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GlobalPost Commentary

Doing nothing is Obama’s best option in Syria

Commentary: Islamists among the rebels pose a danger to the Middle East if Assad falls.
Syria protest 05 01 2013Enlarge
An anti-regime demonstration in the Syrian village of al-Qsair, 20 miles southwest of the flashpoint city Homs. (Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Syria, which has been percolating in and out of public view for the last two years, exploded into full sight this past week as a result of revelations that the Assad government may have used nerve gas against rebel-controlled areas.

With over 70,000 already dead — the result of air strikes, heavy shelling of populated areas, and other deadly conventional military means, one can legitimately wonder why the possible deaths of an additional dozen or two Syrians would cause such concern in Washington.

The reason, unfortunately, is another of President Obama's Middle East blunders; in this case his threat last year that the use of chemical weapons was "a red line" which the Syrian government's crossing would lead, presumably, to a US military response.

He upped the ante last week after the administration told Congress that Assad's forces may have used sarin gas, calling it "a game changer." Then, thankfully, the waffle factor kicked in, with the White House undermining its own stand by noting that US intelligence agencies had only "varying degrees of confidence" that such gas had actually been used. And in his press conference Tuesday, Obama hedged his threats even further.

When is a game changer not a game changer? One can sympathize with Obama for moving his "red line"; there are, after all, no good options with regard to Syria. Republican Senators McCain and Graham were all over the Sunday talk shows demanding Obama "take action" in Syria. They are delighted to have Obama's Syrian policy to attack and can legitimately claim US credibility is at stake as our red lines fade into pink.

And the timing for Republicans is ideal; after all, they've bled the Benghazi tragedy dry. More to the point, once Hillary Clinton had resigned as secretary of state, the principle target was gone (or, anyway, on hold; we'll hear more about Benghazi from the Republican right once Clinton's run for presidency takes off).

Obama's "red line" problem with Syria is, unfortunately, of his own making. Whether he is so taken with the sound of his own rhetoric, or just oblivious to its consequences, it's not the first time he's made inept, self-foot-shooting comments about an area where his inexperience, even fours years on, is obvious.

He launched an ill-prepared foray into the Israeli/Palestinian issue — a game that's not for amateurs — in the early months of his presidency with his demand that Israel cease settlement construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu disabused him of that possibility faster than you could say "shalom." Then Obama drew his ambiguous red line on Iran's nuclear activities, which, at least so far, has not caused a worse problem than the one he hopes to prevent.

The Syrian "game changer," it appears, won't be one, because getting indisputable proof that the Assad regime authorized the use of poison gas will, luckily, be nearly impossible. (An ironic aside: Obama, to avoid getting into the war in Syria, minimizes existing intelligence; his predecessor meanwhile hyped half-baked intelligence to get us into his Iraq war. But then Bush's inexperience in the Middle East makes Obama look like an expert. Further aside: with Washington's influence in decline worldwide, wouldn't it be nice to elect a president who actually knows something about the rest of the world.)

Louis XV's reported threat, "Apres moi, le deluge," turned out to be a fair prophecy, though it took a couple of decades before France was really under water. Assad, the ex-English eye doctor, may not know his pre-revolutionary French history all that well, but he has publicly advised the world that what follows his overthrow may well make us wish he were still around.

And, who would have thought it? But already, looking into the smoke-filled crystal ball of Syria's future, the Assad regime doesn't seem so bad.

The lead article in Sunday's New York Times reported that in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, rebels aligned with al-Qaeda "control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law."

And Aleppo is not an isolated situation. Two years of compounding violence have radicalized the opposition and attracted Muslim extremists from across the Arab world. The result, the Times article concluded, is that "nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of." A westerner working with the Institute for the Study of War, who has visited Syria frequently in recent months to interview rebel commanders, was quoted: "there are no seculars" left on the rebel side.

One thing the administration has long had under consideration, and seems now to be seriously contemplating, is providing arms to the rebels. But arming secular, pro-Western militias in the face of much more numerous and already well-armed Islamists could easily backfire.

At the beginning of this year, when it was clear the longer the war lasted, the stronger the Islamists would become, I suggested an attack to wipe out the Syrian air force might be worth considering. The Syrian regime apparently retains a formidable air defense system, so such an effort — in effect turning the whole country into a no-fly zone — would be costly in equipment and manpower for us. But I thought it could speed up Assad's departure, thus giving the more secular rebel forces a better chance.

That chance, if it ever existed, seems gone. The Islamists are too strong. And as their strength increases so too, ironically, does Assad's staying power: the minority communities of Christians and Alawites will be big losers if Islamic extremists replace Assad and so too will moderate Sunnis that make up much of the educated and business classes of Aleppo and Damascus.

It seems clear that it's too late for the kind of intervention in the fight against Assad that could assure "our" rebels emerge victorious. Should we then rethink our whole approach? Should we tell the Russians that, under certain conditions, we could be willing to work with them to retain a weakened Assad, with a broader-based government, in power? With all that blood on his hands? An about-face that leaves egg on our faces, blood then on our hands as well, makes the Russians look good, helps Iran, and thoroughly undermines Saudi Arabia and our other Sunni allies?

Of course we won't. And talking to the Russians, as surely we are doing, trying to prepare them to work with us against the pro-al Qaeda types after Assad's fall is not going to work: it merely offers them the chance to explain why we should help prop up Assad.

Saudi Arabia is openly arming the militants - an incredibly short-sighted policy — as once in power, they'll surely bite the monarchal hands that fed them. The Turks are as nervous about extremism on their borders as we are, but a military option is no more viable for them than for us.

When, after three or four more bloody years and a war that envelops Lebanon, the radical Islamists end up in power in Damascus, maybe we'll wish we had indeed helped keep Assad in power. What we know now is that there are no good options — and that the law of unintended consequences will plague whatever action we take.

There was a book on Buddhist meditation published in the peaceful '90s; its title: "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There." Which, unappealing as it, may be the best option for Obama as he looks at the galloping tragedy overtaking Syria.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.

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