How Long Until the United States….

….Gets Involved in Syria?

When I originally drafted this post almost a week ago, my answer was “never.”  Then a large-scale chemical weapons attack took place in Damascus and Washington’s calculus changed.  I still believe that the U.S. response will be relatively muted, for the following reasons.

The first: what will come after the fall of Assad?

Nobody knows. And that is a huge problem.  The most likely outcome is a continuation of the civil war with elements of the regime assuming control of various factions of the military fighting the existing rebel factions, consisting of Islamists and whatever is called the Free Syrian Army.  Any engagement by the United States or NATO targeted at regime change will necessitate an occupation that can bring stability to the country. But is that possible?  The sectarian violence in Syria looks as bad, if not worse, than what happened in Iraq in 2006.  Unless the U.S. and NATO want to put an enormous amount of boots on the ground (which nobody is arguing for) and spend billions on occupation, there is no way this is happening.  So the policy of feeding the fire that the U.S. has adopted will continue into the near term.  Using cruise missiles to destroy Assad’s strategic assets or armed forces falls in line with the administration’s thinking this far – it marginally helps the rebels, hurts Assad, and uses the smallest amount of American capital, while enforcing the taboo that chemical weapons must not be used.

The second: This policy isn’t a bad thing for the United States.

By feeding the rebels arms and general humanitarian aid, the U.S. can prolong a conflict that monopolizes the attention and resources of Iran and Hezbollah, while continuing to create headaches for Moscow.  Even if Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia believe or think Assad is winning, they are nonetheless occupied by the conflict.  These parties see this opportunity to kick dirt in the West’s eye and increase their domestic prestige in the process.  So while they fight for their own honor in defiance of the U.S. and the E.U., they are still spending human and capital resources in a conflict that seems unending.   In fact, several interviews with Sunni rebel fighters in Syria indicate that they see Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah as the enemy.  Given that many fighters come from the Caucuses and Chechnya, this isn’t a surprise. If U.S.-supplied arms are going to be used against Hezbollah, Iran, and Al Qaeda, then that should be acceptable to the U.S.

If the U.S. chooses to do anything affirmative, it will be limited, such as cruise missile attacks at regime targets. Think Bosnian War and Operation Desert Fox, not Iraqi Freedom.  Given the administration’s recent bluster after the chemical attacks in Damascus most likely perpetrated by the regime, this course of action seems almost inevitable. If the U.S. should do anything in response, it should support NATO strikes  in Syria, but avoid getting directly involved.  Washington should use its allies–Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait–to provide the rebels with money and arms, while relying on NATO to share responsibility and punish Assad for playing dirty. Obama should remember that direct involvement carries the risk of being drawn into escalation, and he isn’t necessarily in control of who escalates the conflict.  If France and England want to go in, that is their decision.  In an ideal world Washington would support the response in every way except providing soldiers and arms.

Is it heartless to tell Washington to leave Syria be, for the most part? Absolutely.  However, a solution that the Syrians arrive at through blood and tears mostly on their own, will in the end, be a more effective peace than any forced by the military will of outsiders.

….Pulls Aid from Egypt?

Hopefully soon.  The longer the U.S. keeps funding the Egyptian military and unsuccessfully calls for it to stop its crackdown, the more apparent the obvious becomes: Washington has no leverage with Egypt.  Any aid that the U.S. pulls will be replaced multiple fold by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE.   Any aid cut by the U.S. has to be accompanied by a policy of not selling American arms to the Egyptian military.  Will they find their tools of oppression elsewhere?  Probably, but its better those tools say “Made in Russia/China” than “Made in the U.S.A.” What about our priority access through the Suez?  Egypt still needs to collect the transit fees from any ship, regardless of standard flown, to fill its coffers.  As Michael O’Hanlon points out, the U.S. military doesn’t need the Suez for transit purposes. What about funding pro-democracy  groups inside of Egypt? Well, those were effectively closed by the government since the 2010 revolution.  Plus, any group found out to be taking money from the United States in this environment will likely be shut down the day it opens.

What happens to the purchased peace with Israel? If Morsi was unwilling to break Egypt’s treaty with Israel, there is little chance the military would, even if the U.S. pulls all funding.  Given the military imbalance between Cairo and Tel Aviv and Egypt’s tenuous domestic situation, picking a fight with Israel is the last thing General Sisi would want to do. His enemies are internal.  Given Israel’s policy of disproportionate response to attacks, even a  war with Israel to shore up domestic support would not work in Sisi’s favor, it would be over within days and be more demoralizing than 1967.

So if the U.S. pulls funding, the aggregate is that Egypt won’t fall into chaos.  The money will come from somewhere else, and Egypt won’t go to war with Israel, because it will lose.  From the U.S. standpoint,  removing itself from Egypt removes a foil for both the Islamists and military-backers while refocusing Egyptian attention on the country’s problems and leadership issues.  The U.S. cannot win the popularity battle, and at this point, leaving the situation altogether can be seen as a sign of frustration with the government instead of a retreat.

….Gets It?

For the past decade, the American public has asked, “Why are we so involved in the Middle East?”  And it was a good question.  Absent any Cold War impetus: what is the U.S. interest in Egypt and Syria?  Vital oil routes are secured by the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and the main oil producing states are under the American military umbrella.  Egypt has modest natural resources, most of which are consumed at home. (In 2012, 7% of seaborne crude oil and 13% of all LNG traded globally went through the Suez or Sumed pipeline, so Egypt is still a major artery of the global energy trade even if it’s not a big producer.) Cairo hasn’t been the heart of the Arab World in some 30 odd years or more, and it doesn’t have the power or reason to challenge Israel.  Syria, on the other hand, has never been in Washington’s pocket, has limited natural resources, and has been chronically weak geopolitically; its only saving grace being the shrewd tactics of its former leader Hafez Assad.

Do the people of both countries deserve better? Absolutely.  But America has neither the willpower or the influence on the ground to single-handedly affect the outcomes in either country. Washington should use its allies to respond to Assad and keep Egypt from falling into chaos while washing its own hands of any involvement with Cairo.

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Filed under Egypt, Russia, Syria, U.S. Foreign Policy

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