by Mitchell Plitnick
The Obama Administration’s options for avoiding deeper involvement in Syria are dwindling fast. With Russia and Hezbollah increasing their activities on the Syrian front, Obama may have a very hard time fending off the growing domestic and international pressure to take action, if that is what he still wants to do.
The forces pushing Obama to act have gained a lot of momentum in the past week. Russia is unyielding in its support of the Assad regime. Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah issued what amounted to his clearest declaration of war on behalf of the Syrian regime over the weekend. The European Union allowed their arms embargo against the Syrian rebels to elapse, clearing the way for Britain and France to eventually begin arming the rebels if they choose to do so. And Senator John McCain, who has from the beginning been perhaps the loudest voice calling for much heavier US involvement, slipped into Syria yesterday to meet with some of the rebel leaders.
Yet through all of this, the question of what good the US can do by intervening persists. Even McCain isn’t advocating a US ground invasion, and anything less is far from certain to topple Assad. Ray Tayekh of the Council on Foreign Relations writing in the New York Times today gives a good summation of the dilemma facing Obama. “There is something curious about the debate gripping Washington,” he writes. “Although more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed since the civil war began and the Assad regime appears to have violated all norms of warfare by using chemical weapons against civilians, calls for robust intervention are muted. The legacy of Iraq looms large…Neither the Obama administration nor its Congressional critics seem to have an appetite for nation-building. And there is a reluctance to admit that half measures like arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone are unlikely to end the suffering of the Syrian people…”
Tayekh argues that the United States must take the lead on toppling Assad and rebuilding Syria, mediating among the various sectarian groups who would be grappling for control after Assad’s ouster. Incredibly, Tayekh urges this course not forgetting the lessons of Iraq, but despite them. He sees an added incentive in this case, claiming that anything less would demonstrate to Iran that US threats of military action have no real basis, and therefore would embolden Tehran in its nuclear pursuits, whereas a full-scale invasion would, in Tayekh’s mind, make Iran back off.
But if we leave aside Tayekh’s less than credible assessment of how Tehran is viewing things (the Iranians are not ignorant of the fact that the US has a much more direct interest in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon than in the Syrian war’s outcome) and his eagerness to ignore the lessons of Iraq, he is correct on one point: minor assistance to the rebels is not likely to do much more than prolong the conflict. Yet, the political conditions are squeezing President Obama into doing just that.
Russia’s insistence on shipping S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria is provoking escalating tensions. Israel has threatened to take out such missiles if Syria receives them. The potential there for a dangerous escalation is enhanced by Nasrallah’s rhetoric this past weekend, where he issued his strongest pledge of military support for the Assad regime to date. Nasrallah cast the Syrian conflict as one where the Syrian regime was fighting for its life against a coalition of “America, Israel and the takfiris (those who accuse others of apostasy, which is itself an act of illegitimacy in Islam).” His words don’t just promise increased Hezbollah involvement in Syria, but will also rankle many Lebanese, increasing the tensions there. Nasrallah’s statement that “if Syria falls, Palestine will be lost” also serves to stoke the flames, and to encourage Israeli skittishness over the boiling conflict.
Russia, for its part, cannot possibly believe the rhetoric of its Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, who said that the shipment of missiles to Syria was meant to deter “hotheads,” referring to British and French plans to arm the rebels in the near future, should the hoped-for peace summit fail or fail to transpire at all. He is surely aware that the increased flow of arms to Assad will only strengthen calls for greater Western intervention, both within the US and Europe, and from various local actors like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, who are already involved in backing various rebel militias.
Russia is desperate to prop up the Assad regime, its last foothold in the Middle East, and it will go to great lengths to do so. Responding to the EU’s decision to allow the arms embargo against the rebels to expire, Ryabkov, in an astounding bit of bald hypocrisy said: “You cannot declare the wish to stop the bloodshed, on one hand, and continue to pump armaments into Syria on the other hand.” Britain and France both say they have no immediate plans to ship arms to the rebels, and they face considerable political obstacles in doing so. Much of the EU remains opposed to arming the rebels, preferring to stay away from the mushrooming catastrophe in Syria.
Much of this brinksmanship revolves around positioning for the proposed peace conference in Geneva, tentatively scheduled for next month. The Syrian opposition is making plans to attend, but continues to object to any part of the Assad regime being involved in a Syrian transition, and is also struggling with internal divisions, driven both by sectarianism and by competing foreign interests, particularly between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The conference is strongly supported by Russia, which insists on both Assad’s participation and Iran’s. While the West is generally agreeable to involvement of some parts of Assad’s Baathist regime, it opposes Iranian involvement. Russia hopes to maintain some sort of Baathist control in Syria and thus maintain its own foothold in the region, which necessarily also benefits Iran and Hezbollah.
One of the issues at hand is that Western goals are far less clear. Despite his alliance with Iran and support for Hezbollah, the Assad dynasty has maintained an uneasy quiet with Israel for four decades, something that is far from guaranteed even with the Western-backed factions. Any new leadership in Syria would need to, at minimum, make clear its determination to regain the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation, and may need to prove its bona fides in that regard more forcefully than Assad has.
But there can be little doubt that Assad’s fall would be a blow to Iran and, now that Nasrallah has gone all-in on Syria, could very well cripple Hezbollah. But while Ray Tayekh may have chosen to ignore the lessons of Iraq, Obama cannot afford to. The United States has no appetite for another Middle East war, and even less for the sectarian fighting in its aftermath while attempting to rebuild a state that has collapsed under the weight of war.
But Obama also will not want to be seen as acquiescing to a Russian-Iranian victory if Assad prevails thanks to those countries’ willingness to intervene where the US would not. Despite their own domestic opposition, Britain and France seem to want to intervene. They will expect US support, and if they don’t get it, the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the US will berate Obama mercilessly. John McCain is clearly laying the groundwork for US intervention and will surely attack Obama for backing away from a fight despite having the arrangements made for him by the kindly, old Republican Senator.
The peace conference, if it happens in June, may be Obama’s last chance to stave off the forces of intervention. But considering the difficulties the summit is already encountering, he might want to come up with a Plan B, and soon.