Poets in Syria have taken to highly complex social commentary to counteract the Assad regime.
How can the United States deal with the Syrian crisis? This series will explore possible options for diplomacy and military intervention suggested by your favorite armchair general/editor extraordinaire!
A Wide Range
Note to the wise: whenever an American president says there are “a wide range of options on the table,” be very, very afraid.
No more so than with the Syrian debacle, where a perfect blend of grassroots activism, secular and Islamic philosophies, sectarianism, international power-play, and weapons of mass destruction has emerged to wreak political havoc in the UN, the House of Commons, and Congress. In the past two years, the middle eastern nation’s civil war has been marked by a stalemate typical of homegrown conflict, with urban sieges in Homs, Aleppo, and Damascus playing out alongside rural warfare, socioeconomic confrontation, and cultural disputes centered on the ruling Alawite minority. With analysts such as CNN’s Peter Bergen reasonably declaring the fighting to be a “problem from hell” for the U.S., many Americans are anxious to understand just how the Obama administration plans to handle Syria in the wake of a Damascus-sponsored chemical attack that killed almost 1,500 people. As Secretary of State John Kerry has already confirmed, the United States is “not alone in [its] will to do something”—the question, then, is what that “something” may be.
Be the Stick-Wielding Diplomat
American executive administration is at an interesting—some would say compromised—juncture in both its domestic and foreign dealings. At home, Obama’s intentions toward Syria are treated with distrust and alarm by the anti-interventionist wing of the Republican Party and the Democratic left. Speaker of the House John Boehner, frustrated by having to live through a Libyan déjà vu, recently sent a letter to Obama asking the President to justify his plans through “substantive consultation” with Congress. Given the Obama Administration’s record of war games in the Middle East (including a violation of the War Powers Act), a “consultation” would be a good start for setting the record straight on a rather sudden increase in militarism.
But opposition and confusion in Congress and the American public pales in comparison to the struggles on the international stage, where Russia and Iran both view Syria as a critical point of contention with the U.S. With its United Nations Security Council veto, Russia renders concerted military efforts nearly impossible through internationalist means. Its Black Sea fleet has ratcheted up activity in the Mediterranean and along the coastline of Syria, and Russian diplomatic channels have labeled Obama a Bush “clone” whose interference is wholly misplaced in the established global order. Even more worryingly, BBC News reported this morning that Russia would view any U.S. actions bypassing U.N. efforts as “acts of aggression” with significant political and economic repercussions. For its part, Iran has allowed Hezbollah and its Revolutionary Guards to have a field day on the Syrian battlefield, complicating relations with the country’s new president and raising the specter of a proxy war that could spill over into Iraq.
Diplomatically, the U.S. has almost no choice but to engage in the practice of great power politics, a worldview the Obama Administration has reluctantly accepted in past regional disputes. Syria itself is not a black-and-white depiction of pro-US and anti-American forces engaged on one delineated front, meaning that U.S. policy should simultaneously distance American interests from the internal dynamics of the civil war while aggressively pursuing the means to delegitimize Russian and Iranian viewpoints. For Russia, this cannot be accomplished via U.N. action, but President Vladimir Putin’s antagonistic stance has opened up an opportunity for the American military to test Russian willingness to defend an unpopular regime through either brinkmanship in international waters (deploying a counterforce to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet near Syria) or bolstering joint exercises and training in Jordan. For Iran, involving a nation near Syria and bordering Iran, Azerbaijan, may be a wise choice. The Caucasian nation is a key anti-Assad stronghold and has been disproportionately affected by the religious tones of the war in northwestern and central Syria. Additionally, ethnic Azerbaijanis comprise about 16% of the Iranian population—Supreme Leader Khamenei belongs to the group—so applying pressure on Azerbaijan to more actively oppose Iran and its Hezbollah allies may in turn stir up internal Iranian discontent with Syria’s leadership.
All in all, the Obama Administration is beyond the point of talking a good talk. However, let’s hope that among the briefings on the President’s desk, there are some that still recommend a pathway toward well-played conflict mediation.