Politics is not always about making the world a better place. Syria is such a place, with outright civil war, the use of chemical weapons, ethnic, sectarian and religious violence and the abuse of human rights. Not a place you want to live in. The calls for American or Western intervention are growing louder and more demanding. Yet America has actively refrained from taking direct action on the crisis, wisely you may add. The sheer complexity of the conflict has made Syria a swamp of local, regional, and world politcal strife. In a political environment where God knows who is allied with whom, helping the rebels today, more or less impartionally with the establishment of a no-fly zone or taking allegiance with direct action, can turn out to be helping the enemy of tomorrow.
Any intervention needs the I-win-you-lose simplicity of war to be successful. The wars in Afghanistan (twice) and Iraq have proven that. With no control of local forces, there cannot be success. In the case of Syria, where dozens of factions have filled the power vacuum, the people are becoming increasingly competitive and divided along sectarian lines. Also, even winning the conflict means ultimately losing a hesitantly cooperative Russia. Indeed, Syria is a loose-loose kind of situation. And not a good start when you are talking about a pivot to Asia. Regardless of how many effort, good will, dollars and human lifes you invest, in any American led intervention the US will be blamed for any perceived misgivings, real or not.
Still, altough Obama’s red line has been crossed multiple times by the small scale use of chemical weapons, help for the rebels is coming slowly with most of the promised weapons and gear still on the shelf waiting to be distributed. Drawing red lines is always a risky business. Such a statement can be interpreted by warring parties that there is a real commitment to act, and when the time comes one has to act or accept a torn reputation as an untrusty partner making future commitments less credible. Yet, the United States, and consequently the Syrian people, would be better off to risk its reputation and stay outside of Syria. For both political and humanitarian reasons.
Many argue that the US should intervene to stem the rise of Iran. Despite an inflation rate of 30% whilst the economy is shrinking, the country is still a player to be reckoned with. Recent reports state that Iran is capable of developing a nuclear bomb in a year or even months. It is highly unlikely that a nuclear missile will ever be used, yet the nuclear umbrella would provide the Iranians a free hand to influence the events in the Middle East region, particularly in Syria.
That is one reason given by the critics who argue that US aid to the rebels is not going far enough. Yet they misinterpret the US inaction for indecesiveness. Another view would be that Obama is playing a realist game. It seem that Iran has already overplayed its hand by sending Republican Guard advisers to Damascus and sending Hezbollah fighters into the war zone. Its reputation as defenders against Zionism and American Imperialism has been marginalized since it has taken up arms against its Sunni counterparts in the Syrian conflict. The conflict also drawns Iranian resources. With an economy as bad as theirs, one could wonder whether this would be the final blow to let the Iranian economy implode.
It is a choice to refrain from further action. Alan Berger has labeled this strategy the ‘let-it-burn-approach’. Basically, it means the spillover effects of the Syrian conflict in the wider region should be mitigated, while the conflict itself peters out. The danger, however, is that with the support of Hezbollah and Iran, Assad would be able to win the conflict – a possible outcome that would increase Iran’s influence in Syria and the Middle East. Yet the conflict could persist for many years to come, in the mean time sapping Iranian resources. Another outcome, being the rebels prevailing over Assad, is not necessarilly a welcomed result. Overtrhowing dictatership does not make democracy, let alone an ally.
War is ultimately a means to solve political problems. The peoples in Syria and the Middle East region should understand the US is not coming to the rescue. There is no widespread domestic support for another American intervention in a would be disastrous war. With no reliable allies in the neighbourhood, taking a stance by supporting the enemies of Assad is not going to help either. Fellow NATO-member Turkey, with over 70 million inhabitants, a growing economy even in times of world crisis, and a million men army, would like to be America’s ally in Turkey’s strife against Assad. Yet premier Erdogan’s continuous campain against its own military has decapitated the Turkish armed forces by ordering the arrest of dozens of senior officers on conspiracy charges. Thereafter, when Erdogan ordered Assad to stop fighting and start talking, Syrian government forces shot down a Turkish fighterjet without much repercussions. Despite its attitude is Turkey just another non-power in the region. Much the same like Saudi-Arabia and Qatar, who are willing to pay a share of the costs. But oil dollars can only do so much when there are no boots on the ground.
With Obama’s doctrine of ‘leading from behind’, its European allies in financial distress and not looking for another expensive adventure in the Middle East, and an Arab Leaque which only talks and is not willing to put the finger on the trigger, real help for the Syrian rebels is not coming. In the mean time Iran’s reserves are being dwindled, its reputation torn and being weakend in a conflict that probably will persist for the coming years. Whether or not to intervene is a choice between a doubtful peace by force and undermining an adversary at low cost. It looks like the US has opted for the latter.