We hear about Syria and its civil war on a daily basis now. If we listen closely, in Washington DC some of our elected officials and political pundits are beating the drums of war. It is a simple matter of national actors conducting themselves according to national interest. The very basic rational actor model, in fact. The question this presents is: What are the national interests implicated in the Syrian conflict?
For Bashir al Assad, Syria’s ‘President,’ it is a matter of the survival of his regime. He inherited his office from his father, who was well-known for his willingness to crush opposition. It seems the current Mr. Assad has that same willingness, and he has utilized much of his military capability in his attempt to silence the ever-growing opposition to his rule.
For the Syrian opposition, it is a desire for change. Perhaps, we might hope, for democratic or republican rule. There is no core to the opposition, around which all have gathered. Rather, there are various groups, some armed and others unarmed, that make up the opposition as a whole. We, in the United States, remain blissfully unaware of the identities of the primary leaders of the opposition within Syria, and do not know their motives or their intent for a post-Assad government. What we do know is that some of them are being supported by Iran, others by Turkey, some by Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, they may also be receiving munitions and supplies from Western powers. In any event, it is clear that there are numerous outcomes that must be weighed. First, Syria might end up like Lebanon, with a very weak government, made up of numerous competing factions, open to significant outside influence. This could end up with Syria, like Lebanon, becoming a location for war by proxy between various outside powers. There is the possibility that Syria could end up with an Islamic theocracy, similar to Iran. Of course, there is also the possibility that Syria could become a true democracy. In all honesty, the opposition is not united, therefore we can only speculate as to which outcome is most likely. Again, all we have now is the opposition wants the Assad regime out of power.
Various nations in the region have a stake in Syria. Iran could use Syria as a stepping stone in greater Shia influence, while Saudi Arabia can do the same, but with Sunni Islam. Turkey certainly has a desire to ensure that a stable government is put in place, but given Turkey’s current political climate, that could also take the form of a less secular, more theologically-oriented scheme. Israel has remained rather quiet on the whole affair, though they have concerns about Syria’s military stockpiles, particularly missiles and chemical weapons.
The two biggest players, the United States and Russia, are gradually putting pieces on the chessboard. These two nation states have interests in the outcome of the struggle in Syria.
Putin is not a punk, he is very intelligent and very wily. He did not rise to his position for no reason at all. He worked the political machine, and with a combination of his brains and a lack of reluctance to intimidate, he became the leader of Russia, an autocrat in all but name. Do not underestimate him. He most certainly has the capacity to force any impasse to his advantage, if he can call the collective bluff of the US and its allies.
Having said that, the simple truth is that there is blood in the water. The United States is not secure in its position of primacy as global hegemon, this is due to myriad factors, not least of which is the lack of political will, not just from the President, but also from Congress and the people themselves. As I mentioned previously, all we have is bluff. While Russia (and China) have continued to modernize their forces, producing aircraft and other weapons platforms that can challenge our own (i.e.- Russian 4.5/5 gen fighters that are an even match for ours). While we have sat upon our laurels, patting ourselves on the back for winning the Cold War, those nations have undertaken massive infusions of capital and other resources to modernize and make their militaries a more significant threat to ours than at any time in history, except perhaps immediately after World War II.
Russians have always respected strength when coupled with a will to use that strength. The United States is still strong, but no longer willing to assert itself. Thus, Russia sees an opportunity to increase its power, influence and relevance abroad. Any state actor would take advantage of such a situation, and would find it in its national interest to pursue whatever opportunities were available to improve its position internationally.
Personally, the outcome of the 2012 Presidential election is not a game-changer, as Romney has been as militant as Obama in their rhetoric about Syria. I do not believe Romney will fare any better than Obama in this situation. It is even possible that a more interventionist policy would serve only to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the current standoff.
Those who pay attention to the details know that Russia is committed to supporting the Assad regime, or, at a minimum, committed to insuring its position of influence and patronage with any successor regime/government. To Russia, this is of vital national importance. On the other hand, the matter of Syria, to the United States, is merely another distraction. It is highly unlikely that the United States will commit the resources necessary to overcome Syria’s rather robust air defenses, which, if rumors are to be believed, are, in part, being operated or ‘advised’ by Russian personnel, particularly the S300 systems currently in place. Russia has also committed other forces on the ground to protect Russian nationals and interests within Syria’s borders. Russia is now sending a flotilla to make a statement. That statement is clear, “We mean what we say.”
Will the United States challenge that statement? Will the US confront Russia militarily? Doubtful, especially in light of the current warmer Sino-Russian relations, coupled with a cooling of affections between the US and China. The old triangle model still applies. Two of the three can bludgeon the third. We used China in the Cold War to stymie Soviet aspirations on numerous occasions, thus Nixon’s now famous trip to China. Given that both China and Russia are committed to preventing US intervention in Syria, it is unlikely that we will confront that commitment militarily with more than a token display of force as saber rattling.
In short, taking a position of intervention in Syria is a trap. It is a trap that we cannot escape without one of two results: 1) Going to the brink of war, or war itself, with Russia and/or China to force them to back down; or 2) Backing down ourselves. It is a zero sum game, and the United States stands to lose significantly in either scenario.
What is the best way to avoid this situation? Simple, let Syria’s war play out and avoid getting involved militarily. Our primary concern should be limited to the disposition of any unconventional weapons in Syria, which is a concern Russia also shares. Rather than arraying ourselves in opposition to Russia, we should work with them to ensure that the chemical weapons stockpiles are secure and will not fall into the hands of anyone else.