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Beyond the Red Line


In Aleppo and Homs and Damascus and Darayya, the piercing, staccato rattle of bullets is common. Soldiers — Revolutionary Guardsmen and Free Syrian Army fighters alike — are everywhere. Bombed-out buildings are the new normal.

Not even the clamor of the Russian-made artillery used by President Bashar al-Assad’s formations disturbs life’s surreal rhythm in Syria since its civil war began in March 2011. The American public has focused on the humanitarian issue in Syria, but it has largely disregarded other factors which command further U.S. intervention. Americans have unfairly and unwisely profiled the situation in Syria as another brutal nightmare taking place in a distant land — when it is actually a pressing threat to the status of the U.S. in the world order.

Americans’ lack of familiarity with what is at stake in the Middle Eastern nation is no surprise, given the two countries’ historically lukewarm — even hostile — relations. U.S. foreign policy has never before shone the spotlight on Syria, and in its own right, Syria has opposed American interests almost incessantly since the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Economic interactions between the distant countries have been sparse, to the point that President Assad hardly took notice of President Obama’s sanctions. The scarce resources Syria does produce — only a few hundred thousand barrels of oil per day — have flowed almost exclusively to Western Europe. While Syria had colonial connections to France, Britain, and, to an extent, Russia, no such ties existed with America.

To U.S. policymakers, the situation looks vastly different from the one the American and Syrian publics see. Despite the lack of direct American interest, the Obama administration still issued the infamous “Red Line” declaration, threatening military action if Assad decided to use deadly chemical weapons. The statement came as a surprise to Arabs still seething with Anti-Americanism and a U.S. population largely fed up with costly, lengthy, unilateral military action in far-off lands.

Public portrayal of the Syrian crisis has focused on the humanitarian implications of intervention. “The U.S. needs to come up with a plan to lead in the situation. This plan has to have the objective of ending the killing, of helping to end the suffering of the Syrian people,” stresses Mohamed Elfayoumy, an Egyptian Diplomat and Yale University World Fellow.

While saving lives is crucial to creating a meaningful peace in Syria, humanitarian dynamics alone cannot have prompted Obama to make his Red Line proclamation. His announcement breaks from the “Obama doctrine” of withdrawal from foreign commitments in favor of domestic action, according to Charles Hill, Diplomat in Residence at Yale.

“With the Obama Administration, we have conveyed that we are out of that business [of intervening]. It’s an end of an era. Obama is doing this in order to change America domestically,” Hill tells The Politic.

Dr. Steven Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that “the Red Line statement was more about domestic politics than it was about anything else. It was a way of solving a current political problem without thinking through the implications of it.”

Free Syrian VolunteerIn the face of mounting pressure to focus on domestic policy and a plethora of warzones abroad, why then has the Administration chosen to zero in on Syria? Though the U.S. lacks direct security interests in Syria, there are a variety of indirect geopolitical concerns at stake. “[Syria] touches on some of the most important strategic issues now,” Cook says. “Israeli security, Iranian nukes, Iraqi stability, Turkey and the Kurds, Lebanon, Jordan. But the U.S. has no intrinsic interest in Syria per se, other than where it is located and the need to maintain stability there.”

Hill expresses amazement at “the disappearance of the Americans. There is no sign we are doing anything other than abdicating.” Having ceded the initiative in the Middle East, President Obama is struggling to make up for lost time and devise a new strategy for Syria. Hence, Syria has evolved into what resembles a globally-significant Cold War proxy nation, wedged between Russia and China on one side and the reluctant U.S. and its allies on the other.

Welcome (Back) To the Jungle

The very idea of the conflict in Syria as a humanitarian affair derives from the global power struggle taking root in the unsuspecting nation. Russia and China are both hardline supporters of traditional state sovereignty, while the United States, Britain, and France have spearheaded a drive for further internationalism under the umbrella of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine of international law. Conjured up in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, Responsibility to Protect holds that militarily powerful, external actors have a duty to intervene in civil unrest that threatens to devolve into genocide or protracted conflict.

Operation Unified Protector — in which the UN Security Council approved a strike in Libya — set a new precedent for this doctrine by giving the UN grounds to justify international intervention into sovereign states. While the West applauded the measure, Hill characterizes the Chinese response as a process by which they “put weight on the political goal of trying to ensure there is no international record at the UN of intervention in any state’s internal affairs. China sees that as a political negative. If there is a precedent, people will say there should be some intervention in China. [The Chinese] will veto or threaten vetoes or abstain just to keep that precedent [of state sovereignty] alive in an abstract way.” Russia, also realizing the threat to its worldviews and interests posed by international interventions, has joined efforts with China to derail any repeat mission in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin masterminded a strategy that forced the U.S. into a no-win situation: Obama could do nothing and allow the new Security Council precedent to fade away, or he could intervene by launching a unilateral mission against Syria and hope to secure a resolution later. Putin’s primary concern, according to experts, is eroding the power of Sunni Extremism. “He sees the United States going around and picking off former Soviet allies to the extent that the Russians have one last strategic toehold in the region, and that is Syria,” Hill says of Putin’s response to the Red Line. “He is not going to let that happen; he is not going to be completely chased from the Middle East.”

Ironically, the U.S. would have to defy the Security Council by invading Syria without authorization in order to guarantee the body’s legitimacy and combat Russian and Chinese efforts to derail meaningful UN action in Syria. If the alternative were a hotbed of radical Sunnis to his south, Putin would likely concede to a democratic, American-backed, rebel-held Syria in the name of stability. The beleaguered Syrian National Council (SNC) — a coalition of Syrian opposition groups — continues to put out press releases espousing the importance of Responsibility to Protect doctrine, but the talk is cheap; they simply lack the force needed ensure a moderate rebel victory without assistance.

Cook believes the SNC is no longer relevant. “I don’t think it has ever been a unified force,” he says. “There have been different [groups] which have fallen under the umbrella and claimed to be part of the Free Syrian Army […] but this is essentially a disparate group of militias that are fighting. Lost in all this are these ideals of  democracy and freedom. I think to the extent this has dragged on and on, people still maintain lip service to those principles, but achieving these principles becomes harder and harder.”

Elfayoumy also laments that “the opposition is only receiving moral and political support from different players, but when it comes to financial and military support, it is very unorganized and fragmented and lacking an objective, meaning that there are a lot of broken promises.”

Benghazi Column LibyaA continuation of the conflict also allows China and Russia to profit from Syria’s chief pre-war export: oil. Before the war, Syria shipped over 99 percent of its meager supply of oil to Western Europe. At the beginning of the conflict, when overconfident leaders on all sides felt the situation would conclude quickly, a sanction campaign against Syrian oil appealed to Western European powers who wanted to act without applying military force. Ultimately, though, the campaign did only short-term damage to Assad’s coffers but long-term damage to the European nations’ relations with their former oil supplier. Putin, meanwhile, has delightedly satisfied the extra European oil demands generated by Syria’s absence. By ramping up its oil sales, Russia has gained from the war in Syria and subsequently passed along the profits to Assad in the form of arms shipments.

Perhaps more concerning to American interests is the embargo’s effect on Syria-China relations. Previously, few diplomatic channels connected Beijing and Damascus, but the Chinese are interested in Syria’s ability to disrupt the flow of oil if it is destabilized.

“What the Chinese want, basically, is stability in the region,” Cook says. “They want to be able to go into the Middle East and extract the resources they need to fuel their development and their economy with the least amount of turbulence or problems. They don’t see the fall of Assad as something that is beneficial to their overall mission.”

Syria, then, is so vital because it stands poised as the last battleground in the Cold War struggle for global power. “It’s a major turnabout,” Hill asserts. “The U.S. has taken a role for almost one hundred years as the steward and the ultimate manager of international order under the established international state system. President Obama is likely to go down in history as perhaps the most consequential American President ever because he will have brought this long era of American leadership to an end.”

Cook, however, disagrees. “I don’t see this as a retreat from the U.S. presence in the Middle East at all. The administration’s allergy to getting involved in the conflict in Syria had more to do with its calculations about what it would require to be involved and how long the United States would be there, and based on a cost benefit analysis, [decided] this could not be good for the United States.” There is indeed great uncertainty regarding Syria’s significance, which is undoubtedly responsible for the haphazard U.S. response to the Syrian conflict.

Fool Me Once…

“The U.S. has to know,” warns Elfayoumy, “that whether they like it or not, they are perceived as a major player in the world, especially in the Middle East, and they need to act accordingly.”

The U.S. has pegged its prestige on the SNC’s success, so as the Syrian government tightens its noose around the rebels, the opportunity for intervention is fading. Yet military action would be a serious undertaking in a highly defensible land guarded by a well-equipped government. American troops with a bloody history in the region would be expected to wipe Assad’s formations off the map while winning hearts and minds — a formidable task. The situation is considerably more dangerous now that both sides are armed to the teeth, committed to a quick and clean victory which will never come.

This is a quagmire the U.S. will not touch, according to Cook. “What you see is what you are going to get. We are doing minimally what we said we were going to do. I think we will continue to be big supporters to refugee relief. Indirectly we are involved in a variety of ways. I think these things are being done to say we are doing something about the Syrian conflict, but overall America’s goal is to limit its involvement in the country.” However, he notes, “That’s not [indicative of America’s] interest in the region.”

“Those that were trying to overthrow Assad were people that the outer world should have been very supportive of because they were looking for more freedoms and more involvement with the [international system],” says Hill. “Because the U.S. didn’t do anything about this, the movement for freedoms got quashed, and now it’s jihadists versus dictators. That’s just two of the old gangs fighting each other.”

Given these new dynamics, an allied commitment would now have to be not just a mission without UN sanction but a total invasion; an air campaign would simply prompt an endless insurgency or renew the government’s strength. If Hill is correct, Obama’s domestic policies will stop him from using such great force. “Having already moved the American public mentality in another direction during his first term, he got caught because he had prepared the way for not getting involved. [The public] said we don’t want to [intervene] because he had conditioned them to feel that’s the right way to go.”

America, however, cannot simply disengage on a whim. Obama has allowed a certain Middle Eastern mystique to grip the government, our allies, and our people at large, thereby halting the decision making process. According to Cook, “[I]t is a function of a long, difficult decade in Iraq, and the fact nobody quite knows why the U.S. went to war. I think there is a general aversion to being involved in another Middle Eastern conflict. I don’t know how many times I heard during the debate that this is not our fight.” Intervention in Syria conjures up images of the next Iraq or the next Afghanistan.

The West’s paralysis has engineered the very situation these nations sought to avoid: Syria has become a land of constant war between sides embracing two extreme religious philosophies. Even in this hostile environment, Elfayoumy still believes a balanced solution is possible. “Politics means you use all the resources that you have: diplomatic, economic, possibly military. But the solution must be political.” Yet American policymakers have their own political concerns in mind; they refuse to let go of the idea that Syria is an internal, humanitarian conflict, not one with global implications that threaten America’s reputation.

Unlike Elfayoumy, Cook maintains that we should steer clear, believing Syria is already lost. “I think early on there might have been something the U.S. could have done to prevent the outcomes we see right now; that having never been done, I think there is going to be an active insurgency regardless of what happens in Syria.”

On all sides of the discussion, one terrifying prospect remains absent from the discussion: If the situation continues escalating and we choose not to stay aloof, America could one day find itself forced into resolving a nearly unwinnable war in which defeat would threaten America’s geostrategic interests in the Middle East. We may push Syria to the back of our minds now, but the issue may haunt American foreign policy for decades to come if we continue to trundle down our path of indecisiveness.