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As the Arab world careens, what’s Obama to do?

Commentary: Syria, Egypt and Gaza pose many risks and few good options for Washington.
Obama 2012 12 12Enlarge
US President Barack Obama speaks during the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) symposium at the National Defense University in Washington on December 3, 2012. Obama directly warned Syria's President Bashar al-Assad that he would face 'consequences' if he made the 'tragic mistake' of turning chemical weapons on his own people. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine – As the turmoil in the Arab World goes from bad to worse, confusion to chaos, the always relevant question becomes even more critical: what, if anything, should the United States be doing?

But maybe that's no longer the really relevant question. Maybe Washington should be asking, "What are the worst-case scenarios and how should we respond to them?"

The underlying problem is that after unsuccessful interventions in civil wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan we have finally learned this lesson: there is little a country thousands of miles away, however powerful, can do, even with hundreds of thousands of troops and a decade or more of fighting.

The Department of Defense just issued another discouraging report on Afghanistan that makes the point: after 11 years there – with troop surges, counter-insurgency doctrines, and imposed democracy – if US fighting forces leave on schedule in 2014, our Afghan allies are unlikely to withstand the Taliban.

So our reluctance to get militarily involved in Syria is a well-reasoned policy, even as the death toll approaches 50,000.

Against the threat that the Assad government, in its death throes, might turn to chemical weapons, President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta have warned that the US would take steps to prevent them from doing so. But what exactly could we do?

The answer, realistically, is very little.

Even such gung-ho Senate warriors as John McCain and his sidekick Joe Lieberman are not suggesting American troops be inserted into Syria. Instead, they prefer no-fly zones. It's hard to see how air power alone, however used, could prevent Syrian government forces from launching poison gas attacks.

Which raises a broader question: Are there ultimately any circumstances in which the US should get directly involved?

Rather than reach that end-game, it would clearly be better to arrange a deal with Assad that would offer him and a few of the top leaders of his government safe passage to whichever country would take him in.

Assuming such a deal, arranged presumably through the Russians, were possible, it would obviously meet with aggressive denunciation from human rights organizations in the US and worldwide. How, Washington would be asked rhetorically, could we provide someone with so much blood on his hands a get-out-of-jail-free card? What message does it send to the rest of the world's tyrants?

Once Assad had received his safe-passage and government forces had disbanded or surrendered, the more practical and challenging question is how to prevent a bloodbath against the 2 million-plus Alawite community? They would surely be the targets of reprisals from Sunni militias that had seen their families killed by Assad's Alawite-dominated forces?

Then comes the most fundamental question of all: who would replace the Assad government?

On this front, suddenly the US has come to life. This Tuesday, the day before a group of Syrian rebel leaders met in Morocco to form a unified political organization, President Obama announced he would recognize them as the country's legitimate representative.

The day before that, Washington announced it had put Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the pro-al Qaeda jihadist forces, on its terrorist blacklist. Al-Nusra is widely regarded, among virtually all the disparate rebel forces, as one of the most successful militias fighting Assad – no doubt part of the problem from Washington's point of view.

But is it productive to split the insurgent forces, pitting some groups against others, before the war is won?

A New York Times reporter quoted a rebel spokesman, not a Nusra member, reacting to the US position: the Nusra Front "defends civilians in Syria, whereas America didn't do anything. They stand by and watch; they look at the blood and crimes and brag. Then they say that Nusra Front are terrorists. America just wants a pretext to intervene in Syrian affairs after the revolution."

A group of some 100 anti-Assad organizations and militias have scheduled demonstrations for Friday under the slogan, "No to American intervention – we are all Jabhat al-Nusra." A leader of one of the rebel groups that the US would like to see involved in a unified command said, "Anti-American sentiment is growing because the Americans are messing up in bigger ways lately." It seems that even without direct involvement in Syria, the US has managed to split opposition forces and damage its own credibility.

Which raises other basic questions about Syria: Will Assad's ouster just be one step in a continuing civil war as his opponents then turn on each other? Are US attempts to midwife a moderate, centrist Syrian government likely to succeed or prove counter productive, as seems so far the case? Once Assad leaves, does Washington intend to start actively providing arms to those we consider "the good guys?" Could such a policy prevail or would it encourage Iran, then Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, among others, to step up support for their factions, thus turning the Syrian civil war into a proxy war for competing forces throughout the Middle East?

Meanwhile, the Syrian government has pretty much retreated from the sparsely populated Kurdish areas of Syria in the northeast, along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. It's quite likely that when Assad is finally out of power, Kurdish rebels will end up controlling a semi-autonomous area, which, of course, could instigate a reaction from Turkey, especially if Syrian Kurds were to attempt to hook up with their cousins in Turkey or Iraq.

And in Egypt, where, until recently, President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood government had transitioned to power in a relatively democratic manner, things are spiraling backwards. The referendum this Saturday for his new constitution is unlikely to resolve tensions between Islamists and more secular Egyptians. And while Morsi apparently retains support from the army, so far, what happens if the army withdraws its support or it splits into opposing camps. Should the US try to play a mediating role or just stand aside and let the Egyptians work it out?

The Arab Middle East is, as everyone is aware, in the midst of massive changes; the eventual and unpredictable outcome won't be realized for years.

US policy, meanwhile, remains frozen in a pre-Arab Spring time warp. Hamas has ruled in Gaza for six years, and yet we refuse to deal with them. Secular Arab rulers are being gradually replaced with more religious governments, while the most right-wing government in Israel's history continues its expansionist settlement policies, reviving the Palestinian issue among the re-revolutionized Arabs. Jihadist groups are likely to be more prevalent in the future, not less.

And the worst could still be in the future: what happens if the pro-Western monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia are overthrown? There was a time, even during the Cold War, when the Arab Middle East was essentially irrelevant. Military coups and civil uprisings, the 1967 and the 1973 wars with Israel, however bloody and destabilizing, had little impact beyond their borders. As the US becomes energy self-sufficient over the next several decades, will the Middle East, once again, recede in importance?

We're a long way from that point. An exploding Middle East could drive the world off another economic cliff – making our own fiscal cliff look like a roadside ditch – while re-igniting al-Qaeda-style terrorism throughout the West. And all this, without considering how Israel, with its neighbors out of control, might react.

What is the White House doing to prepare for such possibilities? What can it do?

There are no easy answers, nor is there any single right answer to events cascading ever more rapidly downhill. Just less bad ones.

It's easy to understand why Hillary Clinton is stepping down as secretary of state; less easy to understand why anyone would want to succeed her.

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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