Syria Conflict: You Can’t Make Sound Policy by Disregarding Reality

by | Dec 19, 2013

Syria Destruction

The U.S. posture toward the conflict in Syria exemplifies some of the worst aspects of America’s Middle East policy. In recent years, the limits on America’s ability to shape important outcomes in the region unilaterally have been dramatically underscored by strategically failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Just this year, President Obama’s largely self-inflicted debacle over his publicly declared intention to attack Syria after chemical weapons were used there on August 21 made it abundantly clear that the United States can no longer credibly threaten the effective use of military force in the Middle East. Nevertheless, American foreign policy elites persist in thinking that it is up to them to dictate Syria’s future—and with it the future of the Middle East.

This outlook is epitomized by Obama’s August 2011 declaration that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go”—even though the Obama administration’s preferred strategy of working with the Syrian “opposition” to effect Assad’s departure was, from the outset, doomed to fail, as we have predicted for more than two and a half years. While intended primarily to undermine Iran’s regional position, it has done nothing of the sort. All that this strategy has accomplished or can accomplish is to prolong bloodshed in Syria and to bolster the strength of al-Qa’ida-like jihadi elements across the Middle East. Moreover, by staking out a maximalist demand for Assad’s removal, Obama fundamentally undercut the prospects for seriously pursuing a negotiated settlement in Syria. Even by recent American standards, this sets a new standard for destructively dysfunctional policymaking toward the Middle East.

Of course, neoconservatives and liberal imperialist champions of the “responsibility to protect” continue to advocate more direct forms of U.S. intervention in the conflict—notwithstanding the utter illegality of such a course absent UN Security Council authorization and the utterly lousy track record of such interventions (see the references to the Afghan, Iraqi, and Libyan interventions above—all three of which were strongly championed by liberal imperialists as well as by neoconservatives). But perennially mistaken advocates of ever more American intervention in the Middle East keep running into the same problem that Obama, in his own hapless way, has encountered: you can’t make sound and effective policy by disregarding on-the-ground reality.

In a recent interview with Syria Chronicle, see here, Flynt sought to describe some relevant aspects of on-the-ground reality in Syria. (Syria Chronicle is a relatively new online site run by students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.) We append the interview below.

The Syrian Conflict: No End in Sight? An Interview with Prof. Flynt Leverett of Penn State

The historical perspective: I would think about it not in terms so much of specific historical events that got us here but of some very important, historically grounded dynamics in Syria. Two strike me as really important to understanding how this conflict is shaped. The first is that, while Syria is obviously a society with multiple divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines, the really fundamental divide in Syrian politics, since the country became independent, is between those constituencies that think their interests are best served by living in an at least, nominally secular state, and those that aspire to live in some version of a Sunni Islamist state.

If you look at who is on which side of this divide, the constituencies that want to live in a secular state are obviously non-Sunni Muslims—most importantly the Alawis—and other religious minorities, especially Christians. You also have those Sunnis who don’t want to live in an Islamist order. These constituencies provided the social base for the government of Hafez al-Assad, and they provide as well the social base for his son, Bashar al-Assad. If you look at the demographics, these constituencies have amounted to at least a narrow majority of Syrian society for decades.

On the other side of this divide, you have basically Sunni Arab constituencies. Sunni Arabs make up about two-thirds of the population, but if you break out those Sunni constituencies that want to live in some version of an Islamic state, you are talking about a very significant minority in Syrian society. This group constituted the social base for the Muslim Brotherhood’s insurgency against Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s and early 1980s, and is an important part of the social base for the opposition to Bashar al-Assad since early 2011.

The second historically conditioned dynamic important for understanding the current conflict is what I call the imperative of foreign policy independence. If you look at the way Syria was born as an independent state in the late 1940s, what became Syria is not the territory Syrians thought they were historically entitled to have. The historically conditioned notion of Syria is Bilad al-Sham, which covers what we now call Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. In the wake of World War I, that area was broken up by the League of Nations into the British and French mandates. Turkey took a little piece of it, but most of it was divided by the League of Nations and distributed to the French and British mandates. The French then divided the Syrian mandate into Syria and Lebanon. So, at the time of independence in 1949, most politically engaged Syrians felt that Western powers had territorially truncated Syria.

The Assad government—whether under Hafez or under Bashar—has not been out to restore Bilad al-Sham, but an important part of how the Assad government legitimates itself has been by espousing and at least appearing to practice foreign policy independence. This was very important to Hafez al-Assad’s ability to consolidate power in the 1970s and 1980s and hold onto it through the 1990s, and it has been important for his son, Bashar, as well.

And, if you put those two dynamics together, it helps to explain why Bashar al-Assad is still in power more than two-and-a-half years into the current conflict.

How it compares to other conflicts: In Syria, it’s not really a Sunni-Shite divide; it’s more a divide between those who want to live in a nominally secular state and those who want to live in a Sunni Islamist state. In Libya, there was certainly an Islamist element in the opposition to Gadhafi, but you don’t really have the kind of sectarian divide in Libya or Egypt that you do in Syria.

The geopolitical context of the Syrian conflict is also different. Syria, in the end, is more geopolitically important than, say, Libya or Yemen. That’s one reason the Assad regime has enjoyed more international support than Gadhafi did in Libya. The United States was able to get a UN Security Council resolution authorizing an intervention in Libya in March 2011. Russia and China abstained on that resolution, letting it go through, but both came to believe that the United States and its partners have abused this resolution. Moscow and Beijing quickly concluded that letting the Libya resolution through had been a mistake—a mistake they were determined not to repeat where Syria is concerned. 

Where the United States stands: It was extremely foolish for Obama to say in August 2011 that “Assad must go,” because it means that the United States cannot be serious about conflict resolution in Syria. Likewise, it was foolish for Obama to draw his “red line” about chemical weapons use during his reelection campaign. So when chemical weapons were used in Syria in August this year, Obama was trapped by his own rhetoric. He said he would use force, but of course, the UN Security Council wouldn’t endorse it. The Arab League, NATO and the British Parliament wouldn’t endorse it. And it soon became apparent that, because of public opposition, even Congress wasn’t going to endorse it. Since then, the US has really not had a coherent Syria policy. Supporting the opposition has failed. Only a diplomatic resolution, which the United States can’t seriously support because of Obama’s August 2011 remarks, will work.

What Happens Next: Assad will continue to strengthen his position on the ground. But as long as Saudi money and weapons get to the opposition groups, they will be able to continue a campaign—and so the violence will go on. The only way out is diplomacy aimed at a political settlement between Assad and the opposition. Until the Obama administration is willing to walk back from some of the positions it has taken regarding Assad and is willing to push allies like Saudi Arabia to halt the flow of weapons to oppositionists, it will be difficult to get a serious political process going. In the absence of a serious political process, the violence could go on for a very long time.