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Syria: What Can Obama Be Thinking?

The following post originally appeared on Katz’s blog. .

Written by Prof. Mark N. Katz Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

Far from being on the verge of collapse as many in the West and the Arab World had hoped, it now appears that the Assad regime in Syria has gained the upper hand against its internal opponents.  With Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah all strongly backing Assad while the opposition is only receiving mainly light arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, perhaps this was inevitable.  The European Union allowed its arms embargo on Syria to lapse and could now aid the Syrian opposition, but it seems unlikely that any European government will do so unless the U.S. takes the lead.

So far, though, the Obama Administration has refused to provide the Syrian opposition with anything but non-lethal support.  Considering that the Assad regime is a brutal dictatorship based on Syria’s Alawite minority which has long oppressed the majority of the population, is virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Western, and is a close ally of Iran’s, it would seem that actively supporting the Syrian opposition’s efforts to bring about the downfall of the regime would be in the interests of America, its allies, the majority of Syrians, and humanity in general.  Why, then, has Obama not done so?

It may be that President Obama’s approach toward Syria is guided by a cautious logic that includes the following elements:  First, Obama wishes to avoid the possibility of getting the U.S. mired in a long, inconclusive, and costly military conflict in Syria such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama, after all, did not withdraw American forces from Iraq and arrange for their withdrawal by the end of 2014 from Afghanistan just to send them into a similar situation in Syria.

Second, while the Assad regime is indeed truly awful, it is not clear that its downfall will lead to the rise of anything better.  Indeed, Sunni radicals appear to be playing an increasingly dominant role within the fractured Syrian opposition.  The Obama Administration understandably wants to avoid undertaking any action that leads to the replacement of the Assad dictatorship with a radical Sunni one.

Third, while it is unfortunate that Russia is backing Assad so strongly, the Obama Administration has good reasons to avoid offending Moscow over Syria.  With the souring of Pakistani-American relations as well as continued instability inside Pakistan, the U.S. is highly dependent on cooperation from Russia in order to safely extract American troops and equipment from Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network.  Further, the Obama Administration still hopes to persuade Moscow to more fully join in Western-sponsored efforts to induce Iran to halt its worrisome nuclear efforts.  Russian-American differences over Syria are simply not as important as the need for Russian-American cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the need for Russian-American cooperation more generally.

Yet while it is a cautious logic such as the one outlined here that may underlie Obama’s unwillingness to get the U.S. involved in Syria, it is also possible that his decision-making is informed by a more Machiavellian logic which includes considerations such as:

First, even if the Assad regime is now doing better vis-à-vis its opponents than previously, it is probably not going to be able to vanquish them completely.  Continued support from Moscow and Tehran to Damascus will not only increase Sunni Arab and Muslim hostility toward Russia and Iran, but also be a continuous drain on the resources of these two American adversaries.  It is better for the U.S. that Russian and Iranian resources be expended in Syria, and not America’s.

Second, while there may have been past instances in which the Shi’a fundamentalist Iranian government and the Sunni radical Al Qaeda (or its affiliates) have cooperated against the U.S. in the past, in Syria they are on opposite sides.  Iran has sent both men and materiel in support of the Assad regime.  The Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is one of the most effective groups fighting against Assad.  America and its allies benefit from the fact that Iran and the Al Nusra Front are at cross purposes in Syria.  This conflict between them also increases the prospects that Iran and Al Qaeda-linked groups will be in conflict elsewhere.

Third, the broader Sunni-Shi’a division over Syria has already yielded some important positive results.  Sunni Arab public opinion, which once lauded the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah for opposing Israel, now reviles it for supporting Assad.  The Arab League (consisting mainly of predominantly Sunni-led governments) has recently condemned Hezbollah for supporting Assad.  Similarly, Iran has dramatically cut back its funding for the predominantly Sunni Palestinian opposition movement, Hamas, because of the latter’s support for the Syrian opposition.  Both of these developments benefit America and its allies.

Finally, the shale revolution in North America means that the U.S. will become much less dependent on petroleum supplies from the Middle East.  To the extent that the U.S. and Canada can export their non-traditional petroleum resources or America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere develop their own, then they too will be less dependent on the Middle East.  There will, thus, simply be less need for the U.S. to concern itself as much with events in this turbulent region in the future than there was during the past several decades.  In fact, if turbulence in the Middle East leads to higher petroleum prices, this will hasten the development of more expensive North American petroleum resources that the previous availability of relatively cheap-to-produce Middle Eastern oil has done much to prevent.

What is interesting about the cautious and the Machiavellian foreign policy logics vis-à-vis Syria outlined here is that they are by no means mutually exclusive—especially regarding the question of American intervention or greater involvement.  While the cautious logic seeks to avoid the problems that could arise from greater American involvement in Syria, the Machiavellian one seeks to exploit the problems that Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda  are experiencing (or are likely to) as a result of their involvement there.

Could it be, then, that the Obama Administration is pursuing both the cautious and the Machiavellian logics toward Syria simultaneously?  Is Obama’s avowal of a cautious foreign policy toward Syria merely a cover for the pursuit of a more Machiavellian one that he does not want to acknowledge publicly?

This seems highly unlikely.  Obama’s aversion to intervention appears to be something deep-rooted.  The problems resulting from America’s involvement in Vietnam taught him at a young age that military intervention is highly problematic.  Iraq and Afghanistan only served to confirm this view.  And while Obama did countenance American participation in the multilateral intervention in Libya in 2011, the limits he placed on American involvement at the time showed just how uncomfortable he was with this operation.  Further, the messiness of the post-Qaddafi Libyan political scene may have only raised doubts in his mind about whether any better outcome would occur in Syria if America took steps to bring down the Assad regime there.

Obama, then, probably believes in the efficacy of the cautious foreign policy logic vis-à-vis Syria, and is highly likely to continue pursuing it.  His doing so, however increases the risk that the minority Alawite dictatorship remains in power in much (if not all) of Syria and wreaks brutal retaliation upon the Sunni majority; the Sunni majority blames America and the West for not helping them when they could have, and so falls increasingly under the sway of radical groups linked to Al Qaeda; and Sunni-Shi’ite conflict intensifies in and spreads to other countries of the region.

If this is what Obama’s pursuit of a cautious foreign policy logic toward Syria leads to, then the next American president may have to pursue the Machiavellian logic of playing on differences among America’s adversaries in the region while working to end American and Western dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum not because he or she wants to, but because these will be the best of the bad options remaining for American foreign policy in this region.

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