Obama is intervening in Syria. America the superpower cannot leave the Middle East to Russia and Iran.
It is reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, who bowed out of his role as president of the United States in 1977 in the midst of an “exaggerated fear of communism,” but who, after the Afghan invasion, bitterly confirmed for the Soviets that their imperial reflexes had remained true. Armament and expansion followed. Barack Obama is now doing the same thing in Syria.
The United States prescribed withdrawal from world politics for five years: out of Iraq and Afghanistan and under no circumstances into Libya and Syria; nuclear and conventional disarmament; friendly bids toward bullies Iran and Cuba; and finally, in his keynote speech on May 23, Obama more or less said goodbye to drone strikes and the war on terror. Obama’s new slogan was not regime change, but rather nation building at home. The last superpower was to opt out of the heavyweight league and act instead as a middle-sized power, like a really big Germany — a welfare state instead of peacekeeper.
Then suddenly came the reluctant bow to an ugly reality. Weapons are now being supplied to the Syrian rebels, and a “limited no-fly zone” is possibly being set up along the Jordanian border in order to protect training and refugee camps from Assad’s bombers. Why? Not because Obama has suddenly “discovered” that Assad was handling chemical weapons. Quite the contrary: The poison gas is serving to legitimize the long-rejected invasion domestically.
Back to the Future of the 19th Century
In reality, these strategic insights were accepted after a year of agonizing discussions in the White House. The civil war is a proxy war, which Assad threatens to win with help from Moscow and Tehran. The Russians are placing a fleet in the eastern Mediterranean and supplying the most modern flight and naval defense weaponry. Hezbollah, as it were, the “expeditionary force” of the Iranians, is fighting in the thousands on the side of the regime. Back to the future of the 19th century, when the superpowers made gestures of force to give each other hell.
An Assad regime by Tehran’s mercy and a Russian military presence in the Levant: the most dangerous place on Earth? This prospect alone was too much for anti-strategist Obama. He recognized the game of political power poker and is placing a bet. He really would have preferred to clear his chips, so he raised the stakes very hesitantly: just light weaponry at first. His spokesperson prefers the “political solution,” but that will not happen; the stakes are too high. Assad will not back down after 90,000 deaths. Neither will the strengthened rebels who, like Iran and Russia, have invested too much to abandon their strategic outpost.
Would an earlier intervention have deterred them from escalating? It could have, for who can blame Moscow and Tehran for taking their chances in the face of Obama’s advertised weaknesses? Where predators hunt, the United States cannot just sit and smell the flowers like Ferdinand the bull. And yet, all the arguments against the intervention are still valid.
Whoever wins will simply murder and “cleanse” more furiously. Whoever loses will pull their patrons even deeper into the war. The rebels will not get far just with protective vests made in Germany — promised them by Merkel — and assault rifles; they have been calling for heavy machinery for a long time. Providing the “good guys” with weapons, like the CIA should, is a nightmare considering there are almost a thousand anti-Assad groups. Obama’s minimal intervention is like being a bit pregnant. It does not work in nature, nor does it work in war.
The violence will escalate; the risk of a direct collision with the powers on Assad’s side will grow. A “small” no-fly zone is also no small matter. It means that Assad’s air force may, if it pleases, veer off twenty miles from the Jordanian border. That leaves them a free line of fire for Damascus, Al-Qusayr, Aleppo and Hama. The U.S. Air Force would have to secure the supply corridors out of Turkey and Jordan – straight across the countryside.
Let us assume the rebels triumph with the help of the U.S., England and France. The next dilemma will just pile on. The responsibility to protect the defeated would then have to be applied — to the Alawites, the Christians and, first in line, those loyal to Assad. If the Alawites flee to their stronghold in Latakia, this small city would have to be defended. Even with almost 200,000 soldiers in Iraq, U.S. forces could only briefly halt the carnage between the Sunnis and Shiites. Since the U.S. drawback, car bombs are once again doing the talking.
Berlin has it good; the world expects no more than protective vests. Obama’s America will get its hands dirty now, one way or another — whether by minimal or mass intervention. And the people of Syria will, one way or another, become the victims. Should Obama have stuck with the hands-off policy? Bill Clinton, who bombed warmonger Milosevic after years of hesitation, gave a sibylline answer: “Sometimes it’s best to get caught trying.” You do not want to “overcommit,” though. Serbia was a hundred times simpler.