Defining US Interests in Syria

February 15, 2012

As the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad continues its brutal crackdown on protesters, a very broad range of U.S. responses is being debated. Start with core U.S. interests: Syria matters.  It is strategically located; potentially a key to regional stability or chaos and humanitarian catastrophe; a source of pressure on Iran; and a symbol of Arab civilians’ desire for global support in their willingness to defy dictators with their lives. But Syria is not Libya, and glib proposals for military intervention now skip over tough questions posed by the current circumstances. While debate too often focuses on military options, the United States has a range of tools at its disposal and should pursue them vigorously with the Syrians, their neighbors, and our allies and partners – even our opponents – in the international community.

The U.S. has key interests in Syria which demand involvement, but also counsel caution.  

Preventing regional conflict and instability. The civil conflict in Syria, and the prospect of long-term conflict, sectarian strife, and massive weapons flows, have destabilizing consequences for our allies Israel, Turkey and Jordan, for the emerging Iraqi governent, and for already-divided Lebanon. Stratfor’s Kamran Bokhari writes: “given Syria’s strategic location at the crossroads of so many key geopolitical fault lines, the meltdown of the Syrian state could easily result in a regional conflict. Most stakeholders oppose foreign military intervention in Syria for this very reason. Many states are eyeing the strategic goal of weakening Iran geopolitically through the ouster of the Alawite regime in Syria, but even that prospect may not be enough to offset the potential costs.” [Kamran Bokhari, Stratfor, 2/14/12]

Circumscribing Iranian regional influence. Efraim Halevy, former director of Israel’s  Mossad, explains, “Ensuring that Iran is evicted from its regional hub in Damascus would cut off Iran’s access to its proxies (Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza) and visibly dent its domestic and international prestige, possibly forcing a hemorrhaging regime in Tehran to suspend its nuclear policies. This would be a safer and more rewarding option than the military one. As President Bashar al-Assad’s government falters, Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles’ heel.” [Efraim Halevy, 2/7/12]

Reinforcing U.S. support for lives of Arab civilians, ideals of Arab awakening. Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, “Since last March, thousands upon thousands of Syrians have taken to the streets, initially to demand reform and now the end of the Assad regime, which they clearly regard as unredeemable. Syrians have been willing to face down a fearsome army and security forces that were created, trained, and equipped not for war with Israel but for repression. The economic power of the United States, European Union, and Turkey (The European Union and Turkey had previously accounted for almost 30 percent of Syria’s trade) have applied what was hoped would be crippling sanctions on Assad. There is evidence that these measures have created a range of problems for Syria, including spikes in food and energy prices. Still, sanctions have failed to modify the regime’s approach to the uprising. Indeed, the Syrian leadership has long shown that it is more than willing to force its people to suffer in order to ensure the regime’s survival.” [Steven Cook, 1/17/12]

Preventing al Qaeda from taking advantage. Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor explains, “Al Qaeda’s extreme transnational agenda always has had limited appeal to the Arab masses. Popular unrest in Arab countries and the empowerment of political Islamists via elections in Egypt and Tunisia have underscored the jihadists’ irrelevance to societies in the Islamic world.” However, in the past al Qaeda has tried to “take advantage of power vacuums that were created by other forces. Iraq presented one such opportunity when U.S. forces ousted the Baathist regime in 2003, allowing for the emergence of al Qaeda’s then-most active node.” [Kamran Bokhari, Stratfor, 2/14/12]

Syria is not Libya. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, given several key differences:

Geography of the conflict. The Libyan intervention was designed to come between two forces, each controlling a block of territory in a large and sparsely-populated country.  But Stratfor’s Scott Stewart explains, “the fault lines along which Syrian society is divided are not as regionally distinct as those of Libya; in Syria, there is no area like Benghazi where the opposition can dominate and control territory that can be used as a base to project power.” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at the Center for New American Security and George Washington University explains, “The Syrian opposition is far weaker, more divided, and does not control any territory. There are no front lines dividing the forces which can be separated by air power, no tanks and personnel carriers conveniently driving along empty desert roads to be targeted from the sky. The killing in Syria is being done in densely populated urban environments.” [Scott Stewart, Stratfor, 12/15/11. Marc Lynch, 1/17/12]

Divisions in Syrian society both weaken opposition and threaten spillover. Syria’s map of ethnic and religious difference, and history of pitting groups against each other, makes would-be outside forces nervous.  Lynch adds, “The geography and sectarian landscape are different, as is the regional environment and the risk of spillover into nervous neighbors such as Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.” [Marc Lynch, 1/17/12]

Strength of Syrian military, both against opposition and potential outside forces. Any plans for military intervention or assistance must reckon with the size and cohesion – thus far – of Syria’s army, the region’s third largest, and its history of loyalty to the Assad family over the citizenry. Stewart further notes, The strength of the Syrian military, specifically its air defense system — which is far superior to Libya’s — means military intervention would be far more costly in Syria than in Libya in terms of human casualties and money. In fact, Syria spent some $264 million on air defense weapons in 2009 and 2010 after the embarrassing September 2007 Israeli airstrike on a Syrian nuclear reactor.” Syria has not seen the large-scale military defections that occurred in Benghazi and eastern Libya at the beginning of that conflict that immediately provided the opposition with a substantial conventional military force (sometimes entire units defected). The Syrian military has remained far more unified and intact than the Libyan military.” [Scott Stewart, Stratfor, 12/15/11]

No-Fly Zone proposals “extremely problematic.” Lynch explains, “A no-fly zone (NFZ), the most commonly requested intervention, is almost completely irrelevant to Syrian realities. The Syrian regime is not using helicopters or fixed-wing airplanes to carry out its crackdown. Controlling Syrian airspace alone would do little to affect its ability to act… A NFZ would almost immediately escalate to the more aggressive ‘No Drive Zone’ which hawks urged in Libya when that conflict stalled. This expanded use of airpower, rather than the more limited operational details of a NFZ, are what should be debated before moving down that path. This would entail large scale bombing and aerial action against ill-defined targets in urban environments with extremely limited human intelligence or information on the ground. The fact that most of the killing is being done in densely packed urban areas makes any effort to intervene primarily through air power, as in Libya, extremely problematic.” [Marc Lynch, 1/17/12]

But U.S. has range of tools and deserves full support in using them, engaging Syria’s neighbors and our international partners. Middle East expert and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Brian Katulis writes that, “The question of ‘intervention’ needs to include the full spectrum of tools at America’s disposal—not just how many boots on the ground there are or fighter jets in the air. On Syria, the Obama administration has intervened over the past year in Syria seeking to strike the right balance by offering support to Syrians seeking peaceful change and isolating the government—with a strong focus on what others countries like Turkey are willing and capable of doing on Syria… A ‘Made in America’ military intervention would end up inflaming the region’s sectarian divisions and would remake the mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq. For now, the United States should continue quietly working with key countries in the region like Turkey, a NATO ally with the strongest potential to provide assistance and safe harbor to Syrians looking to leave the conflict zone. Another important country is Iraq, which has strong economic links to Syria—the United States should try to use its leverage with the Iraqi government to get its support in isolating the Assad regime in Syria.”

Lynch adds other tools, including: “The U.S. and its allies should push International Criminal Court indictments and hold the regime accountable for its crimes. More ways could be found to help build the nascent Syrian opposition, and to engage with and support the groups emerging on the ground as opposed to the exile groups. More could be done to plan for a post-Assad future and to communicate to terrified Syrians sitting on the fence that they have a place in that new Syria.” [Brian Katulis, 2/14/12. Marc Lynch, 1/17/12]

What We’re Reading

Iran said it began loading domestically made nuclear fuel rods into a research reactor in Tehran.

Amidst continuing violence, Syrian President Bashar al Assad announced a referendum on February 26 to vote on a new constitution.

Israel’s ambassador to Thailand said that the bombs used in attack attempts this week in Georgia, India and Thailand all came from the same source.

The former head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence claimed that former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad.

Bahrain deported six U.S. activists for participating in Shiite anti-government protests.

Egypt’s Bedouin tribes are being blamed for increased violence on the Sinai Peninsula.

NATO resumed transfers of Taliban detainees to the Afghan government after completing an investigation on the alleged torture of detainees by the Afghan government.

North Korea has increasingly turned a blind eye to its own currency laws, allowing citizens to use foreign currencies to buy goods within the country.

Fourth quarter economic data showed that Italy and the Netherlands entered a recession.

A prison fire in Honduras killed more than 350 inmates.

Commentary of the Day

Nina Hachigian describes how the U.S. and China’s interdependence informs our relationship in the long term.

Dennis Ross believes Iran is ready to come to the negotiation table.

Jeffrey Bader sees Xi Jinping as a viable partner for the U.S.

Samuel Charap and Mikhail Troitskiy think Cold War politics continue to define U.S.-Russia relations.

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