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A Partial Syria Reset

Obama's diplomatic solution might not stop Assad's war, but it's far better than what airstrikes would have accomplished.

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week, President Barack Obama signaled decisively that he had returned to his senses on Syria. It was a near thing. Less than a month ago, a military strike against the Assad regime appeared as inevitable as it was pointless and potentially disastrous.

But in front of the assembled leaders of the world, Obama acknowledged that "I do not believe that military action -- by those within Syria, or by external powers -- can achieve a lasting peace." He pushed not only for an agreement on Syria's chemical weapons which would "energize a larger diplomatic effort to reach a political settlement within Syria," but pointedly signaled his interest in a Russian and Iranian role in such a settlement. "My preference has always been a diplomatic resolution to this issue," he reminded his audience -- and, perhaps, himself. Sure, all options remain on the table, as they always do, but it seems highly unlikely that Obama has any intention of going through last month's political disaster again.

This remarkable turnaround infuriated hawks from the Beltway to the Gulf, who thought just a month ago that they had finally dragged a reluctant president into their war. Obama might have said during his nationally televised address on Sept. 10 that "I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria. I will not pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan. I will not pursue a prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo." But the hawks who had been calling for American intervention knew better: once the bombing began, the pressure to escalate until victory -- whatever that might mean -- would have been irresistible.

But give the man props. Somehow, he escaped the trap and walked away from the slippery slope, and even converted the near-fiasco into tangible diplomatic progress. Now Obama's calling Iran's president on the phone for the first public contact in decades, his secretary of state is meeting face-to-face with Iran's foreign minister, a Security Council resolution dealing with Syria is on the brink of passage, and a political horizon for meaningful regional change is flickering into view. From Obama to Bush to Obama in sixty seconds.

Despite all the messiness of the process, the American democratic system actually worked on Syria. It wasn't just Russia's diplomatic intervention. Obama may have stumbled into the terrible idea of bombing Syria, but democratic institutions actually pulled him back from the brink. The White House could not have, and should not have, ignored the tsunami of public opinion surveys which showed clearly that Americans wanted nothing to do with the new war and didn't believe that his plans would work (Arab and international public opinion was no more favorable). Congress revolted, with even close allies of the administration signaling their opposition to a military strike (and what better way to help a friend and ally than to stop him from making a terrible mistake?).

What's more, a public debate far removed from the credulous media of 2002 blocked far-fetched ideas about cakewalks or candy-throwing welcomes from gaining any traction. Cable TV talk shows might have plumped for intervention but didn't seem to influence anyone. Interventionist ideas which had been so carefully cultivated in the hothouse environment of D.C. think-tanks wilted almost immediately when exposed to skeptical scrutiny. Perhaps we've forgotten that this is how the marketplace of ideas and the democratic system is supposed to work.

Obama's decision to pull back from air strikes disappointed many, of course, including regional allies who had long been pushing for military action and Syrians desperate for some resolution to the fighting. But their disappointment will have few long-lasting consequences. Concerns about the impact on U.S. credibility can be easily set aside: Iranians understand perfectly well the difference between their nuclear program and Syria's civil war in Washington's thinking. Hawkish Arab leaders will continue as they've been doing for years, carping about America not solving their problems and pursuing proxy wars which directly undermine American priorities. Leaders of Syria's armed opposition may be deeply frustrated about not securing the use of America's fighter jets and Tomahawks, but will likely continue to ask for -- and get -- money and guns.

Syrian rebels are certainly disappointed. But that's not such a bad thing. For too long, key factions of the fractious Syrian rebels have banked upon eventually attracting a foreign intervention on their behalf. If they finally give up on this hope then they might take more seriously the reality of the need for a negotiated, managed transition. Even the declaration of an Islamist alternative to the Western-backed Syrian opposition could help. It changes little on the ground, where the Free Syrian Army never amounted to as much as its backers claimed, local powerbrokers have carved out their own domains, and alliances have been fluid. The new international reality could help the perennially struggling opposition politicians if it galvanizes a sense of urgency for striking a political deal quickly -- rather than waiting for the military cavalry to sweep in and save the day.

If military strikes could have quickly ended the war and helped Syria's suffering millions, then it would be a different story. But even backers of the strikes didn't claim that it would actually have accomplished those goals. In fact, there is more hope for an end to the fighting and meaningful political transition in Syria today than there was a month ago, when the bombs seemed primed for launch. There is a moment for creative diplomacy here, as with Iran, which must not be missed. Obama's well-crafted mention of the suffering of Iranians at the hands of Iraqi chemical weapons linked together the two potential diplomatic initiatives cleverly. With a draft Security Council resolution on a chemical weapons resolution set for a vote on Friday evening, and Iran signaling its willingness to participate in the Geneva talks, Assad's friends suddenly seem less determinedly committed to his survival.

Obama's U.N. speech seemed designed to reestablish the goal that America's policy should be ending the civil war and finding a political agreement on a post-Assad Syria. After the administration's painful, failed flirtation with proxy war and limited intervention, that's reassuring. This does not mean rehabilitating Assad, of course. Obama made clear his view of the impossibility of the architect of such massive war crimes being a part of any legitimate or stable successor regime. But removing Assad is only one step in the long, difficult process of helping to stop the fighting, dealing with the humanitarian crisis, and building a better Syria.

That doesn't mean that Geneva 2 or any other political track is likely to quickly resolve Syria's violent conflicts, shattered state, or humanitarian catastrophe. Nothing will accomplish that -- neither military action nor proxy war nor diplomacy. But for the first time in many months, the political track suddenly seems to be back in play -- and that's a huge improvement from where things stood a month ago.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The Price of Proxies

Don't be fooled: The United States is already knee-deep in the Syrian quagmire, and the opportunity costs are disturbing.

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.

Dependence on the Gulf states will also matter when it comes to Iran, where new President Hasan Rouhani has been sending fascinating signals of a shift in foreign policy, including a possible accord on the country's nuclear program. Those diplomatic avenues may be harder to explore when America's chief regional allies oppose doing so. The GCC regimes make no secret of their view that the battle in Syria is really a proxy war with Iran. Proxy war in Syria (to say nothing of the hot war and missile strikes that the Gulf states prefer) makes diplomatic progress with Iran less likely. Ironically, should the United States actually get militarily involved in Syria, it would likely reduce, rather than increase, the credibility of the U.S. deterrent threat against Iran. Tehran will judge Washington by what it can do to or for Iran, not by what it does in Syria -- and a United States that slides down the slippery slope and gets bogged down in the Syrian quagmire clearly isn't going to have the appetite for a new conflict with Iran.

Many in Washington are deeply worried about the spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict reshaping the region. They are right to be concerned. The deepening sectarian divide poses profound risks and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of regionwide conflict, with a ceaseless stream of blood, repression of minorities, and torn social fabric. But ramping up the armed insurgency in Syria virtually guarantees that these divides will get worse, not better. The Sunni Islamist networks and individuals mobilizing public support for the Syrian jihad across the Gulf tend to be highly sectarian in their discourse. The United States should be pressuring Gulf states to crack down on this sectarian hate speech, but Washington isn't going to be in a position to pressure the Gulf on anything.

The increasing dependence on the Gulf states isn't the only opportunity cost of the proxy war strategy, of course. The United States desperately needs to recalibrate its thinking about Islamist movements -- whose ideas, strategies, and relationships have rarely been more in flux. Certainly, Syria is part of that Islamist turbulence, with that jihad becoming the most potent site of jihadi mobilization since Iraq. But there's far more to it than the battlefield fortunes of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Ahrar al-Sham. Support for those varied fighting groups draws on extensive networks across the Gulf and the broader region, with fundraising and mobilization efforts for Syrian jihadists taking pride of place for Islamist rhetoric and organizational efforts. The Ansar al-Sharia organizations across North Africa and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, like the Syrian groups, are organizing local communities and demonstrating political savvy that many doubted they could muster. Jihadi groups are bidding for the loyalties of those Islamists who had put their faith in democratic participation only to see it crushed by Cairo's military coup. And nobody yet knows how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will adapt to the military coup, repression, and nationalist wave of anti-Islamist rage.

Then there are the ongoing conflicts and lower-level crises that just don't make it on to anyone's crowded agenda. Yemen has retreated to its familiar place of being ignored (not by FP, of course). Iraq's violence continues to surge, spurred by the spillover from Syria's insurgency and by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's long-standing efforts to centralize power. Libya has been reduced to morbidly stupid right-wing talking points about Benghazi, but could use a lot more international assistance and attention. And Tunisia's struggling transition could use some help.

Then, of course, falling deeper into the Syrian morass means that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be put back onto the back burner (where it has so comfortably resided for the last decade). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may believe that he can broker both the peace talks and a Syrian cease-fire at the same time, but very few others seem to agree. Sure, he'll jet from Geneva to Jerusalem on Sept. 15, but the reality is that there just isn't enough bandwidth in Washington, or in the region, for both. (Where's that pivot to Asia again?)

Syria's human and strategic catastrophe deserves all the international attention that it receives, and more, but the proxy-war strategy carries much greater costs and fewer benefits than are typically acknowledged. It isn't quite the cheaper alternative to direct military strikes as advertised, has massive opportunity costs for other American interests, and rests on very shaky assumptions. Washington should spend less time worrying about how the Gulf states view its Syria strategy and more about articulating its own interests, goals, and strategy for the region.

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images