U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is holding yet another round of internal deliberations about how to deal with Syria. Despite the breathless media coverage, the arguments inside the administration are well-rehearsed at this point and unlikely to produce surprises. The pressure on the administration to deepen its military involvement in the Syrian conflict may become irresistible, as my Foreign Policy colleague Aaron David Miller argued this week -- even as the public overwhelmingly opposes such steps and nobody really believes that the ideas on offer will work.
Washington's Syria debate rages within the boundaries of a broader debate about America's appropriate role in the Middle East and the world. The Obama administration clearly and correctly places a high premium on not being dragged into another Iraq-style quagmire. Many in Washington view this refusal to intervene in Syria, like the withdrawal from Iraq, as an abdication of leadership. But even most hawks recognize that the United States can't afford, and the public doesn't want, another Iraq or Afghanistan -- that's why few openly recommend a full-scale U.S. intervention.
The endless arguments about Syria too often focus on the tactics -- arming the rebels, diplomacy, no-fly zones. But as Micah Zenko recently noted in FP, these more limited options involve Washington more directly in the war without any realistic prospect of ending it. Cratering runways might work for a few hours, but then Bashar al-Assad will repair them. No-fly zones might limit the destruction of Assad's air force, but the Syrian military has other resources at its disposal. Arming the rebels will slightly tilt the battlefield but will not likely break the strategic stalemate or give Washington significant influence within the Syrian opposition. The first step on the slippery slope is always easy, but it's much harder to actually resolve a conflict or to find a way out of a quagmire.
These painfully familiar arguments about U.S. options miss the point, though. They conceal a prior question: What does it mean for U.S. policy to "work" in Syria? Should Syria be viewed as a front in a broad regional cold war against Iran and its allies or as a humanitarian catastrophe that must be resolved? That question crosses partisan lines and gets to fundamental questions about how to understand the rapidly changing Middle East.
The distinction matters directly and profoundly for the debate over specific policies. Steps that effectively bleed Iran and its allies might well prolong and intensify Syria's bloodshed, while policies that alleviate human suffering and produce a more stable postwar Syria may well require dealing with Assad's backers. Imagine that Secretary of State John Kerry brokered a diplomatic breakthrough that ended the fighting and secured a political transition but included an Iranian role -- from the latter perspective this would be a stunning success, but from the former it would be an epic disaster.
Many of the advocates of aggressive intervention define the Syrian conflict primarily as a front in the cold war against Iran. From this perspective, Hezbollah's entry into the fray and the fall of Qusayr are not necessarily a bad thing -- Washington now has an opportunity to strike directly at one of Iran's most valuable assets in the Middle East. The enemy's queen, to use a chess metaphor, has now moved out from behind its wall of pawns and is open to attack. Fear of a rebel defeat -- and of a victory for Hezbollah and Iran -- should squeeze more cash and military support out of the Arab Gulf, Europe, and the United States.