Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 21, 2016

Obama, Syria, and the Limits of American Power

By David K. Shipler

            Opposition to U.S. policy rarely boils up from the State Department, which the columnist James Reston used to call the Fudge Factory, a place of ambiguous words, hedged bets, and dulled edges. So a dissenting memo on Syria that surfaced last week, signed by 51 State Department officials, caused a stir in Washington, especially after Secretary of State John Kerry was reported to share its argument for focused air strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad—something President Obama has resisted.
            The document sets forth some cogent reasoning and analysis. But it’s noteworthy that it comes from the State Department rather than the Pentagon. Not only is the military more disciplined than the Foreign Service (for better or worse), but it’s also probably more realistic in assessing the complications, costs, and risks of such an escalation.
The military chiefs are said to have steadfastly backed Obama’s refusal to conduct an air war against the Assad regime, and it’s not hard to see why. Cruise missiles could be fired from a safe distance, but if drones were introduced or American pilots flew missions, advanced Syrian air defenses would have to be taken out first. Russian aircraft, now deployed on Assad’s behalf, would have to be countered or induced to stand by idly—an unlikely prospect. Finally, a collapse of Assad would leave a power vacuum (think Libya) into which something worse might flow, something called ISIS.
Presidents rarely get marks for courage when they decide not to do something. But not marching into war, especially into a maelstrom of tribal chaos, takes a steady nerve. Political opponents and foreign adversaries might see weakness instead of prudence, or vacillation instead of steely resolve, and they might miscalculate accordingly. Or, as in this case, they might more accurately regard Obama as a canny student of international disorder and a deliberate thinker about the limits of American power.
There has never been an easy answer on Syria, but the urgency of the problem is undeniable. Initially viewed as a local conflict without much implication for U.S. security, the bloody stalemate’s damage has now overflowed Syria’s borders into Iraq, North Africa, Europe, and America. ISIS spreads its terrorist ideology, picking up recruits in the West. Refugees flee en masse to a Europe now reeling from its own idealistic policy of open borders. Destabilization threatens other Arab countries. Russia and the U.S., jockeying to support Assad and anti-Assad rebels, respectively, endure close military encounters charged with the danger of a Russian-American clash in the skies over Syria.
Therefore, the dissenting memo—despite its flaws—is worth serious consideration by the White House. To tip the scales against Assad and toward a ceasefire and a political solution, the 51 State Department officers recommend “a more militarily assertive U.S. role in Syria, based on the judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hardnosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.” As things stand, they observe, Assad pays no price for ignoring an agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) negotiated by Kerry and other diplomats as a path toward a transitional post-Assad government.
The officers don’t call for an all-out American invasion, and they “are not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia,” they write. Rather, they want “targeted military strikes in response to egregious regime violations of the CoH [which] would raise the cost for the regime and bolster the prospects for a real ceasefire—without cities being bombed and humanitarian convoys blocked.” They predict that “a reinvigorated CoH would help the political process to mature as we press for the formation of a transitional government body with full executive powers that can start to rebuild Syria and Syrian society, with significant assistance from the international community.”
They offer no evidence to support this hopeful scenario, which is surprising given their self-description as experienced in Syrian affairs during the last five years. They also acknowledge the uncertainties and accept the perils of what they recommend. “Military action is not a panacea,” they concede, and the Assad regime “might prove resilient in the face of U.S. strikes.” They point to deteriorating Russian-American relations and unspecified “second-order effects” as likely.
“Nevertheless,” they conclude, “it is also clear that the status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic, and terrorism-related challenges.”
Nobody would argue against that last sentence, but the solution still seems elusive. The gaping hole in the memo is how to prevent ISIS or a variation from taking control in Damascus after a departure by Assad. The State Department officials offer no prescription for avoiding such a debacle.
What would the Kremlin say? Russia fades into the background of their proposal, inexplicably. When Moscow deployed aircraft to help prop up the Assad regime, Vladimir Putin gave as a rationale the goal of defeating ISIS and curbing the traffic in fighters who are recruited in Central Asia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, and who could easily return to commit terrorism. Putin would rather kill them in Syria than in Russia, Kazakhstan, or any part of what he considers Russia’s sphere of influence.
 It seems evident that Putin regards the Assad military, albeit weakened, as the only conventional force on the ground that can realistically hold ISIS at bay. He’s probably right. He’s also being a colossal nuisance by attacking pro-U.S. rebel forces as well to pursue his game of parrying Washington’s influence and establishing Russia as a player in the Middle East again.
Nevertheless, a huge overlap exists in Russian and American concerns, and it’s ignored in the dissenters’ memo: An ISIS takeover would be as bad for Moscow as for Washington. That’s the geopolitical reality that should be the centerpiece of American policy. To brush that mutual interest aside is to forfeit an opportunity for productive cooperation. That Russia might end up better positioned in that chaotic part of the world would be a minor price to pay if ISIS could be defeated. The same could be said of gains that Iran might make. Yet the memo is dismissive on this point, merely decrying “the Russian and Iranian governments’ cynical and destabilizing deployment of significant military power to bolster the Assad regime.” One looks in vain for creative thinking here.  
            The warfare in Syria has produced a good deal of hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and absurdist scapegoating inside the Washington Beltway, which contains the world’s densest population of those who think of U.S. military force as inevitably decisive. Obama seems to be a cooler head. If he considers the memo of the 51 seriously, gets a buy-in from his military, and can avoid creating a dire crisis with Russia, maybe he’ll try a few cruise missiles, judiciously placed.

            But if not, Assad can take little comfort. Chances are that the next U.S. president will be more aggressive: Hillary Clinton is more hawkish than Obama on foreign policy, and Donald Trump might just confuse his Twitter Post button with his Nuke ‘Em button. In either case, Assad might be smart to make a deal before next Jan. 20 to move to a dacha near Moscow. The weather is tough, but the surrounding birch woods make for lovely walks, even in what Russians happily call the crackling frost of winter.

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