“Tis folly in one Nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its Independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favours and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon real favours from Nation to Nation. 'Tis an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.” — George Washington, Farewell Address — 1796
George Washington realized that foreign entanglements would run contrary to our national interests. He was not an isolationist as be believed that relations with foreign nations in the areas of commerce and trade were desirable things for the new republic. But he also believed that political entanglements with foreign governments were not to be desired. As he stated in in his Farewell Address of 1796:
“The Great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign Nations is in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements let them be fulfilled, with perfect good faith. Here let us stop.”
Other Founders were in agreement with Washington. Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 11:
“Let the thirteen States, bound together in a strict and indissoluble Union, concur in erecting one great American system, superior to the control of all transatlantic force or influence, and able to dictate the terms of the connection between the old and the new world!”
Thomas Jefferson stated in a 1797 letter to Elbridge Gerry:
“I have been happy in believing that whatever follies we may be led into as to foreign nations, we shall never give up our Union, the last anchor of our hope, and that alone which is to prevent this heavenly country from becoming an arena of gladiators.”
Our Founding Fathers believed all relations with foreign nations should be in our national interest. This is why they stated in Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution when defining the powers of President:
“He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.”
In essence what our Founders were saying was the Executive could not enter into treaties or agreements with foreign powers without the consent of the Senate. This is why Wilson’s desire for the joining the League of Nations was defeated in the Senate.
Since the end of World War II the Executive branch has muddied the waters by entering into shadow agreements with foreign powers. They have sent military aid and advisors to prop up popular and unpopular regimes. Presidents have sent troops to intervene in foreign entanglements like Libya, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Now we are considering entering into the vicious civil war raging in Syria, a nation with a regime we don’t like. Whether we like Bashar Hafez al-Assad or how many people have died in his civil war is not relevant. What is relevant, however, is what is our national interest of any involvement in this conflict.
Last August, President Obama declared that the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons was a "red line." About four months later, Al Jazeera released unconfirmed reports that a gas attack killed seven civilians in a rebel-held neighborhood of Homs. Last April, the UK, France, and Israel each claimed that there was evidence that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Aleppo, Homs, and/or Damascus. By April 25th, the U.S intelligence assessment was that the Assad regime had likely used sarin gas, but President Obama dodged his red line by announcing that a thorough investigation was still needed (as if the Syrian government would ever allow one). Meanwhile, reports from foreign intelligence agencies and journalists continued to corroborate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. So why did Obama's requirement of a thorough investigation to confirm the crossing of his red line suddenly vanish last Friday?
Viewed through the lens of domestic politics, Obama's Syria epiphany looks conveniently timed to deflect attention from an ever-swelling wave of scandals: Benghazi-gate, IRS-gate, AP/Fox-gate, and now NSA-gate and State Department prostitution-gate. As the film Wag The Dog highlights, international crises are great at diverting attention from domestic scandals.
But from the perspective of the Syrian rebels, the timing and nature of U.S. military assistance may be viewed as either too little, too late, or a cynical attempt to ensure a perpetual stalemate. After all, the outgunned rebels have needed lethal weapons from the U.S. for over two years. Chemical weapons use by the Assad regime is old news. So what has changed? The Syrian regime recently defeated rebel forces at the crucial battle in Qusayr, a town providing a strategic supply conduit for rebel forces in Homs. After the military gains enabled by the robust battlefield support of Iran-backed Hezbollah, the Syrian regime is now preparing for a major offensive to retake Aleppo. With another crushing blow to a key rebel stronghold, the regime could ultimately prevail in the conflict, unless the U.S. provides just enough rebel support to restore the pre-Qusayr stalemate.
Obama has already made it clear that any lethal weapons or no-fly zone provided by the U.S. would be limited. Such tentative U.S. involvement is unlikely to end the carnage, given the vigorous support that the Assad regime enjoys from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia (which could undermine a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone by supplying Syria with its potent S-300 missile defense system). Indeed, the New York Times reported on June 14th that "the president's caution has frayed relations with important American allies in the Middle East that have privately described the White House strategy as feckless. Saudi Arabia and Jordan recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, a decision that American officials said came from the belief in Riyadh and Amman that the United States has only a tepid commitment to supporting rebel groups."
What a difference two years makes. In 2011, the relatively non-sectarian Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the main force fighting for freedom from Assad's tyranny. Sunni Islamists had not yet felt compelled by FSA failures to join (and ultimately lead) the military effort in large numbers. In 2011, Obama also had far more credibility and political capital — important presidential assets when undertaking a foreign military intervention.
But now the Syrian crisis has deteriorated into a regional sectarian war, increasingly creeping over Syrian borders and into Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Jordan. The Syrian belligerents have also radicalized, decreasing the odds that the ultimate victor will be friendly to the U.S. or able to achieve a postwar reconciliation and reconstruction in Syria.
Today, with a death toll exceeding 90,000 Syrians (and increasing by 5,000/month) and millions displaced, the humanitarian need for intervention is greater than ever. But Iran and Russia are redoubling their support for the Assad regime, so the U.S. must not enter the Syrian cauldron with half-measures or it could suffer a costly setback with far-reaching repercussions. If Obama's "red line" was crossed months ago and the tardy "consequences" are America's feeble and ineffective entry into the Syrian civil war, then Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries will only feel emboldened to challenge U.S. interests.
A cardinal rule in foreign policy is this: if your enemies are busy killing each other, don’t step in and try to stop them. Yet, that’s exactly what we would be doing if we train, arm or provide military assistance to the Syrian rebels.
In other words, the Syrian civil war is now down to a fight between the mass murdering, chemical-weapons-using Assad government, and the Al Qaeda-affiliated, radical extremists.
We don’t want either of them to win. But Iran, Russia, Lebanon, Al Qaeda, and some Gulf states all do. And they’ve lined up on both sides of the battlefield providing fighters, arms and aid.
The Syrian civil war has become a proxy battle between Sunnis and Shiites, and serves as a giant sponge soaking up militants from as far away as Europe and South Asia.
It is a tragedy of epic proportions.
But Americans don’t like to stand by while innocent people are killed and watch a human disaster unfold. It goes against our very fiber. We feel compelled to DO something.
Arming the pro-Western rebels in Syria would give them a major assist, but it is unlikely to change the final outcome.
It also carries the risk that whatever arms we give them now could be seized by Al Qaeda rebel forces and used against us or our allies down the road. And, while establishing a no-fly zone might be a setback for Assad’s forces, the major beneficiaries will be the Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels.
It was for several good and solid reasons that Barack Obama's administration long resisted pressures to intervene more forcefully in Syria's civil war. To start with, there is the sheer complexity of a conflict at the intersection of religious, ethnic, regional, and global politics, as illustrated by the plain fact that the most Westernized of Syrians (including its Christians) support the Assad government that the United States seeks to displace, while its enemies are certainly not America's friends and, indeed, include the most dangerous of Muslim extremists. But no matter: After two years of restraint, the administration — having decided to send "direct military assistance" to the rebels — has chosen sides and is now choosing sides within sides.
By now, after failed attempts at managing complexity in Iraq and Afghanistan, all should soberly recognize that any successful intervention requires the terrible I-win, you-lose simplicity of war. When that is absent, so too is success. In the end, regardless of the costs in blood and treasure of U.S. efforts — costs that in this case also include a greater enmity with Russia — it is still likely that all sides will blame the American infidel for anything that displeases them, as in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. Neither complexity nor the inevitable accusations of sinister American motives (greed for oil, war on Islam, or both) can be helped, but the Obama administration has stepped forward anyway. Even if conditions on the ground in Syria virtually exclude the possibility of a good outcome, the following five rules — derived from bitter experience in arming other rebels (some of it personal) — could at least serve to minimize the damage.
Rule 1: Figure out who your friends are.
The first rule, politically, is to identify one's allies. When Obama finally, officially, makes the announcement that Washington is arming the rebels, it must include the key phrases: "We are acting with our allies in the region" or, better, "our close allies in the region and beyond it." But once the obligatory words are spoken, it is essential that all U.S. personnel all the way down the chain of command be fully aware of the brutal truth that explains the survival of Bashar al-Assad's regime: America's "allies in the region" are remarkably ineffectual, in spite of every apparent advantage. Early on, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani proclaimed his total support for the "Syrian people," sending money and buying weapons at ridiculous prices (and delivering very few). And though his armed forces are small and poorly placed to provide any combat support, he does have billions of dollars at his disposal that he can and does spend on every passing whim. The same goes for the Saudis, who are much less noisy than the Qataris in supporting the rebels but are the real leaders of the Sunni crusade against Assad — and they too are not short of funds.
Yet in spite of the most ample promises by Qatar and the Saudis, Syrian refugees in Jordan have been living in misery — there are even persistent reports of the sale of child brides by desperate families. Likewise, the actual flow of weapons to the rebels has been notably meager. In neither case it is just a matter of simple avarice, but rather reflects the operational incapacity of both governments. For more than a year, Washington has been content to allow others to funnel weapons and money, but with Assad's recent victories against the rebels, Obama was forced into action. The Saudi and Qatari rulers just do not have honest, efficient officials whom they can rely on to distribute money or weapons wisely. In the bad old days, the Saudis would just hand over sacks of $100 bills to Osama bin Laden, before he turned against them. Now, too, they would willingly hand over sacks of bank notes to a chief if there were one, but they simply cannot field officials on the ground who can choose between the great number of Syrian claimants, given U.S. injunctions not to arm the most extreme jihadists, including those who accept the "al-Nusra" label.
A much greater surprise is Turkey's all-round incapacity. Early on, with characteristic bombast, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more or less ordered Assad to stop shooting and start talking. With 75 million inhabitants, a fast-growing economy, a million men under arms, and a 510-mile border with Syria, Turkey should have been the dominant power in the confrontation. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, or just moderation, the Assad regime publicly ridiculed Erdogan and Turkish imperial pretensions, denounced Turkey's Islamist government as nothing more than Sunni fanatics, and then proceeded to shoot down a stray Turkish jet fighter before repeatedly sending artillery rounds into Turkish towns. The Turkish response to this insult and attack? Nothing. And that is what Turkey will do as an ally of the United States in Syria: nothing.
It turns out that the country's 15 million to 20 million Bektashis and other Alevis, long cruelly persecuted by Sunni rulers, oppose any action that would strengthen the Sunnis of Syria. In addition, there are also some 2 million Alawites along the border with Syria, mostly in Hatay, the piece of Syria annexed by Turkey in 1939, who vehemently support their compatriot Assad. Then there are the Kurds who predominate in the provinces along the border with Syria and automatically oppose any action by the Turkish armed forces they have so long resisted. On top of that, Turkey's ruling AKP Islamist party has used conspiracy charges, arising from the supposedly vast Ergenekon plot, against dozens of very senior officers to immobilize the armed forces, which are guilty in the party's eyes of both defending secularism and menacing democracy. They have succeeded all too well, but this leaves Turkey as a non-power — a richly ironic outcome given the solemn debates of recent years on whether Ankara is a regional power, a middle power, or a neo-Ottoman power as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu kept claiming. The world has discovered that Turkey is not even a small power. The bottom line is that the United States will not only lack an ally in fighting Assad, but will also have to operate in a hostile environment, given the many people in Turkey who support the Syrian regime — some of them ready and willing to attack any U.S. personnel they encounter, or at least help Assad's agents in trying to kill Americans.
Rule 2: Be prepared to do all the work.
Given these "allies," the United States will have to do the lifting — and not just the heavy part. There should be no illusions now that anyone will be of much help, with the possible exception of whatever money can be extracted from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, raises the issue of which Americans should do the dirty work of funneling weapons. Always bureaucratically adept, even if operationally incompetent in far too many cases, the CIA already has the Washington end of the action. But if weapons are to be supplied, it is essential to call on the only Americans who can tell the difference between Sunni bad guys who only want to oppress other Syrians and the really bad guys who happen to be waging their global jihad in Syria. What's needed are true experts, people who really speak the region's Arabic: the regular U.S. Army and Marine Corps officers who successfully sponsored and then effectively controlled the Sunni tribal insurgents in Iraq whose "awakening" defeated the jihadists who were attacking U.S. troops. Some of them are already involved in supporting the rebels under Joint Special Operations Command, but if the mission were expanded it would be a good idea to call for volunteers from the reservists who did the same job in Iraq.
Rule 3: Don't give away anything that you would want to have back.
That includes expertise in identifying and handling any chemical weapons that might be encountered, as well as the supply of any portable anti-aircraft weapons. There are likely already a great number of them in Syria, some of them much more effective than the old “9K32 "Strela-2" or “SAM-7” models that have already been used by terrorists against civilian aircraft. Whatever happens, the U.S. counterpart to these weapons — the current version of the FIM-92 Stinger — cannot be supplied, as it is even more lethal than the original that was used to such great success against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Syrian government's use of aircraft for bombing rebel targets might have to be deterred by threats alone — under-the-table threats, of course, given the impossibility of obtaining Russian or Chinese consent at the U.N. Security Council. Any U.S. intercepts of Syrian aircraft would amount to a drastic escalation, but Assad knows full well that American strike aircraft could reach Syrian airspace in minutes from nearby bases, including from the British staging facilities in Cyprus.
Rule 4: Do not invite an equal and opposite response by another great power.
The prospect of any such drastic escalation immediately brings us to Rule 4, which might as well be Rule 1, or Über 1: Nothing should be done, not even the supply of the smallest of small arms, without a serious, full-dress effort to find some understanding with Russia, for which Assad is not one ally among many, but arguably its only existent military ally. After being cheated over Libya, where a no-fly zone was illegally converted into a free-bombing zone, the Russians will want compensation in Syria if they cooperate at all, including a continuing if diminished role for Assad. That will not satisfy Sunni supremacists but should satisfy Washington, for which neither a rebel defeat nor a rebel victory constitutes a successful outcome. In exchange for the keeping of Assad, the Russians would have to secure the essential quid pro quo for Washington: a clean and final break with Iran and Hezbollah — which, by the way, would satisfy the Saudis too, as well as Israel.
Rule 5: Lay some ground rules for the endgame.
The fifth and final rule reflects some more bitter experience: Whatever happens, but especially if the regime collapses, it is imperative to maintain a sharp distinction between the government that must be purged and the state that must be preserved. This includes institutions like the regular army and police, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and other such agencies. Under the Assads, decades of nominally Baathist (but actually secular) rule favored the rise of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Ismailis in the bureaucracy. If U.S. arms prove to be the factor that gives Sunni rebels victory, and if Sunnis fire them all, the Syrian state will disintegrate — with all the disastrous consequences experienced in Iraq. Unpaid soldiers and police become bandits and insurgents; public services and utilities, including water and electricity, go to pot; chaos and sectarianism flourish. As it is, Syria after Assad is likely to fragment into ethnic ministates, but if its state apparatus is also dissolved, the ensuing anarchy will be especially miserable and uncontrollably violent, with plenty of evil consequences for all near and far. The last thing the Levant needs is another Somalia, or several of them. The rebels must be told from the start that if they start firing state employees en masse (as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan), all aid will be cut off.
The Obama administration has displayed prudent restraint in dealing with Syria until now. After recent regime successes against the rebels, it can convincingly argue (despite the somewhat inconclusive and murky assertion that Assad's use of chemical weapons has now been verified) that it must provide some help to the rebels simply to deny a victory to Iran and Hezbollah. Even so, one hopes that it retains its prudence — and keeps these five rules in mind.
The cold harsh reality is that Syria is already lost.
So, is there anything we can do that advances our interests and has a reasonable chance of success? Yes.
1. We can provide humanitarian assistance to refugees who are living in refugee camps throughout the region.
2. We can allow some Syrian refugees to emigrate to the US, provided they are fully vetted.
3. And we can shore up our allies in the region, especially Jordan, which is most at risk.
There are officially half a million Syrian refugees in Jordan, some think there could be a million refugees before long. Jordan is a poor country that is running out of water, natural gas, and food. A million refugees flooding into Jordan is like some 50 million refugees showing up on America’s shores.
If Jordan is to remain stable and independent it needs assistance now. If Jordan descends into economic and political chaos, it risks igniting the Palestinians and drawing the entire region into a widening conflict.
4. Finally, we can make sure we know where Assad’s chemical weapons are stashed and work with our allies in the region to seize or destroy them before they fall into the hands of forces that would use them against us. — We failed to secure Qaddafi’s weapons caches during the Libyan war. Today they are being used in conflicts from North Africa to the Gaza strip. We cannot make that same mistake with Syria’s chemical weapons.
President Obama laid down a red line stating what he would do were Assad to use chemical weapons. We now know he has.
Some argue that is reason enough for the U.S. to intervene in Syria; that our credibility is on the line. But President Obama is fond of red lines and making threats — to Iran, to North Korea, to Syria. His credibility is already damaged. It will be much more so if we aid and arm Syria’s rebels and our efforts fail.
In fairness to them, Obama nor the Republican interventionists suggest that we should put U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. But in fairness to the American people, enforcing a no-fly zone or training rebel forces are military operations, despite what we call them.— It’s like calling taxes “revenue enhancements.”
One of the lessons of Vietnam, which we failed to heed in the Iraq war and the Afghanistan surge, is that before you commit U.S. military forces to aid or assist, it is essential to know what you want them to achieve.
Without a clearly defined mission, it is impossible to know what kind and how much assistance to give, or predict how long the commitment will be.
Once we send military aid, or American troops to train and fight or set up a no-fly zone, it is crucial that we match resources to mission and means to ends.
We must also be prepared to adjust both as necessary, since the enemy will inevitably adapt and the situation will evolve.
We should have a sense of what constitutes victory, and what is the likely outcome once the shooting stops.
Finally, we should be upfront with the American people about the costs of our involvement, both human and material.
If all those sound like limiting factors, they are. It is all too easy for our political leaders to intervene in conflicts. That is why we should only commit American forces to fight if it is in America’s vital and essential national self-interest, and if we are prepared to do whatever necessary to prevail. In that case, losing is not an option.
On the other hand, the only thing worse than not getting involved in a fight we feel is just, but not vital, is getting involved and then losing, or despite our best intentions, making things worse.
Thus, Obama effectively has two choices: 1) continue his disengagement from Syria to preserve whatever political capital and military deterrent he has left for the inevitable showdown over Iranian nukes, 2) enter the Syrian fray in a massive way that ensures a military victory and says to the Iranian regime: "you are next, unless you discontinue your nuclear program." After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran feared that thousands of American troops would turn eastward and offered to negotiate the dismantling of its nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration refused to engage but Iran still temporarily suspended its nuclear program out of trepidation.
U.S. entry into the Syrian conflict could defeat Assad and deter Iranian nukes, but only with the resolve and overwhelming firepower to demolish the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis (ideally with help from NATO forces). Joining the conflict with insufficient commitment mainly to distract a scandal-weary U.S. audience could have catastrophic consequences for the U.S., and that would be the biggest scandal of all.