COLUMN

The Nation-Building Trap

When it comes to destroying the Islamic State in Syria, boots on the ground should be the least of our worries.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

The more I think through the Obama administration’s strategy on Syria the more worried I get. I feel like the guy in the Kingston Trio’s classic tune "A Worried Man."

So, here’s my latest worry. Looking at our Syria policy, it has begun to dawn on me that we really face a two-part conundrum that we will have difficulty unpacking. First, there’s the obvious: Hitting the Islamic State (IS) strengthens Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Second: If we choose to hit him, we’ll buck up IS, al-Nusra Front, and the rest of the swell groups that are in the Syrian opposition, not to mention alienating our new friends, Iraq’s prime minister, and of course, Iran, and a few of our old acquaintances like Putin.

That two-part conundrum only reinforces my real concern: the new and potentially slippery slope that is at the heart of our approach. And it’s not boots on the ground. Instead, it’s the reality that we’re being pulled inexorably like a moth to a flame not just toward a military conflict with Assad, but toward bearing the responsibility for fixing — or worse, for creating — the new Syria. Indeed, under the realist’s rubric of striking IS to keep America safe, we may well end up in the very place U.S. President Barack Obama has willfully tried to avoid: nation-building.

The realities of our situation as well as our approach would appear to make a messy nation-building scenario inevitable. And there are three rather straightforward assumptions that drive this argument.

First, the logic of the end state: IS is a symptom of a problem. If it weren’t for a failing Syrian state and a weak one in Iraq, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s the chaos and vacuum combined with the grievance-producing policies of Assad and former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki that created the opportunity and the pool of recruits on which IS and other jihadists feed. It’s only logical to assume that the only stable end state that can, in the president’s words, "ultimately destroy ISIL," is good governance in both countries. And in Syria that means getting rid of Assad and finding new leaders with a more inclusive approach to govern the country.

Remember Libya when we got rid of Muammar al-Qaddafi? And then…. Well, après that, the deluge. If it’s American weapons that oust Assad, won’t we be forced to own up this time and assume more responsibility for what happens after the military action stops? And if we won’t do it, who will? Here’s a fantastical thought for you: Maybe the Arab states will assume responsibility. Dream on, dude.

Second, we can’t control our local allies on the ground. It’s already evident that beggars can’t be choosers. The local Syrian opposition will take our weapons, money, and training on the assumption that the fight is going to be against IS. But who is going to control them? Who will order them to fight against IS once we train them, rather than against Assad, the evil one who has killed their comrades, families, and friends? These forces won’t be like predator drones controlled from Toledo. And what about their cooperation with Nusra, which they feel is the most effective force in the field? They already believe the United States has betrayed them and they will use every asset to take advantage of us in order to do what they want to do in the end — and that means directing fire against the regime. And if they do fight Assad, are we going to stand by not assisting or defending them as we’ve done with the Kurds and others in Iraq? Already there’s more talk of a no-fly zone along the Turkey-Syria border, perhaps as a condition of getting the Turks more committed to the fight. And finally, who stops the ethnic cleansing when Sunnis enter liberated regime areas and start killing Alawites?

Then, thirdly, we have our Arab allies to worry about. We can tout the Arab state coalition all we want (with good reason) but we also need to be real. I can’t prove this. But it’s my hunch that one of the reasons the Saudis and other Gulfies chose to become part of this coalition is about more than just fear of jihadists. They also see an opportunity here to get the United States to engage militarily in Syria not just against IS but against Assad, too. The Arabs understand the contradictions inherent in U.S. policy. They know that like a magnet, the logic of the situation could pull the Obama administration into the fight against the Syrian regime because the very groups the United States is training will pull in that direction. Indeed, they’re counting on it, and given their previous concern about America’s waning credibility, they probably argue it would be a good thing to help us and them stand up to their real fear: the mullahs in Tehran. It’s a veritable three-for: You hit Assad and you weaken their No. 1 adversary Iran and its Hezbollah minions too. Now there’s a bargain.

I’m sure the president is nowhere close to signing on for nation-building in Syria. This is one red line I’m certain he believes he’ll never allow to turn pink. And in the current situation, it would be insane to "defeat" Assad only to have the Islamists — from IS to al-Nusra Front — fill the vacuum, take Damascus, and set into motion ethnic cleansing of the Alawites.

But life is funny. Shit happens, particularly in this region. And things never turn out quite the way you plan them. Some argue nation-building in Syria would be a good thing and that we should start planning for it.

Be that as it may, defeating IS and Islamist jihadists requires Assad’s ouster. And while the last thing the United States needs now is another trillion-dollar social science experiment, this time in Syria, the president has now placed America and his successors in the middle of a mess that could evolve in that direction. And something tells me that before it’s over, we’ll have taken on not only IS, but the Assads, too. The question is what comes after and who’s responsible for it? To quote the immortal worlds of Alfred E. Neuman: What, Me Worry?

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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