A maxim in the United States Army is, “Don’t tell a soldier to do something; tell him what you want done.” President Roosevelt didn’t tell General Eisenhower to cross the English Channel; he told him to obtain the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. A counterexample can be found in the way that the United States has squandered American influence because the Obama Administration failed to determine what it wanted done in Syria. In an odd twist, given the president’s desire to boost U.S.-Russian relations, the Russians might have helped, but we didn’t ask.
There is no shortage of voices yelling, “Do something!” Calls to train and/or arm “the rebels”; establish “no fly” zones and/or safe havens; provide non-lethal and/or humanitarian aid; eliminate Syrian air defenses and/or take direct action under the rubric of R2P are all permutations of “doing.” It would have been legitimate for the U.S. to do any of those things, or all or none of them — whichever advanced our goals. But American goals have been mixed, at best.
The president demanded that Bashar Assad step down but also demanded that Assad maintain control of his chemical arsenal (tough to do if you’re leaving town). He told the CIA to vet “the rebels” to ensure that jihadist or al Qaeda-related groups don’t receive U.S. weapons or training, but left arming and training to Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, countries that don’t share our aversion to international Sunni jihad. And by the end of 2011, the administration knew weapons were going from al Qaeda-related Libyan militias to Syrian rebels.
Notwithstanding the limits on our understanding of who the rebels are (see General Dempsey) and by whom/what they are guided, it turns out the U.S. is giving “our” rebels in Jordan skills to “secure” Syria’s chemical arsenal. Which means that if “our” rebels turn out to be closer in ideology to other rebels than to Washington, we will have given them the skills to hold an arsenal we don’t want them to have.
Former Secretary of State Clinton now wants it known that she was in the “arm the rebels” camp, but just a year ago she opposed arming anyone. (“We really don’t know who it is that would be armed. Are we supporting al-Qaeda?” “Hamas is now supporting the opposition. Are we supporting Hamas?”) She called on the Syrian people to rise up in their own defense. (“What about the people in Damascus, what about the people in Aleppo? Don’t they know… Syrian men, women, and children are being slaughtered by their government? When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?”) They listened to her and died in droves.
Confused? You’re not alone.
Last week, Vladimir Putin apparently asked Vladimir Lukin, former Russian ambassador to Washington, if he understood American policy. Lukin told journalists, “The president asked me what the Americans want in Syria, saying he could not understand what they want. I honestly acknowledged that I can’t make out what they want, but I know for sure they want us to join the U.S. in its failure to understand what to do in Syria.”
Unlike the Americans, the Russians know what they want and they’re willing to tolerate a lot of bloodshed to get it. Russia’s goal is secular control of Syria, a natural outgrowth of Russia’s two vicious wars in Sunni Muslim, separatist Chechnya (1994-96 and 1999-2007). The result in the Caucasus was a staggering number of Chechen deaths (the Russians acknowledge 160,000) and the utter destruction of Grozny. Russian operations in Chechnya ended in 2009, but there are Chechen fighters with the rebels in Syria.
Putin had no problem with Bashar Assad — a famously secular despot whose father, using the Russian handbook, killed as many as 40,000 Syrians and leveled the city of Hama to rid himself of the Muslim Brotherhood. If the Russians appear less wedded to Assad personally these days, they are no less determined to maintain a unified Syria under a secular government and continue the fight against Sunni jihadists.
David Ignatius in the Washington Post describes the major rebel groups currently operating. There are “moderate” Islamists (funded by Saudi Arabia), hardcore Salafists (funded by Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Gulf Arab individuals), an indeterminately Islamist group (funded by Qatar), and an al-Qaeda offshoot — plus the “secular” Free Syrian Army (FSA). Ignatius concludes, “Realistically, the best hope for U.S. policy is to press the Saudi-backed coalition and its 37,000 fighters, to work under the command of… the Free Syrian Army.”
It is unclear why Saudi Arabia, which supports international jihad, would offer its fighters to a secular commander rather than making an alliance with other similarly jihadist groups to isolate the FSA. But never mind that for a moment. Ignatius is actually arguing the Russian goal: to have the United States use what leverage it has to produce a secularly governed Syria without Assad. Is that what the president wants done? If so, the fact that he and his administration have been unable to find a way to talk to the Russians about their interest and ours is nothing short of astounding.
Maybe President Obama thinks “great power” negotiations are old school — reminiscent of colonial abuses of power. Maybe he doesn’t think the United States is a “great power.” Surely he wouldn’t like to think of it as “colonial.” But the U.S. and Russia had, and may still have, regional security goals that are, if not aligned, at least congruent where it counts. By failing to behave as a great power, the United States missed perhaps its only opportunity to short-circuit that has become the carnage of the Syrian civil war.