Obama’s Syria policy: Difficult questions, necessary answers

As with Iraq, the challenges the United States faces in Syria merit a strategy, but to reach a strategy, the Obama administration must answer a number of questions about U.S. interests in the region – the most basic question being: does the United States wish to see an immediate end to the Syrian Civil War? While the human answer to that question is obvious, the strategic answer is far more complex, and the administration’s current policies lack the sense of urgency and strategic vision necessary to immediately end the war.

The Syrian Civil War has posed an unprecedented threat to Iran’s ability to influence Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s relationships with hostile actors in these countries are among the most potent weapons in its arsenal – arguably more important than its nuclear program, the threat from which lies not in a possible first-strike, but from the strength Iran would gain in the region through nuclear deterrence.

Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian Civil War has also weakened the group. Its decision to involve itself in the war has threatened internal Lebanese security, which can inevitably chip away at the group’s legitimacy amongst Lebanese.

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Another question that must be answered is whether or not the fiscal austerity of the sequestration era trumps U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East. If policymakers do decide that it is in America’s interest to end the war now, it needs to be made clear what price the country can afford paying for that peace. As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey pointed out to Congress, some options – such as supporting the rebels – are more cost-effective than others – such as imposing a no-fly zone.

If the United States decides to arm the rebels more aggressively, is it willing to accept the inevitable proliferation of weapons systems to rebel factions linked to groups that pose a direct threat to U.S. interests in the region – such as al Nusra Front? What can be done to mitigate these risks – such as ensuring that arming rebels does not turn into a slippery slope, where Washington or its allies eventually transfer advanced weapons such as anti-aircraft missiles into Syria? Steps would also need to be taken to ensure that weapons do not proliferate from Syria into Iraq and to al Qaeda.

Relatedly, do the most influential of Syria’s rebels share the same interests as the United States? While the answer to this question through a short-term lens is yes, the medium and long-term answers are clearly no.

Finally, if policymakers decide that it is in America’s interests to pursue a no-fly zone or to exert a more direct role in Syria, how will Washington follow through on that commitment? What happens if the no-fly zone fails to adequately neutralize the threat? Is the United States willing to militarily engage a country that suffers the same violent ethnic divisions as Iraq? How will all of this affect U.S. strategic interests in the region? Furthermore, if the United States is to place a premium on protecting innocent Syrians, how do such responsibilities rank relative to austerity, strategic interests, and concerns over direct engagement in an Iraq-esque quagmire?

While these questions are undoubtedly complex, it were the complex strategic questions that were never answered before the Iraq War. The public debate over these questions and the articulation of the government’s answers will not only give shape to an American strategy in the Middle East, but will help to safeguard against history repeating itself.

Shelala is a researcher with the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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