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The Syrian Game-Changer

Why the shocking rise of al Qaeda is scrambling the war, ripping up the playbook, and turning enemies into partners.

Earlier this week, Foreign Policy invited me to participate in its Syria "PeaceGame," a role-playing exercise co-hosted with the U.S. Institute of Peace and designed to look for ways to bring a political solution to the war. Having vowed some while ago to stop writing about Syria for lack of anything even remotely hopeful to say, I thought I should at least see if others were less despairing than I was. No such luck: The overwhelming majority of the 45 participants -- many of them, unlike me, actual experts -- agreed that there was no meaningful prospect of a solution which would satisfy the most basic concerns of the rebels. Nevertheless, the exercise forced us to contemplate whatever tiny openings might be worth exploring.

Our moderator, FP CEO David Rothkopf, offered a crisp summation of our collective view: There was no prospect of ending the savage stalemate without forceful diplomatic (or military) intervention by outside actors, but all of the external players had found that they could live quite well with the status quo. For this reason, the most obvious analogies to Syria's sectarian civil war -- Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, the Balkans in the 1990s -- do not apply, because in those cases an outsider (Syria in the first instance, the United States and NATO in the second) ultimately concluded that the violence represented an unacceptable threat to their interests.

The regime's growing strength gives its chief backers, Russia and Iran, no reason to push for concessions. The Sunni states who support the rebels, chiefly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are deeply unhappy with the current state of affairs, but unable or unwilling to do anything likely to tip the current balance of forces. And the United States, too, seems quite content to live with the status quo. Just take a look at President Barack Obama's speech last week at Brookings. Obama barely bothered to mention Syria, and he did so only to express satisfaction at the progress of the effort to remove chemical weapons. This is, of course, an unambiguously good thing, but it was never even among the administration's objectives in Syria before the Russians seized on the issue as a means to forestall an America attack.

The current and former senior Administration officials who spoke this week at an FP conference -- Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of State John Kerry -- all described the weapons deal as a fundamental diplomatic breakthrough. Yet none explained how a transaction requiring the cooperation of the Assad regime could ultimately lead to the weakening of the regime -- for the simple reason that it can't. I don't doubt that White House officials are agonized over the suffering in Syria, but they are also prisoners of their past decisions.

What's more, the White House strategy of building up moderate rebel groups so that the Syrian regime will have no choice but to reach a deal with them has now become hopelessly threadbare. Those groups, enfeebled both by infighting and by the absence of consistent support, were unable to defend their own storehouse of American-donated non-lethal goods against an attack by the rival Islamist Front earlier this week. The United States responded by cutting off non-lethal aid, thus deepening the group's marginalization. The administration had hoped that at the planned meeting of Geneva II next month, the rebels could present an inclusive slate of Syrian leaders as an alternative to the Assad clan. That scenario, never plausible, now looks less likely than the splintering of rebel forces and the disintegration of their very shaky leadership.

If Geneva is not to deliver some miraculous deus ex machina, then we can forget about a political solution in the short term. This forces the question of what more remote events might upset Russian or Iranian satisfaction with the status quo. Put otherwise, what could turn Syria into something more like Lebanon or Bosnia -- places that seem dreadful compared to anywhere, save Syria?

The participants in the PeaceGame, prospecting for sources of hope, speculated that a breakthrough on nuclear talks with Iran might produce tectonic shifts in the region, with a more cooperative Iran prepared to rethink its support for Assad and a more pragmatic Saudi Arabia prepared to talk to the Iranians about deescalating tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. But even a less implacably hostile Iran is not going to be abandoning its revolutionary foreign policy anytime soon. Antony Blinken responded to a question on the subject by saying, "I don't put a lot of stock into a positive answer, but we should test it." He added that any American attempt to add regional issues to the nuclear talks risked losing America's negotiating partners.

Blinken mentioned a much more negative development, the ever-tightening grip of foreign jihadists over the major towns and cities of northern Syria which had, he said, "begun to concentrate the minds of critical actors outside of Syria." The Russians, Blinken suggested, "have a profound interest in avoiding the emergence of an extremist Syria." If the Russians conclude that Assad's continued presence is leading, not to restored stability, but to a vacuum that al Qaeda will fill, perhaps they'll be more inclined to dump Syria's ruler.

I ran this theory past an official at the conference who was familiar with and sympathetic to the Russian position. "I heard that too," he said. "But he wasn't talking about Russia; he was talking about Saudi Arabia and Qatar." Responsibility for the rise of extremists, he said, lies not with Assad but with the Gulf support for those extremists.

In short, don't count on Russia any more than on Iran. Washington does, however, have leverage with the Saudis. Administration officials say that the Saudis have begun to acknowledge that the rebellion has slipped from their control. The United States thus may be able to persuade Saudi Arabia and Qatar to end state support for extremists (though the far larger flow of private funds will be harder to choke off). Turkey may be prepared to do more to prevent foreign jihadists from crossing its southeastern border into Syria. And if one of the hundreds of Western jihadists now in Syria perpetrates a terrorist attack in the United States or Europe, as the administration now considers almost inevitable, the West will begin looking at Syria less as a human rights nightmare than as a new front in the war on al Qaeda. Just as eliminating chemical weapons has supplanted the goal of ending Assad's brutality, so the dynamic of the war on terror may soon supplant both.

Such a development would, in fact, constitute Assad's supreme triumph. Syria's strongman has always described the conflict as a war between secularism and extremism. It wasn't at first; but now, thanks in part to his cynical decision to release hardened extremists from jail in 2012, it is. Assad could thus become the lesser of two evils -- not only for the West but for many Syrians, who loathe and fear the holy warriors even more than they do the regime. Rebel leaders and activists I spoke to when I was in the border area in October told me that Salafists had formed the Islamist Front in order to counter the growing influence of the foreigners gathered under the banner of the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria, who were quite happy to destroy Syria in the name of their eschatological crusade to restore the caliphate.

The growing strength of ISIS is the development most likely to scramble existing alignments. Nowhere else in the world has al Qaeda gained control over a heavily populated, urbanized space. The United States may have to make common cause with the Salafists. The Gulf states may agree to work with the moderate rebels' military and political command. Some moderate brigades may even make common cause with the regime. It's a game-changer. But there's one game it won't change: Assad's monstrous crimes against his own people. Nothing, save surrrender, is likely to put that to an end.

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Our Promised Land

How the beautiful, painful, and problematic birth of Israel mirrors modern America's moral ambiguity.

I have been reading My Promised Land, Ari Shavit's extraordinary account of the founding and growth of Israel. It is a book one reads not simply for historical instruction but for moral guidance. Shavit is an ardent Zionist who is nevertheless imbued with a sense of Israel's tragic condition. "Tragedy," as Shavit uses it, does not refer to the suffering of the Jewish people but rather to the suffering -- the unavoidable suffering -- of the Palestinian people as a result of the Zionist project. In his narrative of the brutal conquest of the Arab city of Lydda by Israeli forces in May 1948, Shavit returns again and again to the idealistic, even utopian young men who killed Arab civilians and forced the entire population into a death march in the desert. Their anguish, shame, confusion is Shavit's own; and so is their acknowledgment that it could not have been otherwise. Both conquest and expulsion "were an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state." No Lydda, no Israel.

What would it mean for an American to apply this tragic understanding to his own circumstances? In regard to the national founding, the analogy to Israel is glaringly obvious. If the American pioneers had accepted that the indigenous people they found on the continent were not simply features of the landscape but people like themselves, and thus had agreed to occupy only those spaces not already claimed by the Indians, then today's America would be confined to a narrow band along the Eastern seaboard. No Indian wars, no America. And yet, like slavery, the wars and the forced resettlement constitute a terrible reproach to the founders' belief that America was a uniquely just and noble experiment.

But when I say that I am reading Shavit for moral guidance, I'm thinking of the American present, not just the past. The tragic sense is largely alien to Americans, and to American policymakers. Americans have an almost unique faith in the malleability of the world, and of the intrinsic appeal of their own principles (a faith which Shavit writes that Israel's settlers shared until the Palestinians first rose up against them in 1936). In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger argued that all American presidents from the time of Woodrow Wilson (possibly excepting his own pupil, Richard Nixon) have been idealists, because the American people refuse to elect someone who speaks the tragic language of 19th century European statecraft.

But Shavit is not asserting, as classic realists do, that no one set of animating principles is better than another, and thus one should be agnostic among them. Nor is he simply warning, as realists do, that great projects inevitably miscarry. Shavit argues that we must act, and do so in the name of a moral vision; but that our action must be governed by a recognition of the harm we cause to others, and perhaps also to ourselves. The bad outcome does not prove bad motives, but neither do the good motives excuse the bad outcome.

This distinctive combination of resolution and ruefulness sheds light in several directions. The gross failure to distinguish between motive and outcome echoes through almost every word George W. Bush spoke in the aftermath of 9/11, including some of the first: "Like most Americans, I just can't believe" that "people would hate us.... Because I know how good we are." And so Bush set out to export American goodness in the form of his "freedom agenda" -- and remained bewildered that the world refused to understand America as it understood itself. If some recognition of human frailty, or even some basic humility, had survived in someone around the president, perhaps the White House would have understood, to take one very consequential example, that Iraqis would not welcome their conquerors with hearts and flowers, and would have prepared accordingly.

At the same time, as Leon Wieseltier noted in his New York Times review of My Promised Land, "The appeal to 'tragedy' can be easily abused." Realism, with its moral skepticism and deep awareness of unintended consequences, typically counsels inaction in the face of horror. The cautionary sensibility of President Barack Obama has been a welcome change from his predecessor's faith in magic, but the president's tragic awareness has at times served as a pretext for immobility. When pressed earlier this year on his decision not to forcefully aid the rebels in Syria, Obama rhetorically asked, "how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?"

How, that is, can I choose to do something when I am unable to do everything? That is a facile line of reasoning which Obama himself would have scorned a few years earlier. Shavit's twin lessons are "one must act" and "one must know."

For generations, Americans distinguished themselves by blithe action, always underwritten by the national certainty of virtue. Now that Americans have been eating the bitter fruit of that harvest, above all in the Middle East, we have quite suddenly become persuaded of the wisdom of not acting at all, or as little as possible. It's as if the national fall from innocence, which in Shavit's telling only increased the grim commitment of Israel's settler generation, has induced in Americans a kind of national paralysis. Perhaps the negative capability required to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time is just too alien to the national psyche. Instead of George Bush's "if they hate us, we have to explain ourselves better," the national mood has become "if they hate us, we're leaving." Where is the national groundswell of support for Obama's potentially ground-breaking diplomacy with Iran? Nowhere. He's on his own.

For Shavit, the twin poles of the Israeli condition are "intimidation" and "occupation" -- Israel as victim of its neighbors, and as victimizer of the Palestinians. For the United States, the poles are "power" and "justice." For the left -- and if you doubt there is still a respectable left, see Andrew Cockburn's self-righteous dismissal of American foreign policy in the current issue of Harper's -- the United States is a mighty blunderbuss with a dollar sign slapped on the side. For the neoconservative right, America is the world's salvation, even if the world is too blind to see it. In the real world, there is no escaping either America's hegemonic power or its commitment to founding principle. Both Israel and the United States view themselves not merely as a sovereign entity but as a cause -- and for that very reason give themselves license to visit terrible harm on those who are seen to obstruct the cause.

In January 2009, I would have said that Obama, a visionary with a chastening sense of history, was the ideal figure to craft a post-9/11 foreign policy. No American president I can think of, save perhaps John F. Kennedy, shares Shavit's twice-born wisdom. Obama really was prepared both to act and to know. If he has not succeeded, I think the problem lies at least as much in the stars as in himself. The stars will, eventually, realign. One hopes that whoever succeeds him will be able to make good use of his or her good fortune.

-/AFP/Getty Images