Does the U.S. Have Something at Stake in Syria’s Civil War?
The New York Times reports on the Obama administration’s view of the Syrian conflict:
James Dobbins, who was a special envoy in Bosnia, said he saw parallels in Syria today. “If the U.S. remains passive or relies on unsupported diplomacy and that turns out to be ineffective, you could compare it to Bosnia,” he said. At the same time, he said, there is not a cohesive opposition in Syria to aid, nor leadership from the region to rely on.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to say we don’t have a dog in this fight,” Mr. Dobbins said [bold mine-DL]. “But military intervention is going to be the last option.”
Readers will recognize that Dobbins is referring to James Baker’s statement at the start of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. In retrospect, Baker’s statement about the conflicts in the Balkans was correct. U.S. and allied security was not threatened by those conflicts, and the U.S. really had nothing at stake in their outcome. I agree that no one now is going to say what Baker said, because this is the sort of supposedly unacceptable thing that realists in the elder Bush’s administration said. Regardless, this raises a good question: is there a party to the conflict in Syria that U.S. interests should compel the administration to support? If we acknowledge that the U.S. doesn’t have a stake in every conflict around the world, and if we think about whose interests are being served by aiding Syria’s opposition (maybe the Saudis’ and Qataris’, but not ours), the answer would appear to be no.
The standard reason given for why the U.S. should support the opposition is so that the U.S. can strike at an Iranian ally by proxy, but this is not much of a reason. Trombly addresses this in a post on anti-interventionist arguments:
Anti-interventionists must also note the difference between counteracting the objectives of a country with which the United States is hostile and advancing U.S. interests and goals. Simply because Iran supports the Assad regime does not mean that trying to overthrow the Assad regime makes for good Iran policy, nor does it mean a good Iran policy will necessarily beget a good Syria policy.
What is harmful to Iranian interests is not always good for ours, and it is important to recognize that a conflict in Syria prolonged and intensified by outside support for the opposition would impose significant costs on friendly and allied states in the region as well as weakening Iranian influence. The Libyan war inflicted so much unintended harm on Mali and burdened Mali’s neighbors with very large refugee populations, and we should bear in mind that intervening in Syria’s conflict could have and probably would have similarly harmful effects on Syria’s neighbors.