Now that the White House has officially acknowledged the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the question is no longer whether we get involved in the Syrian civil war, but how. This represents a victory for the smallish, outspoken group of liberal interventionists who have been arguing for an American military role, while trying to shake off the stigma of their de facto alliance with neoconservatives a decade ago in supporting President Bush’s war in Iraq. President Obama’s nomination last week of Susan Rice as National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations seemed to signal that we’d be moving in this direction, given their records as liberal interventionists, but nobody expected it to happen so fast.
Liberal interventionists have been insisting for months that, as The New York Times’ Bill Keller and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen argued recently, memories of Iraq shouldn’t deter America from acting in Syria, because they’re not the same thing. The scale of humanitarian disaster in Syria is genuine, immediate and overwhelming. On the contrary, the proper precedents are the shameful tragedies of our delayed intervention in Bosnia, as The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier maintains, and our abject failure to act in Rwanda, as Princeton University political scientist (and former Obama State Department aide) Anne-Marie Slaughter forcefully insists. Indeed, the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon writes that the lesson for Syria from the Bosnia experience is what went right after we did intervene.
Conservative interventionists like Elliott Abrams and, well, a host of others have been calling for months for action in Syria as a way to weaken Iran and Hezbollah. Hebrew University Middle East scholar [Moshe Maoz], perhaps Israel’s most respected Syria watcher — and an outspoken dove on the Palestinian issue—makes both arguments in a new op-ed essay in Haaretz: that the humanitarian disaster and the growing prospect of an Assad-Hezbollah-Iran victory in the civil war should stir Washington and NATO to a firm, Bosnia-style intervention. Israel has everything to gain from such an intervention, he writes, and while it can’t be part of the action, it can and “must use its good ties with the U.S. to persuade it to give strategic military support to the rebels in Syria.” As for fears that a rebel victory would install a jihadist or Al Qaeda-style regime in Damascus, he writes:
It is true that the Free Syrian Army is not sufficiently consolidated and strong enough and that the rebels also include fighters from Al-Qaida and other extremist Salafi groups. However, despite these groups’ radical motivation and ideology, they account for only a few thousand of the fighters. Most of them are not Syrians and they do not represent the mainstream Sunni Muslim population of Syria.In a joint and systematic effort with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, and with massive help from the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it is possible to strengthen and consolidate the Free Syrian Army (which currently numbers about 50,000 fighters), create a wide buffer zone inside Syria’s northern border and prevent the Syrian army from acting in this area. Clearly Iran and Russia will object to such Arab-Western moves and will continue to support Bashar’s regime and block American influence in the region. The international summit on the issue (which was supposed to have convened at the beginning of this month) will not solve the problem, but will only prolong Bashar’s rule.
Given the existential issues at stake, Maoz writes, Israel can make a very important contribution to the success of this alliance.
From the regional perspective, Assad’s regime is an important link in the radical Shi’ite axis led by Iran (and with the participation of Hezbollah). This is our most dangerous enemy, and as well as that of Sunni Muslim countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and some of the Gulf states. Like those countries, the government of Israel should publicly express support for the Free Syrian Army and the civil leadership of the mainstream Muslim rebels, both secular and religious (including the Muslim Brotherhood), with whom it is also possible to conduct negotiations when they come into power. In this way Israel would signal to the Sunni rebels and countries that it wants to join a regional strategic alliance, which will act to topple the Assad regime and will also weaken Iran and Hezbollah.However, to advance this alliance Israel will have to accept the principles of the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which was recently ratified in a more moderate version and most of the Sunni countries are supporting. Such a step could help to integrate Israel into a new regional strategic lineup, under the umbrella of the United States.
But there’s a powerful argument to be made—as George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch writes at ForeignPolicy.com—that the humanitarian goal of stopping the bloodshed and the strategic goal of weakening Iran aren’t actually complementary, but contradictory.
Should Syria be viewed as a front in a broad regional cold war against Iran and its allies or as a humanitarian catastrophe that must be resolved? That question crosses partisan lines and gets to fundamental questions about how to understand the rapidly changing Middle East.The distinction matters directly and profoundly for the debate over specific policies. Steps that effectively bleed Iran and its allies might well prolong and intensify Syria’s bloodshed, while policies that alleviate human suffering and produce a more stable postwar Syria may well require dealing with Assad’s backers. Imagine that Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a diplomatic breakthrough that ended the fighting and secured a political transition but included an Iranian role – from the latter perspective this would be a stunning success, but from the former it would be an epic disaster.Many of the advocates of aggressive intervention define the Syrian conflict primarily as a front in the cold war against Iran. From this perspective, Hezbollah’s entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing – Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran’s most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy’s queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat – and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran – should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States.If Washington endorses the goal of bleeding Iran and its allies through proxy warfare, a whole range of more interventionist policies logically follow. The model here would presumably be the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – a long-term insurgency coordinated through neighboring countries, fueled by Gulf money, and popularized by Islamist and sectarian propaganda.“Success” in this strategy would be defined by the damage inflicted on Iran and its allies – and not by reducing the civilian body count, producing a more stable and peaceful Syria, or marginalizing the more extreme jihadists. Ending the war would not be a particular priority, unless it involved Assad’s total military defeat. The increased violence, refugee flows, and regionalization of conflict would likely increase the pressure on neighboring states such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. It would also likely increase sectarianism, as harping on Sunni-Shiite divisions is a key part of the Arab Gulf’s political effort to mobilize support for the Syrian opposition (and to intimidate local Shiite populations, naturally). And the war zone would continue to be fertile ground for al Qaeda’s jihad, no matter how many arms were sent to its “moderate” rivals in the opposition.What follows if the conflict were understood instead as a Syrian civil war and humanitarian catastrophe? Resolving these twin crises has long been the focus of international and U.S. diplomatic efforts and is again at the fore of the proposed (but probably stillborn) Geneva II conference, which aims to bring the Syrian regime and opposition together to reach a negotiated deal. Such a settlement could in theory reduce the killing, allow the return of refugees, reduce pressure on Syria’s neighbors, marginalize the jihadists, and assuage the region’s spiraling sectarian hatreds. But it would not mark a defeat of Iran and its allies.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).