or less reforming, the nuances of its newfound moderation missed by the supposedly swaggering Bush administration. Lead from behind in Libya had led to Benghazi, not an empowered Arab Spring.
Our record elsewhere is no better. The Muslim Brotherhood certainly did not turn out to be “largely secular” or uninterested in political power. The Egyptian economy is a disaster. Asking the Arab League and the U.N. — but not the U.S. Congress — before intervening in Libya also proved a model for nothing, especially after we hoodwinked the Russians and the Chinese at the U.N. into voting for a no-fly zone and humanitarian aid, only to offer no ground support to the Libyan rebels. I doubt Russia and China will vote for any such similar U.N. resolution for Syria.
U.S. influence in the Middle East and North Africa is at a new post-war low. That Iran supposedly plans to send 4,000 fighters to Syria suggests that it is not too afraid of anyone threatening its nuclear facilities or of the supposedly crushing oil boycott.
There is no guarantee that American air support or close training might not end up in some sort of American ground presence — the only sure guarantee that so-called moderates might prevail should Assad fall. Of course, any costly intervention would eventually be orphaned by many in the present chorus of interventionists in a manner that we also know well from Iraq. We are told that dealing a blow to Iran and Hezbollah would be a good thing, and no doubt it would be. But in the callous calculus of realpolitik, both seem already to be suffering without U.S. intervention.
Thousands are dying and that is a terrible thing, but how exactly the U.S. could stop the killing is a mystery, as is why the Syrian dead are more important than the greater aggregate humanitarian disaster in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, or Mali. The jihadists who did a photo-op with John McCain do not assure us that weapons used against Assad’s army, Hezbollah terrorists, and Iranians won’t go rogue. If an airliner goes down, we will know that they already have.
The president finally seems to want to do something. But that something is complicated by his past calls for Bashar Assad to leave, and his unserious red lines about the use of chemical weapons. It is said that Obama is finally prepared to act a bit, shamed by the two Clintons’ usual backstage politicking and his own worries of doing something to make his own scandals disappear under news bulletins of new national-security crises.
But Syria is hopelessly more complicated and messy than it was 18 months ago. The arrival of Susan Rice and Samantha Power into respective higher positions of power is said to be a sudden catalyst for action, but the former’s credibility is shot, and the latter’s Arab Spring portfolio is, too. The Kerry/Rice/Power team, led from behind by Obama on the back nine, cannot yet define how they would oversee a consensual government to replace Assad, given that under the protocols of American support for the Arab Spring even a pro-U.S. authoritarian would be unacceptable.
Most Americans do not favor intervention of any serious sort, and Obama is not up to drumming up public support. He announced a surge and then simultaneous withdrawals in Afghanistan; since then he rarely mentions the war or the brave Americans stuck there fighting it. A campaign theme was that the United States was all out of Iraq, without a small residual force to keep the Maliki government somewhat honest.
In short, Team Obama does not have its heart in doing much of anything in the Middle East — not in Egypt, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, or in the War on Terror in general. Given that the American people have no great love for most of those killing one another in Syria, we would be wise to stay out, and send food and medicine to alleviate the suffering of the innocent.