Syria’s military intervention: A comedy in three acts

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

US President Barack Obama was forced to walk a tightrope over Syria after he was drawn into calling for a military intervention after France, Britain and Turkey called for action. Now he has to deal with being a reluctant coalition leader, writes George Friedman.

George Friedman is founder and chairman of Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company. 

The following is a shortened version of the original analysis which can be found here.

Last week began with certainty that a US-led attack on Syria was inevitable and even imminent in response to an apparent chemical attack. It ended somewhere between US President Barack Obama's coalition falling apart and never coming together. This is a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again. 

The United States does not have any overriding national interest in Syria. While it has long been hostile to the al Assad regime, it has concluded that regime change will not lead not to democracy, but to an Islamist regime with links to al Qaeda. Still recovering from Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington is not eager to try its hand at nation-building in Syria. Therefore the United States has limited itself to expressing deep concern while staying as far away as possible, much like the rest of the world.

A 2012 statement by Obama that the use of chemical weapons would be a red line started the US engagement with Syria. The statement was actually an attempt to stay out of the conflict, as Obama assumed that was the one thing al Assad would not try. Though Obama dodged commitment despite previous evidence of small-scale chemical attacks, he felt he had no option this time, especially since major foreign partners were demanding action. Meanwhile, pictures emerged apparently showing victims of a chemical attack, and many in his foreign policy apparatus who favor using military force in the event of war crimes and human rights violations on a major scale wanted action in Syria.

This significant faction draws on an important tendency in American political culture, one that sees World War II as the perfect war, because in their view it was waged against an unspeakable evil rather than for strategic or material gain. This view held that the United States ought to use its strength to prevent the more extreme injustices in the world. For them, the suffering in the Syrian civil war was the result of the repressiveness of the al Assad regime. They focused on the current injustice rather than on what would come later, which could well be worse.

The Arab Spring has been marked by outsiders' often-romanticized view of the crowd in the street. Some, especially those who saw the primary U.S. responsibility as promoting human rights, believed the majority of those in the streets wanted to create American-style democracy. But Obama has learned a thing or two about the crowd, Arab or otherwise. He was far less romantic about their intent, particularly after Libya, realizing that the United States would have to live with the resulting chaos or new tyranny that followed al Assad's departure. In addition, Obama did not want to attack without international support validated by the United Nations, and with the burden not shared by other allies.

Then something interesting happened. Over the week, Washington turned into the main advocate for intervention. This is because the United States is the major global power. Its mere presence in the coalition focuses the coalition on the United States. In part, this is military: The United States has capabilities others don't. In part, it is political: The United States might be able to organize a global coalition while no one else can.

Obama was prepared, given his red line and given pressure from key advisers, to participate in a coalition. He was, I think, surprised when the United States stopped being part of the coalition, but its leader and instigator, and then further, when others became disillusioned with its leadership.

Then the British Parliament voted against going to war, and Prime Minister David Cameron had to bow out, with many members of parliament saying the United Kingdom was no longer the Americans' lapdog.

In addition to this public diplomacy, behind-the scenes-diplomacy also went on. The focus was Russia. Russia had supported the al Assad clan since Hafez al Assad's coup in 1970. The Russians are completely committed to the survival of the regime. Despite Obama's desire to do a minimum to satisfy his human rights impulse, Washington also didn't want to see the regime fall given what might follow al Assad.

During the week the president began focusing his attention on Bashar al Assad, holding him personally responsible for the chemical attack regardless of whether a junior officer carried it out without the president's knowledge. This seemed to suggest if al Assad and his closest supporters would step down, the regime could continue.

The Russians didn't want any of it. The Russian calculations came down to its read of the United States, which is that it was not in a position to impose outcomes on the region because of internal US political weakness. Therefore the Russians had a rare opportunity to impose if not a system, then a presence.

By the end of the week, the Russians were hurling insults at Obama, the British finally freed themselves from American domination, and the Turks were furious at American weakness. While the French stood with the United States, the Canadians decided that much as they disliked chemical weapons use, they would not be available. The wheels simply came off Obama's strategy. If Congress votes for strikes, Obama will likely act. But he will be doing so solo.

It would be easy to blame him for losing control of the situation, but that would be too simple. Every administration has its ideologues, and every president wants allies when going into war. And it would be nice if the United States could be just another country, but it isn't. The moment that it enters a coalition, it leads a coalition.

Ultimately, the United States has a strategic interest in neither faction taking power in Syria. Though brutal, the United States was not the only country with an interest in the country's Lebanonization. But this interest runs against the grain of the administration's ideology and the passions of key members. The president thus tried to walk a tightrope between regime change and inaction (or a small action that left the regime in place) in the sort of balancing act all presidents must perform.

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