Herbert London: The Syrian Cesspool and U.S. Inaction

Apr 3, 2013

If one wants to understand what happens in world affairs when the U.S. sits on the sidelines unsure of its role and even its interest, Syria is an excellent case study. Now that a civil war has struck every corner of that country, Bashar Assad and his military force have killed at least 70,000 people, many rebels and may innocent bystanders.

The nation has been splintered into dozens of war lords each attempting to carve out a zone of opportunity for themselves. Alawites, the ruling minority family among others, fear Sunnis and Sunnis struggle against Kurds. Chaos is a fact of Syrian life and stability is a distant and perhaps foregone memory. Al Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos to stamp its influence indefatigably with the rebels. This is now a war, somewhat like the Iran-Iraq war, where the hope is for losers on both sides of the struggle.

Although there isn’t unequivocal evidence chemical weapons were employed in the civil war, it is obvious these weapons exist and can be employed, as recent reports indicate.

While the U.S. has noted it will only provide humanitarian assistance to the rebels, British and French officials have openly discussed military aid. Of course who gets that aid is critical. United States’ officials have been vetting the Syrian opposition groups, but under the best of circumstances at least 25 percent of military ordnance will end up in the wrong hands, yet another one of the perils of war in a chaotic environment.

But the reason decisions have become so difficult and puzzling is that despite a war that has at least a three year history, the U.S. has not outlined a strategic vision for the region nor has it even defined its interests. The chaos that one finds on the ground can also be found in the White House that foolishly assumes history is moving in a continuum that favors our interests.

Here is policy by inaction. It is not leading from behind; it is simply not leading. What this means is that the U.S. hasn’t any leverage on the warring parties or those who can influence the warring parties. Russia is assisting Assad, but we do not have a real bargaining chip with Putin having already abandoned an anti-missile system in Eastern Europe the Russians opposed. We obviously haven’t any influence in Iran and Turkey is suspicious of the U.S. role in the region.

It may well be that in order to let political infrastructure develop at a local level – however unsavory it may turn out to be – NATO may be cast as the eventual peace maker converting local disputes into electoral struggles rather than perpetual bloodshed. At the moment, a political vacuum caused by U.S. inaction has been converted into a cesspool of warring factions with no obvious end in sight.

The fear of chemical weapons may force the recalcitrant Obama administration to finally take a stand. As Representative Mike Rogers noted, “If it takes a limited military strike to do that [ratcheting-up the war], I think we are morally obligated to do that if, in fact, they have crossed the president’s ‘red line’ of chemical-weapons use.” Any way you look at it, the administration is playing catch-up. It doesn’t have adequate intelligence on the ground; it doesn’t know very much about the rebel groups; it doesn’t know where the nerve gas and other chemical weapons are stored. And it is using French and British proxies for the distribution of weapons lest we got caught as “the weapons provider.” We are simply in the dark in the coming dark age. To make matters worse, this is the stance of an administration incapable of strategic thinking. You can be sure others from North Korea to Iran are watching. What they see has whetted their imperial appetites. 

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).

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