Max Fisher’s piece on The Atlantic regarding the limits of American power is a good read, regardless of your view on the current status of the United States in world affairs. Fisher essentially argues that in the post-Cold War era, without the ‘us versus them’ dynamic, the world has split into multiple poles, each having their own interests. Within this new dynamic, US influence is automatically limited to the macro level, with the micro level either being dominated by the poles with a greater interest in a given location or simply forgotten by the poles altogether. Fisher also does a great job of analyzing the paradox of American domestic politics, which demands a leader who speaks big about American power, yet currently eschews foreign involvement. Further, I would agree with Fisher that this dynamic has led the Obama administration to move on issues where the global interest intersects with the American interests. However, with so many poles – China, Russia, India, Europe, etc. – the intersection of the Venn diagram of world and U.S. interests is shrinking. This is where Syria comes into play.
Nearly every Western democracy, as well as more than a few Arab states, has condemned the regime in Damascus for its prolonged bout of oppression stemming from the protests of 2011. However, none of those actors, including Washington, has taken hard action against the Syrian government in Damascus. Fisher would probably argue that Syria is a point of contention between several poles, mainly Russia and the United States. Moscow sees a country and a leadership which has remained loyal to its cause since the height of the Cold War. Damascus remains the one “heart” of the Arab world which Moscow can manipulate, rely on, and profit from (with arms sales). It’s going to take a lot more than the usual diatribe against human rights violations to get Russia to move against Assad. Fisher makes this point at the end of his article: horsetrading is needed to move on international issues and to line up, in this case, Russian interests with American ones. However, is it worth the price asked?
I would argue no. To be clear, I’m not entirely sure what the Russians would ask for in return for their support against Assad. Personally, I believe that it would take the proverbial kitchen sink to get Moscow to blink. However, any demand would probably center on the missile defense shield Washington is touting in Europe. It may even demand reduced support for Georgia. Whatever the price asked, I would argue that it is too high. Overthrowing/undermining Assad will be a high energy endeavor that results in paltry rewards for Washington.
A successor regime in Syria that replaces Assad could still be pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli. The fabric of Syrian politics is woven with the threads of the past Arab-Israeli wars, which Syria lost. Twice. No leadership touting peace with Israel will be palatable to the public there (we’ve already seen this in Egypt with increased demands for the redaction of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty). And to maintain this type of nationalism, the new leadership in Damascus might even have to turn to Iran and Hezbollah for legitimacy; Iran for funding and profits from weapons smuggling, and Hezbollah for credibility with the “Resistance”. So Washington, after an intense effort to unseat Assad, will be rewarded with a (perhaps) democratic regime which still keeps in place the crux of Assad’s foreign (survival) policy.
Even if Iran’s support of Assad’s crackdown and Nasrallah’s recent solidarity with Damascus sour the next regime’s view of Tehran and Hezbollah, those are realizations that the Syrians will have to come to on their own. No amount of American power, hard or soft, will move Syrians against Assad’s friends as much as their support of murder can. In that scenario, it is possible that the post-Assad leadership will also despise the United States for its lack of urgency. In which case, relations between Washington and Damascus would remain cold. Even the best possible outcome — a pro-Washington government in Damascus ready to make peace with Israel and drop Tehran — could take years to mature after hostilities cease. Iran and Hezbollah won’t give up their mutual friend so easily.
This is where Fisher’s argument falls apart for me. The United States isn’t as much limited by the current global system as it is by recent experience. Overthrowing Assad by attacking Syria is well within the military’s ability; however, it lacks the support of the American people after a decade of military adventures. Rightly so. Washington overthrew Saddam Hussein only to get a mostly uncooperative government in Baghdad, which tilts towards Iran and demands the withdrawal of American troops. Why repeat that process next door where the ethnic cocktail is potentially just as toxic? Furthermore, America’s stalwart ally Israel has remained deafeningly silent over the events in Syria (unless they deal with Hamas leadership). Tel Aviv’s eyes are on Tehran. So from a realist’s standpoint, there is no reason to march into Damascus because the status quo is acceptable. While Syrians die and the regime continues to dance the Pyongyang waltz, the United States and its allies make their case at the United Nations and play the multilateral action game. But they don’t play that game because that is how the world exists, as Fisher claims. They play that game because its easier than a risky alternative.
Delay in Syria is not a result of structural changes in international affairs. It’s a consequence of realist considerations about cost and reward, which Obama seems sensitive to.