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Why Syria's Rebels Can't Have It All

Don't listen to pundits who want to drag America into another Middle East quagmire. The Obama administration's strategy in Syria is already working.

Here we go again.

That strange coalition of neocons and liberal interventionists is clamoring once more for a more muscular U.S. approach to Syria. And unsurprisingly, they're searching for culprits in the endless debate of "who lost Syria?"

Don't believe any of it. The time for guilting the United States into expensive and ill-thought-out military interventions has passed. Indeed, the reasons to intervene in Syria -- the hope of defusing a bloody religious and political conflict and dealing the Iranian mullahs a mortal blow -- are just not compelling enough to offset the risks and the unknowns.

The "we need to do more" chorus has intensified in light of the dramatic and tragic events in Aleppo, where the Syrian army once again appears to be laying waste to a great city in the hope of rooting out its opponents. Last week, the Washington Post called yet again for a series of steps -- arming the opposition and contingency planning for no-fly zones -- without any analysis of whether such measures would appreciably affect the situation on the ground, let alone any consideration of what the costs might be if they didn't work.

The death dance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime has been a long, complex affair, and it's likely to go on for a while longer. It might even involve Assad retreating to an Alawite enclave along Syria's northwest coast, where he could hold out against his opponents for some time. In the meantime, the conflict between a murderous regime and an opposition that won't quit -- but can't yet win -- goes on.

The reality is that Syria is in the middle of a complex internal struggle with a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There's no single force on the ground -- or constellation of outside powers -- that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less. Sure, U.S. President Barack Obama could take down the Assads by force -- but he would do an enormous amount of damage in the process and end up being forced to rebuild the country. Remember the Pottery Barn rule? That's the last thing America needs.

Still, some seem determined already to lay the blame for the Syrian mess at America's doorstep. The Syrian crisis would never have come to this had the United States not been so passive, the Wall Street Journal opined last week. In not leading a coalition of the willing, the country has produced a mess that will be harder to clean up.

The arrogance of the argument is as breathtaking as it is reckless. The notion that the United States could ever have fixed Syria is the same twisted logic that produced the Iraq debacle. It also flies in the face of the spirit of self-reliance that has made the popular revolts in the Arab world so genuine and authentic. If the so-called Arab Spring does in fact produce better governance, it will be precisely because the United States kept its distance and citizens took responsibility for their political future. It is a cruel irony that the one country where America intervened heavily -- Iraq -- is the one in which an Arab strongman still acts in arbitrary and heavy-handed fashion.

As for assembling a coalition of the willing, the bloom is off the rose on that idea. Some still believe that a coalition can be assembled to save the day by supplying weapons and air cover to any opposition group that would sign a kind of good-behavior agreement. Who all would be in this bunch, and what precisely would they be willing to do? What we've witnessed in the past half-year is a coalition of the unwilling, the opposed, and the vacillating. No amount of American leadership would have pushed the Europeans to consider risky military options, particularly after the NATO-led Libya operation demonstrated how stretched their resources were. And forget Russian help -- the Kremlin seems willing to defend Assad to the last drop of Syrian blood.

As for Turkey, on which the pro-intervention crowd is banking much of its hopes, there is a reason Ankara has been all bark but no bite. Turkey will use military force if it sees Kurdish militants using the power vacuum in Syria to carve out a base, but it hasn't pushed aggressively for a "safe zone" in Syrian territory because of its own public's wariness of war and complications with Iran and Russia. Remember Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "zero problems" policy? He wants to be loved by everybody.

Being cautious on Syria is still the best approach for the Obama administration, and here's why.

It's working.

The Assads are going down, though not nearly as quickly as one might have hoped. The opposition has now put both Damascus and Aleppo in play, testing the Syrian military's control of the country's two major cities. The Assads' already small circle of key advisors has been reduced as a result of the July 18 bombing in Damascus that killed four top security officials. A grave sense of vulnerability and pervasive suspicions over whom to trust will continue to take its toll on the rest of the family's circle. The regime's counter-crackdown, meanwhile, is only deepening the rebels' determination to resist and enlarging its pool of recruits. Meanwhile, the Syrian army continues to become fatigued and demoralized by endless guerrilla warfare against an enemy that appears to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

This process will not be quick or painless. But nobody has made a compelling case that half-measures -- more arms for the opposition, no-fly zones, safe havens -- will bring the Assads down. To give these ideas the old college try because we feel compelled to "do something" isn't a strategy; it's a wing and a prayer. And after Iraq and Afghanistan, it's just not good enough to pass the threshold for putting American lives, money, and credibility on the line.

Keep your powder dry.

A real coalition of the willing will indeed be required to mend Syria's wounds -- but only after the main battle to defeat the Assads has concluded. An international monitoring and stabilization force could preempt civil war and create the basis for a political transition. International donors conferences will have to be launched to raise the billions of dollars that will be required to get Syria moving economically and to deal with the broken bodies and minds left in the wake of the violence and terror. These are steps that the United States -- along with the rest of the international community -- can embark upon that will not force it to take sides or plunge ahead with half-baked intervention schemes. And it is this second struggle for Syria that is worth the multilateral effort.

America can't control the world.

International intervention still might come, driven by the pressure of events. It could be prompted by a large-scale massacre by the regime, in which thousands are killed in a single action, or by the prospect of Assad's loss of control of his chemical weapons stockpile. But for now, America's current approach will have to do, enhanced as necessary to accommodate the swelling refugee flows into Syria's neighbors.

It should come as no surprise to observers that Syria has come to this. There was no way the Assads were going down without a brutal, bloody fight and a messy, complex transition. And the odds that the post-Assad era will go as smoothly (relatively speaking) as those in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Yemen are slim to none.

But the idea that the United States -- currently in the grips of an economic crisis, already strained militarily by a decade of costly foreign wars, and in the middle of an election season -- would be able to make that transition substantially easier strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. After the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and billions of dollars expended, only a willfully delusional observer would argue that the American adventures in those countries were worth the price the United States paid. Nor should those countries' current conditions provide inspiration for additional military expeditions to fix yet another foreign land.

Retiring U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a very wise man whose career has been spent trying to make his government's unwise policies work, said it best in his exit interview with the New York Times. We should heed his three lessons: Remember the laws of unintended consequences; recognize the limits of U.S. capacity; and understand that a foreign power's exit from a conflict can be as dangerous for the country as the original conflict.

Syria today is a mess -- but it's a Syrian mess. Afghanistan and Iraq should teach us that America can't control the world. It's time the country focus primarily on fixing its own broken house, instead of chasing the illusion that it can always help repair somebody else's.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Reality Check

Warning: Turbulence Ahead

Mitt Romney has a point: Barack Obama is no Israel-lover. And if the president wins a second term, expect a major clash with Benjamin Netanyahu.

"Everybody knows that relations with Israel have never been worse."

So thundered the venerable John McCain, foreign policy preacher and iconoclast par excellence, in a sermon from the mountaintop on one of last Sunday's talk shows. The Arizona senator was commenting on President Barack Obama's claim last week in Palm Beach, one he has oft repeated on the campaign trail, that U.S.-Israeli ties are stronger than ever.

Put aside the senator's characteristic bluntness, and the fact we're in the middle of campaign silly season. Is McCain right? And if he is, what's going on?

Having watched and worked on the U.S.-Israeli relationship for a good many years, I've struggled to gain some perspective on the matter. And the present moment has plenty of competition from the dramatic lows of years past: Dwight Eisenhower's threat to sanction Israel after its 1956 invasion of Sinai, Richard Nixon's threat to do the same if Israel didn't attend the Geneva conference in 1973, the flap between Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Menachem Begin over the president's 1982 Middle East peace initiative (Begin to U.S. Ambassador Sam Lewis when informed of the speech, "Sam, this is the saddest day in my life since  I became prime minister."), and George H.W. Bush's war with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir over settlements and Secretary of State Jim Baker's denial of loan guarantees to Israel in 1991 as a result.

But these previous lows notwithstanding, McCain is on to something. Crises and tensions have come and gone, but rarely -- if ever -- has there seemed to be such a permanent pall over the relationship. Its dismal state is even more perplexing when one considers that the body of the relationship -- security assistance and intelligence cooperation -- seems sound.

It's the head that's in trouble. Almost four years into their partnership, the two most important players -- Bibi and Barack -- still seem out of whack with one another both personally and on some key policy issues.

What's happening here? I've got a pretty simple diagnosis: Netanyahu's policies and suspicions about American intentions have combined with Obama's seemingly emotionless view of Israel to spell trouble. The absence of a common enterprise makes matters worse.

The Iranian challenge might still provide a grand reunion between the two parties. But if history is any guide, serious clashes between Israeli prime ministers and American presidents are not resolved by reconciliation but by the departure of one or the other. That may mean we're in for an extended period of turbulence: I'm betting that in this case, both Bibi and Barack may be around for the long haul.

Bibi's Suspicions

This is hardly first time the U.S.-Israeli relationship has suffered from the clash between a right-wing prime minister and an American president. But unlike past occasions, when the right-wing prime minister was confident and secure -- Begin, Shamir, Ariel Sharon -- this time Israel has a leader who feels both insecure and surrounded.

The Likud's previous leaders were genuine and authoritative right-wingers. It's not that they trusted the Americans, though Begin did invest heavily in Washington. They trusted their own instincts and had the power and will to make decisions. Moshe Arens, Shamir's foreign minister, told the prime minister before his visit to Washington in 1989 that the Americans would cut his balls off. No doubt Shamir believed him. But the prime minister was still strong enough to cooperate with the Americans when they asked him in 1991 not to retaliate for Iraqi SCUD attacks, or when Baker pressed him to go to the Madrid peace conference.

Netanyahu is different. He's constantly looking over his shoulder, worried about his coalition and the loyalty of the right. And Bibi trusts no one: He's an ambivalent leader pulled by party, tribe, and family on one hand, and by the need to be loved and successful on the other. His policies, particularly on settlements and peacemaking, seem half-hearted and tentative. One day, he institutes a 10-month settlement freeze; the next day, he orders a building spree. One day, he endorses the principle of a Palestinian state; the next, he opposes the kinds of decisions required to make it a reality. He formed a national unity government to deal with the military conscription debate, then saw it collapse after he wasn't able to reach a compromise on the issue. No wonder the Israeli right, left, center, to say nothing of the Americans, don't really trust him.

Obama's Convictions

If Bibi seems weak, Obama has left no doubt that he has strong views when it comes to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. And he hasn't changed his views of Israel or Netanyahu, even if his first failed run at the peace process and the impending presidential election have caused him to back off.

I've watched a few presidents come and go on this issue, and Obama really is different. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama isn't in love with the idea of Israel. As a result, he has a harder time making allowances for Israeli behavior he doesn't like. Obama relates to the Jewish state not on a values continuum but through a national security and interest filter.

 

It's true that the president doesn't emote on many policy issues, with the possible exception of health care. But on Israel, he just doesn't buy the "tiny state living on the knife's edge with the dark past" argument -- or at least it doesn't come through in emotionally resonant terms. As the Washington Post's Scott Wilson reported, Obama doesn't believe the "no daylight" argument -- that is, to get Israel to move, you need to make the Israelis feel that America will stand by it no matter what. Quite the opposite: Obama appears to believe that Israel needs to understand that if it doesn't move, the United States will be hard pressed to continue to give it complete support.

In this respect, when it comes to Israel, Obama is more like Jimmy Carter minus the biblical interest or attachment, or like Bush 41 minus a strategy. My sense is that, if he could get away with it, the president would like to see a U.S.-Israeli relationship that is not just less exclusive, but somewhat less special as well.

No Common Project

Right-wing Israeli leaders have found ways to cooperate quite closely with American presidents in the past. But this time around, it's not so easy.

There are just no good answers to the region's problems. The peace process is stuck, and Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon seems impervious to sanctions or diplomacy. The Arab world is going through changes that will introduce even more uncertainty into Israeli calculations and make risk-taking on the peace process less likely. And as the president might say, let's be clear: Netanyahu is not going to offer the Palestinians a deal on Jerusalem, borders, or refugees that they will accept. Indeed, on the issue of a peace settlement, Obama's views are much closer to the Palestinians than to Israel.

The Iranian nuclear issue could still push the two countries closer together, even though they differ on the urgency of the threat and how to deal with it. If Israel should strike and the Iranians hit back, America will be most likely drawn in and engaged on Israel's side. Alternatively, if the United States attacks, we could see another Gulf War scenario, where the Americans plead with the Israelis to stay out even if provoked.

There's almost no scenario involving a military strike against Iran -- even if the Israelis struck without American approval -- that wouldn't create a need for intimate cooperation. However it plays out, Israel and the United States could easily find themselves in the same boat, and Obama and Netanyahu would be forced to work together closely as a result.

Short of that, however, the U.S.-Israeli relationship is in for a turbulent period. There will be no transformative moment here for the two main players. If Obama had a wish regarding Israel, it would be that anyone -- Shaul Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert -- replace Bibi. And when Bibi blows out the candles on his next birthday, he'll be wishing that Mitt Romney defeats Obama in November.

It's fascinating to consider that in the two most recent cases where American presidents clashed with Israeli prime ministers -- Carter and Bush 41-- both were defeated. Shamir also lost to Rabin in 1992, after clashing with Bush the elder. History could repeat itself in the case of both Obama and Netanyahu -- but what will be more intriguing and entertaining, however, is what happens if they both survive to go another round. Buckle your seat belts. It may be a wild ride.

Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images