As President Obama replaced members of his foreign policy and national security team at the start of his second term, I made the case here that the selection of liberal-internationalist heavyweights Samantha Power, Susan Rice, and John Kerry as chief diplomats signaled a “willingness on the part of the White House to reassess its strategy in Syria and to allow Power more influence in drawing up an activist approach that would resemble the U.S. military interventions in the former Yugoslavia under President Bill Clinton and more recently in Libya under Obama”:
[W]e might see such a change in policy if and when Srebrenica-like atrocities are committed in Syria and broadcast around the world, which is very likely scenario. Under these conditions, I find it difficult to believe that President Obama would be able to resist the pressure to “do something” with Power providing him with the intellectual ammunition to support an assertive military intervention in Syria.
Indeed, against the backdrop of planned U.S. military strikes against Syria in retaliation for that regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, it seems that America will almost inevitably be dragged into civil war. As retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni told the Washington Post, “The one thing we should learn is that you can’t get a little bit pregnant.”
Even a “surgical” American strike in Syria would induce regional and international momentum, with targets of the U.S. pledging retaliation and rebel forces lobbying for greater American involvement: “If you do a one-and-done and say you’re going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things,” Zinni added. “It will suck you in.”
Interestingly enough, liberal-internationalists and neoconservatives are comparing the Syrian conflict to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, with both groups proposing that the same model of American-led “humanitarian intervention” against Serbia strongman Slobodan Milošević be applied against Syrian dictator Bashir Assad as sectarian warfare devours the Levant.
U.S. military intervention in the former Yugoslavia is often remembered as the first “good war” in the post-Cold War era, having been fought in the name of universal values and not hardcore American national interests. Liberal internationalists and neoconservatives make the argument that intervention worked in Yugoslavia. It deprived Milošević of military victories against the Croats and Muslim Bosnians and later against the Albanians in Kosovo, and helped produce a diplomatic agreement, the Dayton Accords, which brought about independent Bosnia and Kosovo.
But as I recently noted in the National Interest, “the problem is that while the civil war in Yugoslavia could be seen as the last stage in a post–Cold War historical epoch that culminated with the Balkans joining a stable and prosperous Europe, the situation in the Levant today is very different.” Instead, the region resembles the Balkans after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and on the eve of the Great War, “a mishmash of intermingling nationalities and ethnic and religious groups, which serve as proxies of powerful regional and global players that they also manipulate and draw into their bloody conflicts.”
The accords that brought an end to the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo were achieved only after the Serbs lost the war and they, the Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars agreed to form separate territorial enclaves, as part of the process promised to bring them into the European Union (EU).
Even under the best-case-scenario, however, Washington and its allies are not in a position to engineer such a peace in the Levant. America is no longer savoring a post-Cold War “Unipolar Moment” in terms of military and economic power.
What hasn’t changed is that liberal-internationalists and their neoconservative foreign policy soul-mates are once again intent on pressing a reluctant U.S. president to intervene in a war where American interests will only be marginally affected by the outcome.
This reality, and the recognition that the major players in the Syrian civil war don’t share American democratic-liberal values and would challenge American interests if they were to win out, has led renowned realist strategic thinker Edward Luttwak to suggest that Washington adopt a strategy of “indefinite draw” in Syria. As Luttwak argues:
By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.
What sounds like a neat, if not cynical proposition, which recalls Henry Kissinger’s quip on the Iran-Iraq war, “It’s too bad they both can’t lose,” assumes that either side is capable of either decisively winning or being forced into a draw, which is eventually what happened in the Iran-Iraq War.
But in Syria it will be impossible for any outside player to impose its preferred outcome, even if it is prolonged stalemate. Where the boundaries among local, national, regional, and international conflicts are blurred, any move by the United States is bound to result in counter-efforts by unsatisfied players, which would quickly form alliances with the same players previously aligned with the United States. “Unintended consequences” are the norm here, not the exception to the rule.
As Middle East historian L. Carl Brown described the region, “Just as with the tilt of the kaleidoscope, the many tiny pieces of colored glass all move to form a new configuration, so any diplomatic initiative in the Middle East sets a realignment of the players.” Even experienced imperial powers like Britain and France lost when they tried to play that game. There is no reason to believe that the American experience will be different.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.