Many think there are no vital American interests in Syria. They couldn’t be more wrong
What’s at stake for the United States in Syria? Many American policy analysts have concluded, wrongly, that the answer is very little. The reality, however, is very different. Here’s why.
1) Syria has become Exhibit A in the arguments of both those who predict and welcome and those who bemoan and decry the supposed American drawdown from the Middle East. These analysts tend to particularly highlight President Barack Obama’s abandonment of his announced plan to strike Syrian chemical weapons facilities in favor of an accommodationist agreement – which, according to publicly-stated American intelligence analyses, gave the Syrian dictatorship a new lease on international legitimacy and Russia a clear foreign policy victory.
This is interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as symptomatic of a broader American policy of disengagement from the region as a whole. If the United States wishes to continue to play the role of guarantor of regional security in the Middle East and to be taken seriously as a major player there, the consequences of its Syria policy in the past two years will have to be systematically reversed.
2) Relative American inaction in Syria has strengthened American foes and weakened American friends. It’s not only allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel who are unhappy with the implications of the essentially hands-off policy: Iran and its allies are delighted with the prospect of an accommodation with the United States at the expense of Syria.
This impression, even if unfair, is now deeply ingrained. Syria is seen as a barometer of American risk-aversion and unwillingness to use its power to affect crucial regional conflicts that will determine the future strategic landscape of the Middle East.
3) It is often alleged that no vital American national interests are threatened by the conflict in Syria. But the American posture since the end of the Cold War of being the guarantor of global order is severely undermined by the evident disinterest from not only the Obama administration, but also the country at large, in seriously committing American resources to shaping the character, incentive structure, and potential outcomes of the Syrian conflict. This is simply not the behavior of a guardian of global or regional norms and stability.
4) In fact the United States does have vital national interests at stake in Syria. Unless the United States embraces a complete restructuring of its strategic posture in the Middle East, it cannot maintain its position while neglecting the Syrian war. Friend and foe alike, fairly or unfairly, believe they are detecting American fatigue and irresolution. They will act accordingly, and that will not be in the American national interest.
5) The Syrian war is an incubator for everything that is most hostile and detrimental to American interests in the region. As the conflict has been proceeding, it has strengthened Russia at a global level, Iran at a regional level, and Hezbollah at a local level. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda-inspired organizations are drawing thousands of fanatical young men to be trained and battle-hardened in the Syrian crucible.
The extent to which these extremists will ultimately pose a serious threat to US allies in the Middle East, European states, and even the American homeland, remains to be seen. But there is no question that a new generation of Al-Qaeda-inspired Salafist-jihadists of the most vicious variety is being incubated in Syria. In large part, it is because Western and Arab states have been late to the game and have allowed the most fanatical elements to fund and find recruits among dangerous young extremists who will ultimately emerge from the conflict and then almost certainly look for new targets in the region or beyond.
6) The humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis taking place in Syria is simply unconscionable. Responsibility for addressing this calamity does not rest with the United States alone. But the international community, led by the United States, has not done enough – by every estimation – to deal with the humanitarian crisis, let alone the political and military conundrums, produced by the Syrian war.
True enough, the United States cannot be the world’s policeman. Maybe it even can’t (or rather won’t) be the Middle East’s policeman anymore. But if it won’t even play a decisive role in marshaling the global resources necessary to address this horrifying crisis of dispossession, displacement, privation, and suffering among the most innocent victims, this does even more damage to the American claim to global leadership.
Therefore, what is really at stake is the American role on the regional and global stages. Is the United States still a decisive, proactive, determinative actor? Or has it become a vacillating, reactive, and largely ineffective power?
Those who think the United States lacks a major interest in the outcome in Syria don’t believe that these questions will largely be decided by the American approach to this most devastating and destabilizing of present conflicts.
But they will.