Small World: Trying to solve Syria

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Probably not many readers have devoted a lot of thought to the question of what to do about Syria, site of a two-year, deadly civil war where the autocrat Bashar al Assad may — repeat may — have used nerve gas and President Obama is thinking about arming the rebels. Let’s go back to basics by considering the options available to Obama.

Possible strategies might be selected from our past choices in the Middle East. Running down the list, we could choose to:

• Do nothing (except a bit of harmless finger-wagging) as in Bahrain, where we have a naval base and our friend Saudi Arabia runs the show;

• Pray on the sidelines for better times as in Egypt, where we have limited means ($$$) to influence decisions in an increasingly unruly country;

• Inflict isolation and harsh import and export sanctions as in Iran;

• “Lead from behind” as in Libya and Mali where we supported the French and others willing to commit forces;

• Use drones to take out terrorists and otherwise help the new Yemeni regime;

• Wage full-scale war as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In actual (as far as we have been told) fact, we are already conducting these activities in Syria — short of combat. The United States offers non-lethal aid to secular rebels, approves and assists Saudi Arabia and Qatar who furnish cash and weapons to rebels — including the al Qaeda-affiliated extremists we call terrorists. We encourage Turkey and Jordan, which help out in neighborly ways. And we levy sanctions and display our PR and diplomatic skills at the United Nations. So far, none of this has made much difference. The Russians and Iran (the real enemy of war hawks) continue to support President Assad while we demand his departure.

A new factor has entered the Washington calculus: Israel asserts Syria has used deadly nerve gas (CW) in several battles. U.S. intelligence has low to moderate confidence that the reports are true. Obama, having in mind Bush’s flawed search for nukes in Iraq, wants the “true facts.” War hawks scorn his doubts and urge a decisive — short of ground troops — U.S. engagement on the side of the rebels (only the good guys to be sure). Hawks say the president drew a red line against chemical weapon use and now he must meet his commitment to maintain America’s credibility.

What is to be done?

Send in troops to seize CW stocks, or planes to bomb depots? A lot of people would die from the fallout. Get more actively involved (weapons for rebels, no-fly zone) to overthrow the regime? Polls show that most Americans oppose getting into another fight. It could drag on like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Suppose intelligence agencies decide the CW reports are false, designed to suck us into the conflict? That would leave Obama in a war of words with Israel and most congressional Republicans.

Plainly, Obama is going to have to undergo a backbone transplant. He will have to make a hard decision, something he has avoided for many months, something that could consume valuable political capital and hurt him in the media. In the region, if our active intervention succeeds in bringing down Assad, his diehard troops will continue the struggle, perhaps extending it by various means into Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Moslem rebel extremists will have a role in the replacement regime in Damascus.

In my view, the wise course for the United States would be to sit down with Russians, regional players (Saudi Arabia, Iran and others) and work out a scheme for power sharing between acceptable rebels and respectable regime stalwarts. That would mean sending Assad back to his former ophthalmology practice and the friends of al-Qaeda to a distant quiet mosque. It would also certainly require continuing cooperation of outsiders and U.N. peacekeeping troops.

An attempt at a peaceful resolution might fail or it might partially succeed. There are risks in whichever choice is made. Better to take the one that promises an end to the fighting if not victory for either side.

Better to try to save as many Syrian lives as possible.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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