In fact, not all those regimes proved of equal temperament. The central geography of Syria, the vital role that Assad’s regime plays in extending Iran’s regional reach (and in maintaining Russia’s regional presence), and its firm support among small but powerful segments of the local population—these factors pulled the Arab Spring into a different twist when it hit Syria. Assad’s power base turned out to be much more solid than many had foreseen. In retrospect, it’s doubtful that—if Obama had intervened earlier, as Clinton, Petraeus, and the others advised—it would have shaken Assad in his boots, forced him into exile, driven him to the negotiating tables, severed his ties to Iran and Russia, or compelled his generals to overthrow him.
Whatever the situation may have been a year ago, the conflict is now a civil war—not so much a clash between a dictator and rebels but rather a sectarian conflict (similar to those we’ve seen in the region this past decade, with the unraveling of the post–World War I settlement of imperial borders), intensified by the brutality of this dictator and the multiple rivalries among these rebels.
In this sense, another way to view Syria is a war between Hezbollah (whose militias came to the aid of Assad’s army) and al-Qaida (whose affiliates are playing a growing role in the rebellion). Seen that way, a president wouldn’t be out of line for asking, “And why should I get in the middle of this?” A particularly cynical subscriber to Realpolitik might even be keen to let the two sides fight it out.
But then there is the human factor—so horrific it cannot (or anyway should not) be pushed aside. The war has killed nearly 100,000 Syrians, displaced 2.5 million people internally, and forced another 1.7 million into exile (out of a pre-war population of 23 million).
Many of those exiles have crossed into Jordan. A refugee camp just across the border—which Secretary of State John Kerry visited on Thursday—holds 115,000 people. Most of them live in tents, some are constructing shacks; gang wars have broken out among the many young people. It’s a disaster that is exhausting the Jordanian government’s resources: financial, political, and otherwise.
The United States is funding quite a bit of this effort, but it could do much more, as could many other countries and the United Nations. That should be a top priority. If the Jordanian government were to crumble under the pressure, disasters of various sorts would cascade across the region. That would trigger a genuine national security crisis, and not just for us.
There is also a case for cross-border aid to rebel-controlled areas, to be administered in part by international agencies but more upfront by the Syrian opposition’s political institutions. Marc Lynch has made this case, arguing that—besides addressing the humanitarian crisis—it would also force the more moderate factions of the opposition to develop administrative skills and build political support.
There are two problems with this idea. First, the countries in the region are reluctant to send aid to these areas, except covertly. (The idea would involve such massive aid that it would have to be out in the open.) Then again, nobody has exactly been pressuring them to do so. If the United States took a leadership role, and (particularly important) if the rebel’s provisional government seemed in charge, the dynamic might change.
Second, and much more serious, providing security to this enclave might require setting up a no-fly zone, as the United States did in northern Iraq for the Kurds during the 12 years between the two wars against Saddam Hussein. This is precisely the risk of escalation that Obama tends to avoid—and wisely so. No-fly zones are also resisted, as a matter of course, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who sigh—correctly—that such operations are much more complicated than their advocates think. For one thing, they do constitute an act of war. So this may be a nonstarter (though it should be thoroughly explored before it’s casually dismissed).
The bottom line, though, is that there is little to gain, and much to risk or lose, in getting involved in this war militarily. President Bill Clinton last month urged Obama to intervene, saying that he’d look like a “wuss” if he didn’t, adding, “Sometimes it’s just best to be caught trying, as long as you don’t over-commit.” That was irresponsible and vapid. What did he mean by “over-commit”? Was he suggesting that Obama send just enough arms or troops to show that he was “trying,” just as long as it didn’t have much effect? Trying without trying too hard—and thus showing that your efforts are worthless—is often worse than not trying at all.
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