Here are the questions on Syria: what is the American obligation? What is the American interest? What is the American capability?
There is no obligation. Where there is a treaty, the United States has an obligation to spend American blood and treasure. The seriousness of the commitment is why Congress has to ratify a president’s desire to create new ones. “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doesn’t exist. It was created as a stick with which to beat people into using the military for non-strategic purposes and used to justify the president’s desire to join the French and the British in/over Libya without engaging in a discussion of war powers or treaty obligations. It worked, but the attempt to pursue American obligations based on the emotional tug of potential victims has failed in the face of more than 12,000 actual dead people.
It surely is in the U.S.’s interest to discomfit Iran, Hezb’allah, and Russia. Overthrowing Assad would do that, but continued fighting does it as well. No country in the region wants to be Russia’s friend as heterodox Shiite Alawite Assad kills Sunni children. Iran and Turkey have fallen out over it. Iran may not get along with a replacement Syrian government, but the current one isn’t much of an ally, either. Hezb’allah fears the next war with Israel because it won’t be able to resupply overland and because Syria won’t be the threat behind the curtain. Hezb’allah fears the seepage of sectarian fighting into Lebanon as well.
The ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, while a fact, should not be mistaken for a process that the U.S. should advance or one it can control. The newly elected head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Abdulbaset Sieda, said recently that the Brotherhood “is an essential faction of the Syrian opposition,” even as he asserted that the SNC does not control the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Saudis are funding and equipping the FSA — these would be the Saudis who fund Wahhabi fundamentalist organizations around the world in pursuit of religious hegemony. They are not bankrolling an army of friends of ours.
As for capabilities, the U.S. could certainly drop a bomb on Assad’s military headquarters or the presidential palace — and to punish the regime would be satisfying. And the U.S. military has plans for a great many contingencies, possibly including how to secure non-conventional weapons if the U.S. believes there is a danger of their movement or use. Israel likely has similar plans in case a military emergency in a foreign country threatens its own citizens.
But to believe that the U.S. has the knowledge or ability to choose the players in the opposition, or to create and train a rebel army on the fly, is to believe a myth. The idea that the CIA is vetting opposition groups is not comforting.
The U.S. is not an operative player inside Syria. We never had leverage with Assad, although we bribed him with the partial lifting of sanctions, an ambassador, and nice words about his role as a “reformer.” (You can imagine the State Department — or Hillary herself, perhaps — calling Vogue editor Anna Wintour1 and suggesting that greasy piece about Asma Assad that appeared in the magazine last year. “We want to encourage his reformist tendencies, and this would be so helpful!”) But when it comes to real influence — the kind that determines who lives and who dies — Vogue didn’t stand a chance against the Russians and the Iranians, Assad’s sources of money, weapons, and political support.
As for training, the U.S. was/is the undisputed boss in Iraq and Afghanistan, occupying both countries — which would not be the case with Syrian rebel forces — creating armies and police forces over years, with professional training cadres and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. Yet both Iraqi and Afghan capabilities are still suspect and their leadership still corrupt, and most important, it is possible that in both places we are training and equipping people who do not share our interests.
Similarly, we have been working on the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF) for years, despite concerns that we may be providing capabilities to a nascent Palestinian army that has no intention of living peacefully next to Israel. The U.S. handed over $113 million in security assistance to the PA even after the PA formed a (short-lived) “unity government” with Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Had the unity government held — as the U.S. wanted it to — the Fatah-led PA would be sharing its U.S.-trained security force with Hamas.
That would be the Muslim Brotherhood Hamas, cousin to the Brotherhood that is an “essential part” of the SNC, organized and cosseted by the Turkish government — itself leaning toward the Brotherhood. Would a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syria, along with a Brotherhood dominated Egypt, Gaza Strip (and maybe the West Bank if they ever permit elections there again), and Turkey, be our friend? Better or worse than an Alawite regime? Could we prevent it from taking power if it rolled into Damascus? Would we want to? Could we influence it afterward? How much influence do we have in Egypt — where U.S. aid is counted in billions, not millions?
People fight for their own interests, not ours. The Iraqis will remake Iraq in their image, not ours. Afghans the same. Libyans, too. Egyptians and Tunisians and Yemenis as well. And Syrians.
While the pictures from Syria are horrific, the United States has neither the obligation nor the capability to field a Syrian army to overthrow Assad or to do it ourselves. And our strategic interests suggest that the fighting isn’t all bad for us as long as we continue to monitor the threat of its spread. A realistic appraisal indicates that we will be facing a Muslim Brotherhood wave for at least the foreseeable future, and that wave will not work in our favor. Rather than a futile attempt to co-opt what cannot be co-opted, the U.S. should determine how to deal with that threat in a way that secures our interests and our friends — none more than Israel — and help them do what they need to do to protect themselves and their people from danger and chaos.
1Wintour is now a bundler for the Obama campaign and hosted a major fundraiser for the president in New York.