Daniel W. Drezner

A gruesome test of realpolitik in Syria

A gruesome test of realpolitik in Syria

With FP’s David Kenner reporting that the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own civilian population, we’re already seeing a debate about what to do now.  Over at Duck of Minerva, Dan Nexon doesn’t think this event will change much of anything with respect to U.S. foreign policy.   Jon Western, on the other hand, disagrees, comparing the event to how the massacre in Srebrenica spurred NATO action in Bosnia.  He concludes:

The current policy objective has been focused on conflict containment.  The current policy instruments have failed to achieve that.  I think there is concern in Washington and throughout much of the region that American policy has been too passive — that without some kind of major policy shift, this is going to get a lot worse for American interests in the region. And, if the reports of a major chemical attack are true, we are almost certain to see a new policy that will almost certainly include some element of U.S. military force to try to change that. That’s my general reading of how American foreign policy develops.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ Alissa Rubin and Alan Cowell report that in response to the chemical attack, France wants to amp up the action

As Western powers pressed the Syrian authorities to permit United Nations inspectors to examine the site of a claimed poison gas attack outside the capital, Damascus, France said on Thursday that outside powers should respond “with force” if the use of chemical weapons was confirmed.

At the same time, Israel said its intelligence assessments pointed to the use of chemical weapons….

In an interview with BFM-TV television, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressly ruled out the idea of ground forces intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war, now in its third year with more than 100,000 fatalities.

“There would have to be reaction with force in Syria from the international community,” Mr. Fabius said, but added, “there is no question of sending troops on the ground.”

He gave no further details of what he had in mind. During the Libyan revolt that overthrew Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011, France, then led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, joined with Britain in an air campaign that drew on strong support from the United States and other NATO allies.

The Obama administration has shown little appetite for comparable intervention in Syria. Indeed, America’s top military officer has told Congress that, while the Pentagon could forcefully intervene in Syria to tip the balance in the civil war, there were no moderate rebel groups ready to fill a power vacuum.

So, in a world in which there are no "Western-friendly" rebel groups on the ground, some degree of political impetus to "do something" to check Assad, and no chance in hell that that "something" will emanate from the United Nations, what will happen? 

In my continuing search for consistency over blog posts, let’s see what I said back in June when the Obama administration announced that it would be arming the rebels: 

[E]verything this administration has said and done for the past two years, screams deep reluctance over intervention.  Arming the rebels is not the same thing as a no-fly zone or any kind of ground intervention.  This is simply the United States engaging in its own form of asymmetric warfare.  For the low, low price of aiding and arming the rebels, the U.S. preoccupies all of its adversaries in the Middle East. 

The moment that U.S. armed forces would be required to sustain the balance, the costs of this policy go up dramatically, far outweighing the benefits.  So I suspect the Obama administration will continue to pursue all measures short of committing U.S. forces in any way in order to sustain the rebels. 

Now let’s be clear:  to describe this as "morally questionable" would be an understatement.  It’s a policy that makes me very uncomfortable… until one considers the alternatives.  What it’s not, however, is a return to liberal hawkery. 

So, to conclude:  the United States is using a liberal internationalist rubric to cloak a pretty realist policy towards Syria.

Going forward, I’d say that the administration’s response to this latest provocation is an excellent test case for whether my realpolitik thesis holds or not.  If I’m right, then the administration will likely to what it can to enable other actors — say, France and Turkey — to take limited military steps to punish the Assad regime and degrade its forces from the air.  This would be consistent with the "prolonging the conflict" approach cloaked in the guise of liberal interventionism, while minimizing U.S. exposure. 

If, on the other hand, the United States actually uses its own forces in Syrian territory to try to tip the scales, well, then I’ll have to concede that the realpolitik hypothesis doesn’t hold. 

What I don’t know — and I’d encourage those more steeped in military statecraft than myself to talk about in the comments — is whether the tactical situation in Syria permits the kind of distinction I’m making here.  In other words, is it possible for U.S. forces to play a strictly supporting role that enables French or other forces to take kinetic action in Syria?  Or does that option not really exist?