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.

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