By Barry Rubin
Forget about the hysteria of an impending U.S. attack on Syria. Forget about the likely self-congratulatory backslapping by policy makers and the chanting of “USA!” by Syrian citizens. A U.S. air assault on Syria will not change anything for the benefit of U.S. interests or even for the well-being of the Syrian people.
Clearly, it will not change the regional problems, including the U.S. support for an Islamist government in Egypt, the unstable Islamist government in Tunisia, the grim expectations for a “peace process,” the constant betrayal of the United States by the Turkish government, and the Iranian nuclear race. But beyond that, it won’t change the Syrian crisis.
Would the attack determine the outcome of a Syrian civil war, either in favor of the Iranian backed government or the Islamists favored by the United States? No. Would it by itself increase the prestige and credibility of the United States in the Middle East? No.
Let’s consider the three motives for the potential Syrian attack. One, the humanitarian motive. After perhaps 100,000 people in Syria have been killed, this addresses one percent of the casualties (namely those by chemical weapons). That might be worthwhile but leaves unaddressed the 99 percent of other casualties.
Is it really true that the Syrian government somewhat, without motive, used chemical weapons? And finally, is it really humanitarian since the rebel side is likely to be equally ferocious against minorities and people it doesn’t like? The humanitarian motive, while sincere, really doesn’t amount to very much but merely tells the Syrian government the proper way in which people can be killed.
Second, what message does America’s potential attack in Syria really send? That American power, which will be limited, is not going to be sufficient to change the course of the war. So the United States will not determine who wins and that, after all, is only thing that everyone is really interested in.
The third motive is to send a message to Iran that it won’t be able to succeed in aggression. But in fact, this too can be said to send the opposite message: that in the words of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, “the United States cannot do a damn thing.”
What are the possible outcomes of this mission? The Syrian government will not be overthrown nor saved. The fate of the civil war is going to be totally outside this operation. Perhaps it will make the outcome more likely to be a diplomatic one. But again, that Russia and Iran will agree to have its client deposed is simply unlikely. One could argue that the attack will lead to a lower estimation of American credibility, since not much will have changed afterward, although this is not what the media will say. Imagine that the U.S. policy doesn’t even have Britain on board! Obama cannot even line up America”s closest historic partner. How’s that for credibility?
It is interesting to note that in confronting Saddam Hussein, the Clinton Administration attacked Iraq at least four times in 1998 alone. But of course Hussein was only overthrown six years later by a controversial decision by another administration.
What would the best beneficial outcomes for the Obama Administration be? First, that Obama will congratulate himself on his daring use of force and not backing down to anyone. But so what? Aside from the newspaper headlines and the bounces in public opinion polls, the effect will be merely psychological and domestic. In friendly capitals, it will only show that he is willing to support the Sunni Islamists and oppose the Shia ones. In enemy capitals, there will be derision of the limited means at Obama’s disposal for affecting events.
What would be the best outcome for America? That the war will go on long enough until one side wins and that side will not be the regime. But basically, the civil war is going to be fought out.
It might well be said that strategically, it would be better if Iran didn’t win the victory by saving the regime, but frankly, a victory by radical Islamist rebels and al-Qaida is hardly a bargain. Don’t forget that in practice, an American intervention would not be on the side of easing the lot of Syrian civilians but on the side of an extremely oppressive and unstable future government winning. In other words, it is not that there are no easy answers, but there are no good answers.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition),
The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle
East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.