Shadow Government

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Obama should draw the line at Syria

President Barack Obama’s administration faces a major dilemma as the toll of protesters killed by the Assad regime in Syria continues to rise. Last week, administration spokespeople were asserting that the difference between the need for intervention in Libya and Washington’s relatively restrained reaction to the killings in major Syrian cities was due to the ...

ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama's administration faces a major dilemma as the toll of protesters killed by the Assad regime in Syria continues to rise. Last week, administration spokespeople were asserting that the difference between the need for intervention in Libya and Washington's relatively restrained reaction to the killings in major Syrian cities was due to the relatively small number of those who were killed in the latter. Not surprisingly, as the protests have gained momentum, so has the ruthlessness of the regime's response. Will the United States do more than issue verbal condemnations? More importantly, should it do more?

Washington already has its hands full in the Middle East. The Libya operation is becoming increasingly demanding on American resources. Should A-10 tank killers be deployed to the Libyan theater, as the press is currently reporting, the United States faces the risk that the Libyans could score a lucky hit against one of these deadly but relatively slow-moving aircraft. Even more important, the potential presence of these aircraft underscores the degree to which "mission creep" has already taken hold of administration planners, just weeks after the operation was launched. After all, it is a very long stretch to argue that A-10s are being called in to protect civilians.

In an environment in which American forces are engaged in three Muslim countries, the last thing Washington needs is to be verbally trap itself in a situation in which pressure for yet more military action begins to mount. It has been suggested that Washington can rid Syria of Assad "on the cheap" -- through even more vigorous condemnations; by getting the Arab League to condemn the Syrian regime; by pressing for sanctions on the part of the European Union; and by referring Bashar al-Assad for prosecution as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. None of these suggestions is likely to accomplish very much, however. No amount of condemnation will dissuade the Assad regime from doing whatever it takes to preserve its power. And no such condemnations will come from an Arab League that already shows signs of regret for opening the door for a far broader American and Western military intervention than the conservative Arab leaders had anticipated.

President Barack Obama’s administration faces a major dilemma as the toll of protesters killed by the Assad regime in Syria continues to rise. Last week, administration spokespeople were asserting that the difference between the need for intervention in Libya and Washington’s relatively restrained reaction to the killings in major Syrian cities was due to the relatively small number of those who were killed in the latter. Not surprisingly, as the protests have gained momentum, so has the ruthlessness of the regime’s response. Will the United States do more than issue verbal condemnations? More importantly, should it do more?

Washington already has its hands full in the Middle East. The Libya operation is becoming increasingly demanding on American resources. Should A-10 tank killers be deployed to the Libyan theater, as the press is currently reporting, the United States faces the risk that the Libyans could score a lucky hit against one of these deadly but relatively slow-moving aircraft. Even more important, the potential presence of these aircraft underscores the degree to which "mission creep" has already taken hold of administration planners, just weeks after the operation was launched. After all, it is a very long stretch to argue that A-10s are being called in to protect civilians.

In an environment in which American forces are engaged in three Muslim countries, the last thing Washington needs is to be verbally trap itself in a situation in which pressure for yet more military action begins to mount. It has been suggested that Washington can rid Syria of Assad "on the cheap" — through even more vigorous condemnations; by getting the Arab League to condemn the Syrian regime; by pressing for sanctions on the part of the European Union; and by referring Bashar al-Assad for prosecution as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. None of these suggestions is likely to accomplish very much, however. No amount of condemnation will dissuade the Assad regime from doing whatever it takes to preserve its power. And no such condemnations will come from an Arab League that already shows signs of regret for opening the door for a far broader American and Western military intervention than the conservative Arab leaders had anticipated.

Moreover, nothing could be more counterproductive than to refer Assad to the ICC. Doing so would give him no option but to fight to the finish, After all, his only other alternative would be a trial in The Hague. Assad has no desire to be another Milosevic, and to share the latter’s fate.

More importantly, in the exceedingly unlikely event that Assad were prepared to buckle before the protesters, his Alawi supporters would not permit him to do so. The Alawis who dominate the Syrian regime know full well that the country’s overwhelming Sunni majority not only resents their rule, but considers them to be heretics. Recall that Assad’s father had to get a special fatwa from a Shiite cleric proclaiming that the Alawis were indeed Muslims. (In fact, Bashar’s grandfather actually supported the notion of a Zionist state alongside Maronite and Alawi enclaves along the Mediterranean coast!)

A successful Sunni revolt could well mean a major and bloody purge of the Alawis. At best, there will be civil war; at worst, a massacre. Will Washington’s humanitarians then shout for intervention? And, if Alawis are being massacred, on whose side would they wish to intervene?

It is not even clear that the removal of Assad and his henchmen will benefit Israel. Syria was just as implacable a foe of the Jewish state prior to Hafez al-Assad’s ascent to power in the 1960s. The only difference was that during the period 1948 until 1971, when the elder Assad formally took control of the country, Syria was an especially unstable country, ruled in rapid succession by a series of military and civilian dictators.

An unstable Syria might be tempted, as neither Assad pere nor fils were, to attack Israel on the Golan front, or to push Hezbollah into a war that Damascus would then widen, and that could involve Jordan, Iran and the Palestinians as well. The resulting conflagration would set back even further the already remote prospects for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum and an Arab-Israeli peace.

It is high time that Washington realized it simply cannot solve all the problems in the Middle East at one time. It has been hard enough over the years for American administrations to solve any problem in that troubled region. Indeed, administrations of all stripes find it hard to concentrate on more than one foreign policy crisis or contingency at any one time; Obama now has three in the Middle East and Central Asia, with Libya still capable of metastasizing into a full-blown war.

Once that war is over, the demands for "reconstruction" will begin, despite the fact that Libya is drowning in oil. The Europeans, strapped for resources and still suffering from the aftershocks of the E.U. financial crisis, are unlikely to come forward with funds, as are the Gulf Arabs. Will the United States then take on another nation-building role?

Three contingencies and two major nation building exercises, whether in one region or worldwide, are more than enough for any administration to handle. The last thing the United States needs is to get enmeshed in Syria’s troubles. We have enough on our plate; it is time to restrain our interventionist appetites.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.
Tag: Syria

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