Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama has often been defined as a hesitant and reluctant leader. The Syrian crisis proved no exception but, here at least, his doubts can be explained by examining the daunting challenges he had before him.
First, having criticized the invasion of Iraq as a war of choice, the President had to demonstrate that Syria was instead a war of necessity. Second, he had to make good on his position as a candidate in favor of rebalancing war powers between the White House and Capitol Hill. Third, he had to confirm America’s primacy in the world and strengthen his credibility in the Arab world and beyond. Fourth, he had to achieve this while pursuing his “pivot to Asia” strategy which predicated a US military drawdown in the Middle East upon the stabilization of the region. All of this had to happen in a world that had changed much more than had the political debate in Washington. In fact, while it is still hard to predict whether diplomacy or war will prevail, Syria offers some interesting insights on how the world has changed since the George W. Bush years.
Had the US decided to immediately strike Syria, the American public and world public opinion would have probably considered it more a war of choice than a war of necessity: America had not been attacked, although the humanitarian catastrophe and the need to halt the use of weapons of mass destruction could be construed as immediate American national interests. This argument, however, was probably not convincing enough for the war-weary American voters who showed little support for the strike in opinion polls.
What was really at stake was America’s (and particularly, Obama’s) credibility after the President had boxed himself in with the famous “red line” about Syria: when that line was drawn, the President must have seen the use of chemical weapons as an unlikely enough event to forestall any US military involvement in the conflict. To this end, some have argued that the sequence between the G20 meeting with Obama and Putin, Kerry’s statements in London and the subsequent Russian proposal about Syria joining the anti-chemical weapons regime was not incidental. It is probably safer to say that Obama and Kerry immediately seized the opportunity of the Russian diplomatic initiative, despite all the practical problems that its implementation will pose. As a matter of fact, this initiative occurred after the US put a gun on the table and proved to the world that, after all, it was ready to go it (almost) alone to make good on its words. America was again the indispensable nation and threatening the use of force had led to a diplomatic breakthrough. Last but not least, by resorting to Congress the President killed two birds with one stone: he confirmed his will to take the legislative branch into account when starting a war and he shared the burden of inaction with Republicans – as well as his own party.
The balance sheet of the President’s credibility, however, will be available only in the forthcoming weeks when we will have tested the feasibility of the Kerry-Lavrov initiative on chemical weapons and the further possibility that it might open the door to a breakthrough for a wider diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. Nonetheless, Democratic voters will hardly punish their President for counting to ten before using military force again, and it is hard to say whether independent voters are more concerned about foreign policy than about economic recovery or the burgeoning deficit. It is the international scenario that should concern the President, not the domestic one. There are several reasons for this.
First, this crisis further demonstrates that the world of 2013 is different from that of the Kosovo war – an example that has often been raised by supporters of a US (almost) unilateral strike. It is unfair and inaccurate to say that US primacy is dead. After all, almost no international crisis can be solved without any significant American diplomatic or military intervention. Nevertheless, the unipolar world of Kosovo (and Afghanistan and Iraq) is probably over. Waging war against a Russian ally can be costly, so Russia must now be seriously factored in either as a partner (as Kerry seems to consider it now) or as a red line when choosing when and where to commit US troops (and even cruise missiles or planes).
A second important actor in Syria is Iran. The Israeli cabinet saw a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons as proof of US seriousness, which could be replicated should negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program fail. Many in the US had a similar view. However, once the diplomatic path is chosen for Syria, Iran should be seen as an ally on the chemical weapons dossier in view of its longstanding position on this issue – based on its direct experience during the 1980s war with Iraq. This potential partnership, however, implies a radical change in US alliances in the region, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries – even assuming that dialogue with Tehran will not be derailed by the well-known hurdles posed by the Iranian nuclear program, which is of course a big assumption indeed.
Relations with allied Arab monarchies are in fact the third issue. As Egypt has demonstrated, these should not be taken as a monolith and differences in regional goals between Qatar and others should be viewed as an opportunity. More generally, the West would better avoid taking sides in the Sunni-Shia cleavage if its goal is to have a stable, pacified Middle East. Should US and European goals be even more ambitious, to include support to aborted democratization in the area, Obama and his western allies should be aware of the widening gulf between these goals and the policies of their “moderate” regional allies.
Fourth, war has changed. Syria seems to be closer to the paradigm of “new wars” with widespread, asymmetrical conflict raging mainly against civilians rather than to conventional conflict between states. Recent history has demonstrated that the West can hardly prevail when its goal is to end new wars through military means. In the Syrian context, a military strike could even make matters worse by creating a power void where no single authority would any longer be in charge of the chemical stockpile. Given the ineffectiveness of military alternatives, a more or less peaceful transition to a post-high intensity conflict is therefore as complicated as it is desirable.
For all these reasons, America’s policies in the Middle East now need a thorough reappraisal. A negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis is inevitable and this may involve a compromise in which parts of the old regime (though not Assad himself) coexist along with its opponents in a postwar political system, however painful and complicated this may prove. The search for such a solution, in turn, requires a broad regional strategy. Post-coup Egypt will hardly be a partner in US stabilization of the region, unless an inclusive process involving the Brotherhood diminishes risks of a failed (or rather chaotic) state on the Suez Canal. Any potential openings from Iran should be pursued, with particular attention given to striking a wider agreement on Tehran’s regional role rather than a limited one on nuclear issues. This would involve help from Iran in the pacification of Syria along with the stabilization of Lebanon and Iraq.
Last but not least, Kerry is right when he says the window for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is shutting. American policymakers should be aware of how bleak the future might look in a region where rifts between their Arab and Israeli allies have become impossible to bridge.