No Good Way in Syria’s Civil War

Alas, our first post-modernist President of the United States lacks grounding in Western Civilization and American tradition. He is thus cast adrift, helplessly splashing around, out of his community organizing comfort pond, in the unforgiving seas of international turbulence.


By Marek Jan Chodakiewicz | September 18, 2013

The United States has painted itself into a geopolitical corner over Syria. At the moment, Russia gloats, while China circles above, carrion-like, leaving America with no good moves. There is only lesser evil: in Syria, in the region, and on the global scene.

Backing the Alawite-led Bashar al-Assad regime of the national socialist Baath Party is tantamount to restoring the hostile situation prior to the Arab Spring, including Iran’s nefarious influence in Lebanon with its Shiia proxy Hezbollah. Supporting the rebels means enabling the Sunnis in general, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda in particular. Make no mistake, the rebels do accept support from the royalist Gulf States, but it is not the sworn monarchists or military secularists doing battle against the Assad regime. Although a minority, it is the religious extremists primarily who are most active and highly visible in combat. Al-Qaeda’s black flags crop up all too frequently and foreign fighters speaking Russian, German, and Arabic have been reported on the battlefield as well.

A tribal society

Inside Syria, the society has fallen back on its basic component parts: family and clan. The sheiks call the shots locally. Party militias, opposition politicians, army deserters, rebels, and terrorists – all of whom Western media generically, and inaccurately, call “The Free Syrian Army” – operate within and without the tribal structures. Of the minorities, the terrified Christians find themselves under a vicious onslaught by the insurgents. The Kurds self-liberated and lay low, while fending off the attacks from both the regime, infrequently, and the opposition, increasingly. The Alawites have squarely backed their Baathist regime, but there are also enough secularists and others with vested interests who have remained conditionally loyal toward the dictator. Again, they overlap with at least some elements of the tribal society and, like the insurgents, burrow in it, supporting their own clan leaders and expanding their networks. The situation is eerily reminiscent of Iraq a few years back, albeit sans the American troops. Shall we insert them now?

Barrack Obama feels we need no boots on the ground, just planes in the air. That is impractical. After bombing, someone has to enforce the order. Can we trust anyone in Syria? Or, do we have to rely on our own troops once again? But the administration optimistically insists that airpower will do the trick. The White House would like the American people to back its “precision” bombing campaign. Such a campaign would strike at the regular army and, we are assured, collateral damage would be practically non-existent. Wrong. In civil wars, lines are almost always blurred. With all due respect for our precision munitions technology, it is sometimes hard to tell the combatants apart. Further, although Assad’s garrisons are still manned as fortresses, at least some of the troops are already in position and dispersed among friendly tribes, seasonal allies, and coerced hosts. Now, having been duly warned, the dictator will surely move more soldiers out of their traditional encampment to mingle with the population. Shall we bomb them too? Welcome to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Bombing will primarily undercut the Assad regime side. But to what end? To secure an al-Qaeda or Muslim Brotherhood win? Let’s suppose that we bomb all of them. After all, President Obama has promised “precision” strikes. That would make sense from the point of view of our strategic objective to eliminate the terrorists (formerly known as the war on terror). But what do we hope to achieve? To weaken both sides is to foster an endless civil war, like in Lebanon. Besides, the White House has ignored the Islamists; instead, it has focused singlemindedly on Assad, allegedly the Hosni Mubarak of Syria. A regime change worked out just sweetly for us in Cairo, and the same scenario is being crafted vis-à-vis Damascus.

Regime change

Following the Arab Spring and the overthrow of the dictator in Egypt, the U.S. president convened a special task force which predicted a bright future for the Arab nation on the model of Chile, South Korea, and the Philippines. It has sadly failed to materialize. First, the Islamists seized power, and then the military national socialists grabbed it back. In Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the region, outside of rather calm traditional monarchies, we are sadly sentenced, in the foreseeable future, to a tug of war between the radical Islamist and the military secularist. So far, Algeria serves as the best case scenario. Iraq, Libya, Egypt, and Syria are in various stages of destabilization. In most places, there will be no democracy; there will be blood, and then a dictatorship of one sort or another. What makes Obama think it will be different in Syria?

A bombing campaign is not a strategy and will send additional waves of desperate civilians into already overcrowded refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Refugee camps, as always, will destabilize the host countries and become breeding grounds for extremists. In fact, they already have. Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas are hybrid terrorist organizations busy dispensing charity, on the one hand, and recruiting, surreptitiously or not, on the other, to the shriek of the muezzin’s call to prayer above the madrasa, all complements of the Wahabbi Kingdom or the Islamic Republic, as well as “international aid,” often subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer.

“Yes, we can” bomb and we shall have “change” in the region. But what of the law of unintended consequences? Jordan has so far escaped the worst of the Arab Spring, and remains stable. Lebanon has begun to steam up with the extremists raring to jump into sectarian warfare once again, and the Lebanese radicals have already been making forays into Syria. U.S. bombing would certainly undermine the calm factor in Jordan and help Lebanon blow up.

Regional destabilization

Bombing Syria or any other form of U.S. military intervention will foster greater instability in the region, which also will threaten Israel. The Israelis do not mind when the Syrian conflict simmers because then their neighbors tend to leave them alone. But a full fledged war with U.S. participation? Sure, that would reassure some Israelis in a short run, but what happens when America leaves Syria as it did Iraq? Do we have to reassure our Israeli allies with repeated interventions even when their homeland is not threatened directly? How will bombing Syria help them?

True, bombing Syria, if it leads to Assad’s ouster, will deny Iran a route into Lebanon. The influence of the Shiia will wane. Some hope that would undercut Hezbollah’s monopoly on extremism in Lebanon and its environs. Worry not. Teheran’s proxy will quickly be replaced with a Sunni counterpart, most likely al-Qaeda, or an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, not unlike its Palestinian branch Hamas. The extremists tend to self-generate from among the ranks of the erstwhile insurgents after the victory. Remember Libya?

Regional destabilization cannot but impact adversely our formerly reliable ally Turkey. Ankara has just arrived at a tenuous modus vivendi with its Kurdish minority. It tries to woo them (and the rest of the region) with pan-Ottomanism, a combination of Sunni solidarity, heritage of the Ottoman Caliphate, and an Islamist “democracy.” Regionally, pan-Ottomanism, at this stage, is less nefarious than radical Islamism of Teherani ayatollahs, al-Qaeda, or the Muslim Brotherhood. And, so far, Turkey does counter-balance Iran. It won’t be able to as well when it is destabilized.

Moreover, one hopes that the Obama administration realizes if there is further destabilization in the region the Kurds may be emboldened enough to give up their de facto autonomy in Syria and elsewhere and make a bid for a unified state. That, in turn, may temporarily unite all neighbors – Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria – to crush the Kurdish freedom, virtually the only stable, positive legacy of American blood and treasure of our wars in the area. And it does not matter whether it is a military secularist or radical Islamist Syria: after the Syrian army withdraws, the Sunni insurgents have already launched attacks on the Kurds, a harbinger of things to come. Perhaps a peace of sorts would emerge from this sordid affair but, most likely, however, after slaughtering the Kurds, the contenders would return to business as usual among themselves. What will we have achieved then?

Global embarrassment

So much for the White House’s “strategy” at the regional level. At the global level the failure of the Obama administration to elucidate and pursue a coherent Syria policy is perhaps most transparent even to a casual observer. To bank on the anticipated world-wide outrage stemming from the unverified reports of Assad’s chemical weapon strikes against the rebels, Obama traveled to St. Petersburg to secure international support for his intended air strikes on Syria. Obama miscalculated. Russia’s head of state Vladimir Putin shrewdly countered, all in the name of peace, of course, with his initiative to internationalize the control of Syria’s chemical weapons. The satrap of Damascus eagerly agreed. For him it is a stay of execution. Also, Assad has taken a leaf from Saddam Hussain’s playbook of compliance, dishonest or not, with the so-called international community, which can be always counted on preferring to coddle dictators rather than fight them.

It is unclear how the international custody is going to be achieved technically in Syria. Perhaps Moscow will dispatch its own troops, or maybe, more likely, it will cobble together some kind of a blue helmet expedition. Thus, aside from its warm water Mediterranean naval base at Tartus, Russia will control a chemical weapons depot in that country. All in all, the Kremlin has scored a major coup against the White House. Putin can prance around in full glory not only as a defender of decent civilization against “homosexual propaganda,” but also as an international champion of peace. His standing has been enormously enhanced both in the Third World and in the West, as evidenced by the glitterati ululations following the Russian president’s guest editorial in The New York Times. Peace in Syria beats gay rights.

Back home no consolation awaited our commander-in-chief. Obama has so far failed patently to rally the American people behind his Syrian air war initiative. The legacy of the conflict in Iraq leads many to doubt the allegation of chemical weapons use by Assad. Besides, Americans are truly weary of fighting. They are also quite concerned about all belligerent moves by the great powers. Recently the war ships of Russia and China have steamed into the coastal waters off Syria, while their governments have loudly protested America’s plan to bomb. At least one foreign affairs expert has gone so far to warn of parallels with the First World War. That’s a bit far-fetched, but one cannot exclude some saber rattling, or even a mild demonstration of force against the U.S. China and Russia can once again play the defenders of the downtrodden in the Third World and champions of truth and peace for idol starved progressive Western intellectuals.

Meanwhile, Obama is left holding the bag. Whereas, our second war in Iraq was an exercise in unilateralism, Washington does not have even that option open in Syria. From the start, the White House has failed to show single minded will and dithered for so long that it has now allowed other global players, the Kremlin and the Forbidden City to seize the initiative. What can be done?

There are two adages that conservatives generally live by. According to the first, it is enough for good men to do nothing for evil to prevail. The other teaches that sometimes the hardest thing is to do nothing. Their prudent application to foreign policy, on a case by case basis, helps steer clear of the Scylla of Machiavellian cynicism and Charybdis of infantile internationalism. Alas, our first post-modernist President of the United States lacks grounding in Western Civilization and American tradition. He is thus cast adrift, helplessly splashing around, out of his community organizing comfort pond, in the unforgiving seas of international turbulence.

The least horrible course of action would be to enlist a local proxy: preferably some Sunni military secularists, who oppose both Assad and the radical Islamists. Such allies will be hard to find, but not impossible. We should turn to Turkey or Egypt to sponsor that. Next, black ops anyone? Why not discreetly suggest to the Saudis to enlist the Artists Formerly Known as Blackwater, or, better yet, their foreign fighter trainees (preferably Fijians and other non-Westerners), give them a mandate to roam around Syria at will, and take out the bad guys without discrimination? Help them out generously with drones. Meanwhile, we should bribe the sheiks to protect the Christians and other minorities, and even exfiltrate them, if all else fails. Shore up the Kurds short of statehood. Keep the Israelis away and calm. And the radical Islamists and military secularists in Syria should continue to slug it out until they want to study war no more. We should observe very carefully the unfolding events and intervene, preferably indirectly, as opportunities present themselves. This sure beats what we have received from the White House so far.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is a Professor of History at the Institute of World Politics, a Graduate School of National Security and International Affairs in Washington, DC, where he holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies. Professor Chodakiewicz is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.