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Obama Fiddles . . .

While Russia arms Assad.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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The prominence of Russian-made helicopters in Bashar al-Assad’s brutal and desperate efforts to hang on to power puts the Syrian war in a new light. It’s getting difficult to categorize the conflict simply as a humanitarian crisis or a “teacup war” of secondary significance. Rather, Syria’s civil war is increasingly fought under a great-power cloud that hasn’t been seen in the Middle East for decades.

Photo of an anti-Assad fighter aiming at a helicopter.

An anti-Assad fighter aims at a helicopter.


Most of Washington would rather ignore the darkening forecast. In one of his periodic Washington Post op-eds, Henry Kissinger warned that a “Syrian intervention risks upsetting [the] global order.” While Kissinger went on to acknowledge that the fall of Assad’s regime would suit the national interests of the United States in both humanitarian and strategic terms, he concluded that an armed intervention would fail to meet his two tests for U.S. involvement. First, there was no consensus on what kind of regime would replace Assad’s. Second, there was no assurance that the “political objective”—call it “victory”—could be achieved “in a domestically sustainable time period.” 

In short, Kissinger spoke in the voice of regretful realism. From this perspective, the Syrian civil war is an unfortunate event, a human catastrophe, a strategic opportunity to remove a regime that’s been a longtime pest, but, if it requires a serious and enduring American commitment, not a reason to upset the international order. 

This appears to reflect the thinking of the Obama administration. The president said last August that the time had come for Assad “to step aside,” but has yet to do anything to force the issue.

The problem with this sort of realism is that it isn’t really realistic, insofar as it fails to appreciate the balance of power. If Assad stays, the global order will be very much affected, and one of the most significant features of the post-Cold War order will be threatened. In particular, the United States’ ability to push for fundamental political change in the greater Middle East with a free hand will be severely curtailed. The Syrian crisis then is a big deal, not only in the region, but also in global terms. 

Once upon a time, the Middle East was thought to be a square on the Cold War chessboard, part of the larger “game of thrones” with the Soviet Union. The United States had to curry favor with a host of regional autocrats, lest the Russians accumulate a larger roster of thugs. Washington had the Shah’s Iran and Saudi Arabia, Moscow had a natural rapport with Baath party bosses in Syria and Iraq, and the Egyptians teased both sides until they satisfied their honor in the 1973 war with Israel—itself a conflict that sparked a nerve-racking U.S.-Soviet faceoff. The Carter Doctrine, formulated in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, held that the United States would resist the efforts of any outside power to dominate the region.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the great game in the Middle East changed profoundly, even though American security interests did not. Saddam Hussein thought that the end of the Cold War gave him a green light to invade Kuwait, but he discovered that the Carter Doctrine had been expanded to apply to bids for hegemony that came from inside the region as well.

Still, during the decade following Operation Desert Storm, the United States opted to contain Iraq rather than depose Saddam. A safe haven was established for Kurds in the north, and “no-fly” zones were maintained in the north and the south, with a “no-drive” zone in the south to protect Kuwait. Substantial U.S. air and land forces remained in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with naval forces elsewhere in the Gulf. Keeping Saddam “in his box” meant staying in his face. Thus by the time Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003, Iraq’s air defenses had already been suppressed, making the decisive march to Baghdad a three-week sprint. Likewise, in Afghanistan, the need for “regime change” had supplanted past predilections for containment.

Although George W. Bush did little to push the “friendly” autocrats in Egypt or the Persian Gulf states to reform, he was willing to back his “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” with American military power to see through the regime-change commitments already made. Barack Obama, on the other hand, has sought to shelter himself and the United States from the winds of change in the Middle East. This is the theme that runs from his “New Beginnings” address at Cairo University in June 2009, to his response to Iranian protests, through his Iraq and Afghanistan policies, to his standoffish approach to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, to “leading from behind” in Libya, and now to the Syria crisis. 

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