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The illusion of U.S. engagement in Syria

When generals want to avoid military intervention in a conflict overseas, they provide options, all of which are bad.

This week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, did precisely that in a letter to Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, presenting a list of options for intervention in Syria. This included training opposition personnel, engaging in airstrikes, and enforcing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. Dempsey noted that long-range strikes against military targets of the Syrian regime would require “hundreds of aircraft, ships, submarines and other enablers,” and would cost “in the billions.”

Dempsey did not address the American decision to arm the Syrian rebels, however, as that is a Central Intelligence Agency operation. But his pessimism about what the United States could do must have echoed sympathetically in the White House, where enthusiasm for military involvement in Syria is low.

Dempsey alluded to the essence of the problem in Syria when he observed, “Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” The general had a point. But the Obama administration has time and again approached Syria by taking one step forward and two backward. From the start it misread the dangers of the conflict, and did nothing to affect the outcome, which, if Iran and Bashar Assad triumph, will have negative repercussions for American interests in the Middle East.

But now is now, and America is in a rut. No one seriously expects American small arms and ammunition to make a difference on the ground. At best Assad’s enemies are hoping that the weapons will draw Washington further into their war, leading to precisely the scenarios sketched out by Dempsey. But that is very unlikely since President Barack Obama’s decision to send weapons is more an effort to avoid doing more in Syria – a sop to the Syrians that buys the U.S. wiggling room – than a real change in American attitudes.

The situation is little different than the calculations behind the Geneva conference, which was hurriedly endorsed by the administration so that Obama could deflect rising criticism of his unwillingness to react to reports that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Supplying weapons are the president’s latest method of doing something limited to avoid a more radical approach.

That is why Dempsey’s letter was quite useful for the president. It implicitly defined the limits of what would be acceptable to the United States. And it was no surprise that Congress decided to go ahead with the administration’s plan to arm the rebels, even if the covert arms program was not specifically mentioned, and despite deep skepticism with the American plan in general.

Perhaps sensing that the Obama administration’s Syria policy is much ado about nothing, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that he had not discussed the deployment of Russian S-300 surface-to-air-missile systems with Syria’s deputy prime minister, Qadri Jamil, this week in Moscow. The missile systems are a deterrent against the use of Western air power in Syria, but if the Russians were worried, Dempsey’s doubts, and Obama’s evasiveness over Syria, must have reassured them that American jets would not soon arrive.

The Obama administration appears to be increasingly resigned to the prospect that the war in Syria will continue for a long time, and that Assad will probably remain in office. For over a year the American line was that Assad’s days as president were numbered, so it was strange to hear White House spokesman Jay Carney change emphasis and say, “While there are shifts in momentum on the battlefield, Bashar Assad, in our view, will never rule all of Syria again.”

That the United States is apparently not preparing for Syria’s crack-up is in itself remarkable. Beyond Assad’s durability is a more worrisome reality, namely that swathes of Syria could turn into areas under no real authority, ruled by armed groups, especially Salafist jihadist groups. Perhaps that is what Assad is counting on, since once such entities emerge, his latitude to enter them militarily, with international backing, as France did in Mali, will only increase.

Lavrov also declared that Assad would be willing to go to Geneva without preconditions, and urged the U.S. and the European states to push the opposition to come to the table. This was tactical, but it shows what the Russians are thinking. With the Obama administration looking for any outlet from Syria, Geneva offers a way, but one almost certain to widen the gap between Washington and the opposition. Where the opposition will not want to negotiate from a position of weakness, the Americans, who seem so reluctant to give them the means to bargain from a position of strength, will probably set as their priority getting a negotiating process started.

The Russian strategy is to strengthen Assad’s position militarily, push for talks that allow him to consolidate his gains, and use the presidential election in 2014 (which Assad will, of course, manage to win) to anchor him even more solidly in place. Nothing in the American outlook truly worries the Russians, as they can now see that the U.S. military has no appetite to involve itself in Syria, and Obama no intention of wasting political capital by seriously addressing the situation there.

So, Dempsey’s doubts have only strengthened an attitude already prevalent in Washington, namely to do as little as possible in Syria. If a few small arms and bullets can keep the illusion of engagement alive, then so be it. But no one in Washington is fooled. The U.S. will continue to keep Syria’s war at arm’s length, whatever happens.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2013, on page 7.
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