Editor’s note: Pondering the crisis in Syria and President Barack Obama’s recent decision to send more American arms to the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, I asked New Haven resident George Jaeger, former deputy assistant secretary general of NATO and a retired senior foreign service officer who continues to lecture around the world on foreign affairs, “whether there is a position consistent with U.S. national security and interests that we could take in Syria and come out ahead, or whether this is a purely moral question in which we choose sides and accept the consequences?”
His off-the-cuff, but engaging and thoughtful analysis, follows:
The short answer is 'maybe' to the first question, and a clear 'no' to the second.
The issues facing us in Syria are so hard and dangerous because they go far beyond the humanitarian crisis. There are situations where military intervention can stop a humanitarian disaster without excessive risk, as, for example, in Bosnia and Kosovo. This might also have been the case in Rwanda, had we intervened.
But there are others, like the Syrian civil war, which has so far cost close to 100,000 lives, where intervention runs major risks of a costly and spreading conflict, and of a new open-ended American entanglement in the Middle East at a time when our focus should be on the rising world power, China.
For Syria is an artificial country, created by the British and French after World War I without regard to its complex religious or tribal composition. Its civil war is, therefore, a proxy war at the core of the larger Shia/ Sunni struggle between Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on one side and the Saudi Kingdom, Egypt and their allies on the other, all of which are already involved on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war to varying degrees.
While our sympathies are, of course, with the rebels, and not the Assad regime, the rebels too are deeply split, and arming them runs the risk of also arming Al Quaeda-affiliated terrorists from Iraq and elsewhere.
Given all this, Bill Clinton can call Obama a 'wuss' for being cautious if he wants. The fact is that major American intervention in, what is in effect a regional conflict, is highly likely to set off a chain of events that will only draw us in deeper, run major costs and risks, and are not likely to lead to an early or decisive resolution.
What's more, there is the risk that Israel, which has largely stayed out of the conflict so far (except for its attack near Damascus on an Iranian missile shipment intended for Hezbollah), will become involved if Damascus at some point retaliates, creating a further conflict which could well draw in Iran and result in a major war, involving the U.S. as well.
Lastly, and most importantly, the region has become the cockpit of a new great power struggle. Russia, with China's quiet support, is powerfully supporting the Syrian government against the rebels — not for ideological reasons but to protect both its only foothold in the Middle East, which it considers essential to protecting its southern flank, and its small but vital sea port on the Syrian coast, its strategic window on the Mediterranean.
Major American intervention, such as no-fly zones or air attacks, will almost certainly lead Moscow to finally deliver the very effective S-300 air defense systems to Assad, and raise our risks and costs even further.
As to the Chinese, now huge consumers of Middle East oil, their game is to resist revolutions in principle, since they might give some in China dangerous ideas, and to clip America's wings wherever this can be done without too much risk. They may also calculate that Assad, or at least his regime, will survive this contest given American reluctance to go all in, and are therefore being mildly helpful to him from the sidelines.
In sum, Syria is, of course, a humanitarian nightmare. It’s also a place where we need to think very hard before we decide whether and how to intervene. The stakes and risks are high.
American policy on the issue has, so far, been inconsistent. Declaring that Assad must go was satisfying emotionally, but did not foresee the possibility that the rebels might not win. Drawing a 'red line' over the use of chemical weapons was a similar humanitarian reflex and assumed he wouldn't dare. Now that Assad has called our bluff and used them, the White House response of sending small arms to friendly rebels is much too little and probably too late to make a decisive difference to the final outcome, although it could be barely enough to stalemate the situation and open the way to negotiations.
That, I believe, is the only balanced way forward.
To get to negotiations we may have to escalate a bit more, but should do so in a carefully measured way. And given that the rebels are clearly no longer winning, negotiations, once we get there, will also require compromise all around.
There is one new factor that could improve and, perhaps, transform the situation: The election last week of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate new Iranian president. In his campaign, Rouhani stressed that he wanted to improve relations with the West and find a solution to the nuclear issue. Given that the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei approved Rouhani's running for president, that the system accepted his win of 50.7 percent, and that Khamenei reportedly praised this working of Iranian 'democracy', it seems likely that the Ayatollah himself has decided that a basic change in Iran’s policy direction is necessary and that Rouhani’s election should be seen as the face-saving way of doing so.
To test this hypothesis, the West should promptly take Rouhani up on this and put everything on the table, including a complete lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations in return for Iranian acceptance of the needed nuclear cutbacks and IAEA controls of its nuclear program, consistent with its status as a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
One of the critical conditions for such a grand bargain should be Iranian support for a prompt and reasonable Syrian cease-fire and settlement — preserving the regime, but supporting Assad’s early departure and guaranteeing early, free internationally supervised elections. It’s a solution that would please no one, but would stop the killing and give Syria a chance at a new beginning.
Whether even this will suffice to keep Syria together in the longer run is debatable. More likely, together with the other artificial middle eastern states, it will sooner or later disintegrate into its Shia, Sunni, Kurdish and Christian parts, and then regroup along more natural historic lines. This will take time and probably more bloodshed, but, in the long term, might actually be a rather good solution.