Syria, a Challenge Which Took Obama by Surprise
Iran Review – SATURDAY, MAY 11, 2013
Strategic Preferences and Political Acting
Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour
The crisis in Syria is becoming more and more complicated. Following recent air strikes against a Syrian military research center, the crisis has become even more profound than ever before. As a result, the issue of the United States’ policy, in particular, and the overall position of the [US President Barack] Obama’s administration on the crisis in Syria, in general, has draw a lot of attention from analysts of international issues. The behavior of Russia, China and other regional players as well as the reaction they have shown to the situation in Syria are telltale signs of the reality that this crisis is quite different from other apparently similar crises because Syria has turned into a scene for widespread interventions and activities by both regional and international forces. The main question is how the behavior of Obama administration in this crisis can be possibly analyzed. This question is important because the United States and its allies have become united against the government in Syria. However, the changes and developments in the US foreign policy during the past two years are also noteworthy. On the other hand, domestic dimensions of Obama administration’s policy on Syria are becoming more and more complicated as critics inside the United States, including the Republican leaders at the US Senate, have been accusing Obama of inaction and weakness in Syria. All these factors make the understanding of the US government’s actions and reactions with regard to the crisis in Syria even more important.
To answer that question, it should be noted that the policy adopted by Obama administration on Syria can be better understood when one takes into account that firstly, Obama seeks to strategically weaken all anti-US forces in the region by taking advantage of Syria crisis. Secondly, Washington aims to boost the maneuvering room of its regional allies. And finally, Obama is facing certain opposition at domestic political level. On the one hand, he does not want to be known as a weak president while, on the other hand, he is trying to make the most strategic benefit out of Syria crisis by paying the least political price. These issues will be discussed hereinafter.
Strategic weakening of anti-US forces in region
The first point which is noteworthy about the United States policy on Syria is that the crisis in Syria has turned into the biggest geopolitical dispute among the world powers following the end of the Cold War. No other regional crisis since the end of the Cold War has been equal to Syria crisis in terms of its impact on and consequences for geopolitical developments at regional and international levels. The final result of this crisis is of special import to political and geopolitical arrangements in the region and the world and will be a major turning point. The intervention by international forces, including the United States, in the Syria crisis can by no means be compared to interventions in other cases such as happened in the course of Libya crisis some two years ago. The importance of the impact of Syria crisis on regional and international equations is such that some analysts believe the new Middle East will only take shape after the fate of the Syria crisis is determined and it would be a totally different Middle East compared to what it has been during the past few decades. Therefore, the security behavior of the Americans in the course of Syria crisis should be considered in the light of this fact.
The second point is that since the beginning of Syria crisis up to the present time, Obama administration has been following a single strategic goal which is to weaken the regional axis of Iran, Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Although human rights and other humanitarian issues form the façade of the US endeavors, the deeper layers of Obama administration actually resort to human rights and humanitarian concerns as an excuse to help them to achieve a more important strategic objective which is the weakening of Iran and the regional axis which has Iran at its center. Within this framework, all movements by the United States pursue a clear strategic goal, and there is some continuity in the pursuit of that goal. This goal is actually an umbrella for all the political players which are allies to the United States. As a result, when it comes to weakening of the regional axis which consists of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, and to some degree Iraq, all people involved in shaping the foreign and security policies of Obama administration are unanimous about the necessity of weakening that axis.
The third point is that strategic weakening of the aforesaid axis is a very complicated task because the United States is not in control of the entire stage. Early assessments about very rapidly achieving the strategic goal of changing conditions in Syria have been proven null and void. As a result, the proposition which has become increasingly more serious is that even after the possible downfall of [Syria’s incumbent President Bashar] Assad’s government, certain regional forces may gain power which would not be under the full control of the United States and this would create conditions which were previously experienced in Afghanistan after the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. As a result, a strategic discourse has emerged according to which, Syria may become another Somalia in which Al-Qaeda may make the most of the void of a controlling power in the country. As a result, the existence of numerous strategic challenges in the case of Syria crisis in addition to the United States insistence on pursuing its strategic goal in the Arab country have made Washington frequently change positions and show a host of sometimes contradictory reactions during the past two years. However, despite all ups and down, the United States has continued to pursue its strategic goal. The remarkable point, however, is that in pursuit of its strategic goal in Syria, the United States has seemingly opened up the maneuvering room for regional players that are actually implementing Washington’s general strategy and this is a very interesting point.
Making room for regional players
In view of the past strategic experiences, on the one hand, and efforts made by certain regional players to play a role in Syria because their interests in the Arab country overlap with those of the United States, on the other hand, these regional players have been actually playing in the United States court during the past two years. The following basic points, however, should be taken into account in this regard:
1. The first point is the existence of a phenomenon which can be called “Salafi – Israeli” alliance. This is a remarkable phenomenon, which is also very complicated and multilayer. What happened last week in Syria in the form of direct attacks by Israel on a military research center near Damascus, upholds this allegation. It clearly proved that there is some kind of overlap between the interests of forces which are operating under an Islamic façade and are widely known as Salafi forces, and the interests of Tel Aviv. Of course, they may not be totally coordinated in organizational terms. However, according to reports released by some Israeli paper on May 4, 2013, before attacking Syria’s facility near Damascus, Israel had already reached agreements with Syria opposition groups in order to prevent possible operations along Syria’s border with Israel. As a result, there has been some form of operational coordination between Israel and Syria opposition.
2. On the other hand, this Salafi – Israeli alliance is one of the forces which are in work to shape the future Middle East. There is no doubt that some member states of (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council [(P)GCC] are lending support to Salafi forces. Their common strategic aspirations along with their special interpretation of religion have grouped them in a single front while being in tune with Israeli groups in the way they think and act. It seems that the United States is also supporting such an alliance. The next issue with respect to regional players involved in Syria crisis is that the division of labor among various political forces is such that their interests overlap with those of the United States. Turkey is playing the most prominent political role. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, are playing the financial and economic roles. Of course, in addition to its financial role, Qatar has been playing a remarkable media role as well. The Arab League and the (P)GCC, have agreed on their own division of labor in order to manage international and multilateral aspects of this crisis. Interestingly, each and every one of those players has common goals with the United States and many measures which the United States has been planning to take are actually being taken by this alliance of regional players. This, of course, does not mean that all those players are subservient to Washington’s orders and take their orders from the White House. However, in view of changes and developments in international system, these players feel that they should play an independent role and that independent role, is being supported by the United States.
3. The interesting point about these regional players is that they have appeared more radical in the case of Syria than the United States. They put more emphasis on the need to militarize the crisis in Syria and it would be no exaggeration to say that in some instances, they have succeeded in militarizing the United States foreign policy on Syria. Although the United States has not entered military operations in Syria in a direct and independent way, it would be very naïve to think that Washington is not involved in the military aspect of this crisis. Appropriating USD 250 million as special aid to Syria militant and training of Syria armed opposition in Jordan by American forces prove the United States military involvement in Syria crisis. A telltale example was the report published by the New York Times on May 5 in which the New York Times columnist, David Singer, noted that before Israel carried out its recent military operation against Syria, France, the United States and Britain had agreed on military operations against Damascus. All these cases are indicative of the United States military role in Syria though the extent, quality and form of Washington’s military involvement in Syria crisis has been different from previous crises in other parts of the world.
On the whole, the United States has been supporting and encouraging regional players which, at times, have worked to make Washington’s Syria policy more radical. Obama administration, however, does not see Syria crisis merely from the viewpoint of strategic and regional concerns. The crisis in Syria has already left its mark on the United States domestic policy and its impacts on the United States have been very important in that regard.
US domestic policy and Syria crisis
During the past two years, the US President Obama has been constantly criticized by a number of Republican senators led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who accuse him of inaction in the face of the massacre of the Syrian people. These two senators are currently leading a coalition of American politicians who ask for more direct intervention of the United States in Syria crisis. They believe that Washington should provide the Syria opposition with more sophisticated and advanced arms, especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. In addition, they urge the United States to declare and enforce a no-fly zone over certain regions in Syria, noting that the United States should become more explicitly involved in Syria crisis. The group, however, has been facing opposition from Democrat politicians. Their Democrat opponents both at the US Senate and other state institutions have argued that what the Republicans ask for is the repetition of the same military intervention discourse which was on the United States agenda when it attacked Afghanistan and Iraq under the former President George W. Bush. They say the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq caused the United States to suffer great losses and entered Washington into long-term military conflicts where the basic benefits were reaped by other players. They also believe that the United States should not explicitly repeat the same mistakes again.
Obama administration has set the use of chemical weapons as the red line for military intervention in Syria. Therefore, as speculations about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria have been rife in past few days, the possibility of military intervention by the United States in the Arab country has also become more serious. In the meantime, the United Nations investigators representing the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council said in their report on May 4 that there is evidence to prove that Syria opposition has used chemical weapons in its fight against Syria government. Despite that report, the aforesaid allegations about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government have given more force to the possibility of US military intervention in the Arab country while, on the other hand, being reminiscent of the scenario which was carried out with regard to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and paved the way for military invasion of that country. There are still ambiguities with regard to whether Obama administration will actually embark on direct military intervention in Syria as well as the quality of that possible intervention. However, Obama administration has been so far able to forge a balance between the pursuit of its strategic goals overseas and the domestic political situation within its borders. Obama has been doing this in order to avoid being labeled as a weak president. However, his opponents have been putting increasing emphasis on the weakness of Obama and his inability to make timely decisions to protect the lives of people. This issue can also work as a determining factor for further militarization of the United States in future. Of course, some analysts believe that Israel will gradually take over the role of carrying out military operations in Syria from the United States, and this change of roles will take place in due time.
On the whole, the above account can make one reach the conclusion that the United States will certainly continue to realize its strategic goals in the region in order to further weaken its regional opponents. In addition, the crisis in Syria has created a kind of convergence among regional players whose interests are in line and common with those of the United States. Finally, there have been debates and domestic discord in the United States over the need to take Washington’s intervention in Syria crisis to a new level by initiating military operations in the Arab country. Nevertheless, taking into account the United States approach to Syria crisis at domestic, regional and international levels, it would be only natural to conclude that the crisis in Syria has not fared the way that Washington expected and will not do so in future either. It is a crisis riddled with challenges which may get Washington involved in later unwanted disputes at regional and international levels.
*Seyed Mohammad Kazem Sajjadpour is the former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative for the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations in Geneva. Prior to taking up this post, he was the Director of the Institute for Political and International Studies, the research branch of Iran’s Foreign Ministry. Seyed Sajjadpour received his Ph.D. in political science from George Washington University and was a post–doctoral fellow at Harvard. He has taught at the College of International Relations of Tehran University, as well as at Azad University and Iran’s National Defense University.