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The Syria Strategy Vacuum

Forget about "how" to intervene in the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration needs to answer the bigger question: why?

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.

If Washington endorses the goal of bleeding Iran and its allies through proxy warfare, a whole range of more interventionist policies logically follow. The model here would presumably be the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan -- a long-term insurgency coordinated through neighboring countries, fueled by Gulf money, and popularized by Islamist and sectarian propaganda.

"Success" in this strategy would be defined by the damage inflicted on Iran and its allies -- and not by reducing the civilian body count, producing a more stable and peaceful Syria, or marginalizing the more extreme jihadists. Ending the war would not be a particular priority, unless it involved Assad's total military defeat. The increased violence, refugee flows, and regionalization of conflict would likely increase the pressure on neighboring states such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq. It would also likely increase sectarianism, as harping on Sunni-Shiite divisions is a key part of the Arab Gulf's political effort to mobilize support for the Syrian opposition (and to intimidate local Shiite populations, naturally). And the war zone would continue to be fertile ground for al Qaeda's jihad, no matter how many arms were sent to its "moderate" rivals in the opposition.

What follows if the conflict were understood instead as a Syrian civil war and humanitarian catastrophe? Resolving these twin crises has long been the focus of international and U.S. diplomatic efforts and is again at the fore of the proposed (but probably stillborn) Geneva II conference, which aims to bring the Syrian regime and opposition together to reach a negotiated deal. Such a settlement could in theory reduce the killing, allow the return of refugees, reduce pressure on Syria's neighbors, marginalize the jihadists, and assuage the region's spiraling sectarian hatreds. But it would not mark a defeat of Iran and its allies.

Neither of the warring parties seems inclined to take the Geneva II off-ramp to a negotiated transition at the moment, of course. The problems with such a deal are massive. Both Iran and the Gulf states seem to prefer waging proxy war over striking a regional bargain over Syria (though some of its immediate neighbors, such as Jordan, seem keener on a deal). There would be tremendous, and possibly insurmountable, enforcement problems: the opposition naturally worries that Assad would take advantage of any de-escalation to quietly liquidate his opponents, while the bickering Syrian opposition would have difficulty persuading its members to adhere to an agreement.

The debate about open U.S. military intervention in Syria should therefore be built around a frank discussion of the goals, not only the means. At the moment, advocates of arming the rebels switch between making the case that it would strike a blow against the Iranians, and that it would improve the prospects for a negotiated solution. The fundamental tension between those who argue that the rebels need more arms so that Assad will be forced to come to the table, and those who argue that this is a path leading to the complete defeat of the Syrian regime should be resolved now -- not after Washington gets involved.

The reality is that the Obama administration has done very well to resist the steady drumbeat to intervene in Syria. Can anyone who has observed Assad's tenacity over the last year still believe that his regime would have rapidly crumbled in the face of airstrikes or no-fly zones last year? Had the United States gone that route, Syria today would likely look much like it does now -- except with America trapped in a quagmire and Obama under relentless pressure to escalate.

I suspect that Obama knows better than to give in to the pressure to arm the rebels simply to appear to be "doing something." But to sustain that posture, his administration is going to have to look beyond the array of policy options and explain precisely what the United States wants to achieve in Syria.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Welcome to the Syrian Jihad

The Arab world's most popular theologian stokes the flames of a Sunni-Shia war.

In a sermon on Friday, Islamist superstar theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi called on all Muslims to launch "a jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, which are killing Sunnis and Christians and Kurds."

Qaradawi declared that participation in a Syrian jihad was an individual obligation on every Muslim. He denounced Hezbollah, referring to it as "the party of Satan" and saying that it "want[s] continued massacres to kill Sunnis." And he pushed deeper into sectarian hatred, labeling the Alawite sect, to which Assad belongs, as "worse infidels than Jews or Christians."

What makes Qaradawi's sectarian diatribe so disturbing is not that it represents some radical, new expression of extremism. It is that in today's Arab world, there is nothing particularly distinctive about his comments at all. For many months, Arab and Muslim figures of all stripes have been loudly calling for support to the predominantly Sunni Syrian rebels, as have many Arab governments (and the United States and its allies, of course). The Muslim Brotherhood's branches have strongly supported the Syrian opposition -- acquiring too much power along the way, in the minds of some. Egyptian Salafis have described providing arms and funds to the Syrian rebels as "a form of worship" and killing Assad as a religious obligation. As the killing and destruction has escalated, such support for Syria's rebels has rapidly morphed into extreme anti-Shiite and anti-Alawi rhetoric.

That's the real problem with Qaradawi's sectarian-inflected calls for a Syrian jihad. It reflects his well-honed calculation that, given the current Arab public mood, he will do better by joining the herd rather than trying to steer or stop its momentum. That hasn't always been Qaradawi's calling card: In January 2007, for example, he tried to use his influence to rein in spiraling sectarian rage following the execution of Saddam Hussein. At that time, Qaradawi was only weeks past a controversial appearance at a Doha conference on Sunni-Shiite relations, in which he had made a number of controversial remarks viewed by many as overly provocative toward the Shiite. But at that crucial moment, Qaradawi invited former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani on al-Jazeera to push back against the rabid sectarianism then roiling the Middle East.

That's just one example of how Qaradawi has tacked back and forth amidst the major Sunni-Shiite controversies of the last decade. He has provoked controversy -- but also played a mediating role when tensions reached dangerous levels. In the mid-2000s, for instance, he strongly supported the Iraqi resistance to American occupation, but then sharply denounced al Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's attacks on Iraqi Shia.

In September 2008, he sparked a major firestorm when he warned against Shiite proselytization in Sunni areas. It was not only Tehran that hotly criticized him; leaders of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, usually supportive Islamist intellectuals, and those who feared that sectarian attacks might weaken Hezbollah's appeal and the "resistance" axis also objected. By the next month, Qaradawi took a more moderate tone: He described his warnings against the spread of Shiism as "a kind of preemptive action to prevent war taking place in the future among the followers of the same religion." He then spearheaded a statement that denounced sectarian killing and calling for the protection of minorities, which attracted the signatures of both leading Saudi Islamists and Shiite figures. This time, however, he shows no signs of being prepared to hit the brakes.

Qaradawi has long been described as among the most influential clerics in the Sunni world. A savvy political opportunist, he has long been one of the best barometers for the mood of a major swathe of the Arab mainstream, uncannily attuned to shifts in the political mood. He cleverly triangulated Arab politics, adopting populist positions on foreign policy while pushing for democratic reforms across the region and advancing a "centrist" Islamist ideology. In recent years, the Egyptian-born cleric has strongly supported most of the Arab uprisings, including a controversial late February 2011 appeal to Libya's army to kill Muammar al-Qaddafi.  In Egypt, he was welcomed the Friday following Mubarak's fall to lead prayer and deliver a pro-revolutionary speech in Tahrir. But he disappointed many observers by describing Bahrain's uprising as "sectarian," in line with the Arab Gulf country's collective stance intended to delegitimize it.

Qaradawi's influence and political stances naturally brought him intense criticism, not only from anti-Islamist opponents and the West, but also from rivals for Islamic authority and influence. The Saudi media has been particularly critical over the years, delighting in attacking him for "political fraud or exploitation of religion," using him as a proxy for Riyadh's complaints with Qatar or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Team Saudi is now celebrating Qaradawi's capitulation to their own anti-Hezbollah, anti-Shiite prejudices. No words could have been sweeter to Qaradawi's Saudi critics than his recent reversal on Hezbollah: "I defended the so-called Nasrallah and his party, the party of tyranny... in front of clerics in Saudi Arabia. It seems that the clerics of Saudi Arabia were more mature than me."

But Qaradawi's alignment with the Saudi position has less to do with his theology or his personal views on the Shiites than with his calculation of regional political trends. The Western debate over whether or not he was "moderate" always missed the point: Qaradawi's strategy and thought have always been about defining and shaping the mainstream. His core doctrine of wasatiyya was always better understood as "centrism" than as "moderation" (whatever that might mean). Before the uprisings, Qaradawi's perch on al-Jazeera and his pioneering Internet presence gave him a massively influential public presence, while his association with the broad Muslim Brotherhood trend gave some degree of organizational weight behind his opinions. And like it or not, his broad themes -- such as support for "resistance" from Palestine to Iraq, criticism of al Qaeda, calls for democracy, denunciations of most Arab regimes, and conservative social values -- generally seemed to reflect mainstream Arab political views.

But many of the factors that once made him so influential have now lost some of their luster. Like al-Jazeera, Qaradawi's stances now seem to more closely follow Qatari foreign policy, and his influence has waned along with his host station and Qatar itself, which has experienced a regional backlash. The Muslim Brotherhood has become a far more polarizing actor throughout the region, particularly due to its dismal performance in Egypt's transition. And the Arab mainstream has divided dramatically not only over Syria -- but also over democracy, internal politics, and so much more.

Qaradawi now finds himself speaking to a narrower, more partisan audience. What does it say about his influence that his preferred candidate in Egypt's presidential election, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader and Islamist reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, won less than 20 percent of the vote?

Qaradawi can no longer claim to speak to a broadly unified Arab public because such a creature no longer exists. Indeed, it is worth asking whether anyone will again occupy his previously central position: The proliferation of media outlets and assertive new voices that define the new Arab public sphere tend to undermine any efforts to claim the center ground. So does the political polarization and the increasingly fierce power struggles which dominate regional politics. It just may be that nobody can fill Qaradawi's old shoes -- not even Qaradawi.

All of this makes the Islamist cleric's latest intervention even more profoundly depressing. Qaradawi has opted to join the bandwagon rather than try to pull Sunni-Shiite relations back toward coexistence. He clearly calculates that anti-Shiite sectarianism in support of the Syrian insurgency is both strategically useful and a political winner.  And those in the Gulf and in the West eager for any opportunity to hurt Iran seem happy to go along.

With the decentralization of political authority and the likelihood of a long Syrian civil war, expect the competition among "Sunnis" to adopt the most extreme stances to accelerate. By the time more responsible figures realize the destructive forces they've unleashed -- or Qaradawi attempts his standard pivot towards reconciliation -- it may be too late. 

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images