Saturday, August 31, 2013

Why and Why now?


Why is the US considering a strike on Syria at this time? And what is the purpose and extent of such a strike?

While the use of chemical weapons is the announced trigger for the use of force by the US, another factor  is probably also at play.

The war in Syria reached a stalemate some time ago. Iran has long realized that it will be very difficult to restore the status quo ante in Syria. But for Tehran a transition to a democratic Syria would be disastrous, because it is inconceivable that the Syrian people will democratically and willingly maintain a strategic alliance with Iran or access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. So, Iran's strategy has been to shore up the regime in Damascus and keep the war going. A syria at war is Iran’s second best to an outright victory for the rebels. 

On its part, the US is not ready to carry the risk and incur the cost of the massive intervention needed to  force a regime change in Syria similar to that in Iraq. Obama was in fact elected because of his, and America's, anti-interventionist sentiment following the Iraq debacle.  On the other hand, a disorderly downfall of Assad and a chaotic militia-infested Syria that might ensue would be disastrous. An agreement on a power sharing transition has proved elusive, and is likely to remain so. So what has been the US policy? Basically a mirror image of Iran’s: to shore up the Syrian rebels, not to topple Assad by force but to give the rebels an edge or at least keep a battlefield balance until such time that an acceptable deal is reached. 

However this strategy appeared to be faltering in recent months. The flow of military support to the rebels was proving to be insufficient and ineffective and certainly not a match to the much better equipped regime forces. Assad's army (aided by Hezbollah and Iran’s RG) continued to press on both in Central Syria and the strategically critical Damascus suburbs. A victory by Assad, long-considered an impossibility, started to look like a conceivable nightmare. Thus the decision of the US to intervene militarily; to give a much needed nudge the embattled and outgunned rebels. It is not merely the use of chemical weapons.

Obama is under no public pressure to intervene in Syria. In fact, It is quite the opposite.  Only a minority of Americans support military intervention by the US. A new poll shows that even if the use of CW is confirmed, most Americans would not support military action by the US.

According to  this analysis, the timing and motivation behind the strike is not only due to the use of chemical weapons, despicable as that is.  The purpose may well be to degrade the regime’s military capability enough to restore some balance to enable the rebels to continue the war; a boost that helps restore the military status quo ante prior to the regime's recent offensive. 

This implies that the strike will be more than symbolic; substantive though  less than decisive. It also implies that we should brace ourselves for a long and bloody war in Syria, and for potential blows below the belt against the West and GCC in the always-convenient Lebanese theater.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Obama and the Syrian Spectacle

That the Syrian conflict is complex is obvious. This ancient land is now the focal point of a number of simultaneous historic transformations and conflicts, which blur visions and policy choices of many players, in Washington and elsewhere. Is it an overdue revolt by the people of Syria against a brutal dictatorship which has already sacrificed tens of of thousands of innocent lives just to stay in power?  Is it a age old domestic feud with shifting communal and sectarian fault lines with a collection of extremist groups and violent cults committing horrible acts? Is it the main theater for the strategic regional and global face off between Iran and its allies on one side and their many enemies and adversaries on the other? Is it a conflict with serious implications for the evolution of political Islam and the global threat of jihadist terrorism? The answer is yes, yes, yes and yes. All these elements are there. And they are all interrelated, which makes the picture even more complicated. Anyone who's ever tried to solve four simultaneous polynomial equations can appreciate the predicament of analysts and policy advisors on Syria. But who said leadership is easy? It is mostly about making tough decisions. Making difficult choices. 

Hegel once described a Greek tragedy as a conflict between two goods. Difficult to chose sides, when it is not a clear choice between right and wrong. Actually, many  Syria watchers in Washington see the conflict in Syria today as one between two evils. Not only making it difficult to chose sides but making it even desirable to encourage the fight to go on; to fuel the conflict for as long as possible - presumably without burning one's fingers. Sounds like a sensible conclusion. But is it?

For  one thing  saving countless Syrian lives should not be a trivial matter to anyone. Especially to the foremost global power, which prides itself on anchoring  its policies and global role in values and principles; "American" values and principles. But non-altruistic interests are at stake as well. It is simply too dangerous to let Syria percolate indefinitely  thinking that it will remain a conflict between "evils" fighting it out in a distant land. An anarchic Syria can be a very serious threat to many other countries in the region and to the world at large. For decades, the Iran-led alliance has used Assad's Syria as a tightly controlled and reliable ally in their regional and international pursuits.  A protracted war in a chaotic Syria is also a suitable theater for Assad's allies in their regional and international machinations. To be used in even more sinister ways. The Lebanese civil war of the 1980s is a good reminder.

This doesn't necessarily make Obama's  policy choices easier. Syria may not be a simple fight between good and evil or a Hegelian tragedy of good against good. But neither is it a fight between two evils where good people can sit and enjoy the show.