With the Kofi Annan diplomatic charade played out, pressures will mount for the United States to head off a wider civil war in Syria by playing the lead role in arming the rebels—and perhaps even by direct U.S. military intervention. That course of action was wrong a year ago and is wrong now. It puts on Washington almost all of the responsibility for ensuring the victory of a highly diverse rebel group barely known to U.S. intelligence, for the terrible civil war that will only grow bloodier, and for the costly and unpredictable aftermath. Rather, this responsibility belongs preeminently to Syria’s Arab neighbors and Turkey. These neighbors, and not the United States, have a vital interest in Syria’s future. Therefore, the main task for the Obama administration should be to get those neighbors to accept their responsibility based on their vital interest in what will happen in Syria—and to point them in the right direction. In the best sense, this means leading from behind.
American neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian interventionists demand that the United States lead from the front—that Washington arm the rebels and perhaps undertake air operations as well. To them, virtually every international problem calls for Washington to provide the solutions, with money, with military force, and with diplomacy. But in the case of Syria, that approach totally mistakes the order of interests in the civil war. Above all, it must be understood that it is the neighbors that will suffer most from the consequences of what is happening in Syria, whether a long and bloody civil war or a takeover of that country by Sunni jihadists bent on overthrowing American friends like Jordan and Lebanon, and threatening Israel. America’s interest is in helping those neighbors work their way through the Syrian problem, not in assuming responsibility for that mess.
At this point, just about every country would like to see President Bashar al-Assad step down and disappear. Beyond that, hardly any country has a clear policy. The Israelis are being very cautious, as befits their uncertainty about whether Assad’s successors will be better or worse than he has been. The Syrian-Israeli border has been mostly quiet, though Assad was the principal funnel of arms from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. But a jihadi regime in control of Damascus seems to worry Israelis even more.
The Jordanians are in a box. Assad, who didn’t bother them in the past, is now unhappy about Amman taking in Syrian refugees and thereby legitimizing the rebellion. On the other side, Jordanian leaders remain totally freaked out by the prospect of jihadis being Assad’s successors. To any government friendly to Washington, one of the worst outcomes of Syria would be to destabilize Jordan, and that’s something the Saudis in particular should understand.
The Saudis and the Qataris are the principal providers of money and arms to the most extremist fighters in Syria. They seem more secure about their relations with jihadis than with secular moderates. To them, the latter represent the real threat to their internal power in Riyadh and Doha. But Middle East experts generally—and certainly U.S. government leaders—have always felt that the greater threat to both these regimes will come from the Muslim extremists. These Gulf States, like their brethren in the region, think they can save themselves by exporting the jihadis to other countries like Syria. It never works. As part of leading from behind in Syria, the Obama administration should try to convince Saudi and Qatari leaders to protect their interests in Damascus not by aiding the bearded jihadis, but by helping the secular moderates. The latter will be the least likely to war against America’s Gulf allies and kill their former Syrian oppressors. The task of convincing the Saudis and Qataris won’t be easy at all, but it’s probably the single best way to prevent the horrors that could otherwise follow in Syria.
Getting Turkey to do the right thing is the next most important objective, but Turkey is being the proverbial pain in the rear—providing the minimal support and safety to the rebels it can get away with. This allows Ankara to portray itself as being supportive of the revolution against Assad and to keep border troubles focused on Syria and not on itself. But in response to demands that the Turks do more, they try to transfer those pressures onto the United States. The key is for the Obama team to focus Ankara on providing aid and succor to the moderate and secular rebels, and to give the bearded jihadis as hard a time as possible.
It was always hard to find anyone familiar with Syria who believed that Kofi Annan’s mission could possibly be successful. There was just no way that Assad would ever trust the rebels, or any part thereof, or that they would trust him. The uprising, if not put down swiftly by Assad, was always going to result not in a political compromise, but in a civil war. Everyone did know that. Having Annan make his entreaties to the warring parties and to the major powers, like Russia, was never going to lead anywhere. It was just a way for Syria’s neighbors and for Washington to buy time, to see if there would be some kind of miracle, like Russia “overthrowing” Assad.
Even America’s neocons and liberal humanitarians didn’t believe in the possibility of such a miracle. They demanded solutions, solutions by America. But in this terrible civil war, where the ruling Alawites have enough force to fight on even should Assad disappear, the fighting will continue with or without American arms aid to the rebels. In this civil war, the killings could become even more outrageous when and as the rebels start taking their almost certain retribution against the Alawites and their Christian supporters, and when they start killing each other for power. What will the neocons and liberal interventionists say then? Will they be insisting on American peacekeeping forces, and billions of dollars in American aid? Where do they think leading from the front will lead to?
The terrible civil war in Syria is, alas, the perfect case where the United States can lead only from behind, where it can help others to understand what they should and should not do, and fill in the blanks.