Herbert London: Thinking About Syria

Sep 4, 2013

Among baseball’s general managers it is often said that “the best trade is the one that was never made.” Although it is an obvious stretch to international affairs, it might also be said that the best government action is the one that isn’t taken.

For understandable reasons, the Obama administration wants to punish President Assad for the use of poison gas and the butchery of women and children. However, President Obama has passed that decision to the Congress. But if it does decide to act, what do you do? The destruction of the Syrian air force, to cite one option, will embolden Assad’s supporters and demonstrate that the U.S. is a paper tiger unwilling to put boots on the ground. Deploying ground forces will certainly not be entertained for this would be a quagmire not unlike Afghanistan that the American public will not accept. Massive missile attacks against Assad backed troops will be on obvious aid to al Qaeda now a military force among rebel troops and a fledging political entity eager to assert itself in a post Assad government.

On top of those unpleasant options is a Russian presence supporting Assad and investing billions of rubles in establishing a naval base on the Mediterranean. The displacement of Assad is not in Putin’s interest, albeit the Syrian civil war has raised the world oil price to well over a hundred dollars a barrel – a clear boost for the Russian economy. In the U.S. military calculus, what the Russians are likely to do after a military strike is one of several imponderables, arguably among the most dangerous.

Then there are the Iranians who regard Assad as an ally and a surrogate in the promotion of Iran’s imperial agenda. Hezbollah’s rocket force is an extension of Iran’s interest and a perpetual threat against Israel. With representatives in the Lebanon government and the use of local strong armed tactics, Iran can shape the course of Lebanon’s future and keep pressure on Israel simultaneously. Hence any U.S. action in Syria has to anticipate an Iranian response. Moving military chess pieces in this part of the world and at this time is very complicated.

Had the Obama administration carefully identified its interests and assets when the civil war broke out two years ago, there was a chance moderate rebel forces could have been assisted. That time has passed. In fact, U.S. passivity is one reason al Qaeda has been able to insinuate itself into the rebel mix. This example should demonstrate that “leading from Behind” is really not leading at all.

Should the Syrian war reach some conclusion, even a semblance of stability, the U.S. might well promote geographic reallocation. Just as the British Foreign Office drew artificial boundaries in the nineteenth century creating Syria, the U.S. and, yes Russia, might conclude the three state solution is in their mutual interest. Assume for the sake of argument on Alawite, a Kurdish and a Sunni state.

The Alawite state could promote Russia’s desire for the maintenance of its naval base. The Kurdish state could generate entrepreneurial activity including enhanced oil revenue for a decimated economy. Although regarded as a threat to Turkey, the Kurdish government, would be obliged to renounce a Greater Kurdistan in return for its own state in former Syrian territory. The Sunni state would be embraced by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Its very existence would be a counter-weight to Iranian ambitions, even though Iran would most likely be recognized as an ally by the Alawite government.

Of course, this scheme is far too rational especially in a part of the world activated by irrational impulses. At the moment, negotiations for stability cannot be considered. Bloodshed on both sides will continue and the Syrian people will be battered and killed. The international community will wring its hands and gnash its teeth, but is unable to wrestle effectively with this problem.

Most significantly, the U.S. is damned if it does something and damned if it does nothing. The time for action has long passed as the lessons of history reappear before the present naïve panjandrums of foreign policy.

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). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.