U.S. President Barack Obama's missile strikes against Syria may be off the table for now as diplomatic attention shifts to talks with Russia and the U.N. Security Council. But while negotiators from Moscow and Washington meet in Geneva, the increasing tempo of Washington's public commitment to a strategy of arming parts of the Syrian opposition continues, with the aim of forcing President Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table. Such efforts come with a hidden price tag, though: They are not only unlikely to rapidly end the war, but they carry enormous opportunity costs.
When Washington talks about supporting the "moderate opposition," what it means is leaning on the Persian Gulf regimes to arm and finance its preferred proxy armies (and not the jihadists who have also benefited from Gulf funding). But the current strategy of arming the "good guys" to marginalize the "bad guys" likely means extending the long, grinding civil war with an ever-escalating civilian toll. We should not be fooled by overly rosy assessments of the size, ideology, coherence, or prowess of the Syrian good guys. The Syrian insurgency on the ground is localized, fragmented, and divorced from the external political leadership. Extremists typically thrive in the chaos of civil war, not moderates. And proxies, such as the ever-ungrateful Gen. Salim Idris, will never be satisfied with the aid they receive -- nor be reliable allies down the road if a better offer comes along.
Waging a proxy war will necessarily mean not doing a lot of other things that America might otherwise do in the region and around the world -- which is probably just how the Gulf states like it. It thoroughly ties Washington to the Gulf Cooperation Council's horse on Syria, despite significant disagreements on policy, strategy, and goals. The United States relies on the hawkish Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, for the financing, administration, and delivery of arms supplies to Syrian rebel factions. The proxy-war strategy means that managing Syria's civil war will consume America's diplomatic and strategic agenda for the foreseeable future to the exclusion of many other important goals. That means giving up on pushing for important regional policy initiatives that Riyadh or Abu Dhabi oppose, such as promoting democracy and human rights in the region or finding a diplomatic resolution with Iran.
It should be self-evident is that the fiercely anti-democratic and highly sectarian Gulf states have little interest in avoiding sectarianism and none in building democracy. It is thus baffling that so many in Washington have convinced themselves that the Saudis can be trusted to promote moderate, democratic, or secular opposition forces. Relying on their efforts means acceding to their preferred view of Syria's conflict as primarily an arena for proxy war with Iran. To paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Saudis are always willing to fight Iran to the last dead American (or Syrian). There will be no support from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the negotiated political solution that Washington actually prefers, and likely active subversion of the Geneva 2 process, if it gets under way.
Obviously, this reliance on the Gulf states for implementing a Syrian proxy war means forgetting about any thoughts of pressuring them on their own human rights record, or on anything else. Most observers probably found it hard to not laugh (or cry) as Bahrain's foreign minister denounced the "dangerous human rights violations by Assad's regime against his people." Yes, that's the same Bahrain where (as Human Rights Watch summarizes) "security forces had used excessive force against peaceful protesters during demonstrations, and had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, ill-treated, and denied them fair trials." But if Washington is going to rely on Riyadh in Syria, then it's going to have to look away and grimly smile through it. Of course, the GCC expects the full rehabilitation of the unrepentant Bahraini regime. Few in the international community seem to care any longer, and even fewer will dare raise questions as dependence on Riyadh in Syria increases.
The same applies to Egypt, where the Gulf states aggressively supported the military coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsy -- against the strongly expressed preferences of the United States. Washington invested a great deal of effort in supporting the troubled democratic transition in Egypt and working with the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership. The Gulf states unapologetically supported (at least) the military coup that summarily ended that experiment, while explicitly offering billions of dollars to offset any potential loss of aid from the West. Washington will now find it more expedient to accept the new reality. Calls to suspend aid to Cairo will likely quietly fade away.