Biting off more than we can chew in Syria?

Well, we’ve apparently determined that the Syrian government has gassed rebels and civilians, tripping over our president’s red line. In response, America is going to directly involve itself in arming the rebels, presumably the “moderate” rebels because we’ll pretend that there would still be a rebellion at all without its extremist jihadi elements, and we’ll somehow make it so our weapons magically don’t work for anybody who has ties to al-Qaeda. So far America’s involvement is limited to small arms and ammo, and I’m sure that’s as far as it will go because there’s no history of this kind of American involvement escalating to ever-higher levels or anything like that. Andrew Sullivan is incensed at “Obama’s Betrayal on Syria”:

This was a president elected to get us out of conflict in the Middle East, not to enmesh us even further in a cycle of sectarian conflict and metastasizing warfare. This was a president who said he didn’t oppose all wars, just dumb ones. Is there a conceivably dumber war to intervene in than Syria’s current civil one? I can’t see one.

You can forgive a president once – even though his misguided, counter-productive and destabilizing war in Libya was almost as nuts as this latest foray. But by deciding to arm the Sunni radicals fighting the Shiites in Syria and Lebanon, the president has caved to the usual establishment subjects who still want to run or control the entire world. I don’t buy the small arms qualifier. You know that’s the foot in the door to dragging the United States into the middle of a civil war we do not understand and cannot control. If it has any effect, it will be to draw out the conflict still longer and kill more people. More staggeringly, he is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane.

Steve Benen worries:

In light of Syria’s support from countries like Russia and Iran, are we seeing the beginnings of a larger proxy fight? How confident are U.S. officials about providing support to rebels without also boosting elements aligned with al Qaeda? Countries like England and France have pushed for greater U.S. intervention in recent months, but if they’re so confident, why haven’t they done more?

US-Russia is not the larger fight that we should be worrying about. Putin likes having Assad in the region and really likes using this conflict as an opportunity to prod the West, but he’s not going to risk a hot war with NATO over Syria. The problem with Syria is that it already is a larger war between Sunni and Shi’a, and I’m not sure anybody in our foreign policy establishment really understands what that means. That’s not really a criticism; secular westerners living in a democratic system must have a hard time understanding a cultural divide that stems from a political succession dispute that took place almost 1150 years before the United States came into being. When Al Gore’s supporters get upset over a disputed election, they can fall back on the knowledge that another election is only four years away. The Civil War, and the north-south cultural gap that exists to the present day, gets closer to the kind of division we’re talking about, but not very close. The Confederacy may have decided to try breaking from its northern neighbors, but it never rejected the shared history it had with those neighbors and, when its aims were blocked, it slotted itself right back in to the system it had tried to leave with relative ease. You can go back to the Protestant Reformation, particularly the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) that settled its political implications once and for all, and get still closer to the Sunni-Shi’a divide, but not much closer. The Reformation was hotly contested and divided Christendom, but it divided a Christendom that was already easily divisible along tribal/political lines, having already firmly rejected the notion of a single political entity ruling over it.

The movement that Muhammad founded was established, and decisively reestablished after his death, as a united community, diverse peoples and cultures brought together under one religious identity that would evolve into Islam as we know it today. Christian Europe, by contrast, particularly after the Byzantine Empire was terminated in 1453, was organized by national, not religious, identity. In Europe you could see Catholic France go to war with the Catholic Holy Roman Empire in a conflict that was supposedly about the defense of Catholicism against the upstart Protestants, because France’s national aims were served by weakening Germany regardless of the religious implications. In the Islamic world, while separate polities might exist in different locales, the idea of that single community was (and is) so powerful that the notion of “national aims” was, until the modern period, always dubious. There are certainly cases in Islamic history of Sunnis fighting other Sunnis, and Shi’a fighting other Shi’a, and even Sunnis allying with Shi’a to fight other Sunnis, but the sectarian split in Islam has remained vital and violent for far longer than the Catholic-Protestant split ever did. Europe stopped fighting wars of religion in the 17th century, after the Thirty Years’ War and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles; meanwhile, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s has discernible sectarian overtones, and some of the factionalism in post-Soviet Afghanistan was caused by fighting between Shi’a Hazara, militias backed by Iran, and Sunni fundamentalists backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This stuff still matters in the Islamic world. If this is where Syria is headed, then we’re picking sides in a conflict that’s raged for almost a millennium and a half, and may be inserting ourselves into something we just don’t understand.

I don’t view Obama’s move to intervene as a “betrayal” the way Sullivan does. This is, after all, a president who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with a speech extolling the virtues of the occasional war, so he’s clearly never been a peacenik. Obama never promised total disengagement with the world, or even the Middle East. He was elected, if you recall, on a platform of ending the Iraq occupation but actually increasing our involvement in Afghanistan, ironically to go after the same al-Qaeda whose comrades we’ll now be arming in Syria, so the idea that he’s reversing himself now is part projection on Sullivan’s part. Heated words like “betrayal” don’t exactly help advance the conversation along productive lines, like what we believe the end of the conflict should look like (rebel victory? assad deposed? negotiated peace? national unity government?), what we’d like Syria to look like if and when Assad is gone, and why we think we need to be involved at all (is it for humanitarian reasons? are we intending to fight a proxy war with Iran?). This last point is the one Washington needs to answer first, as Marc Lynch notes, because it dictates how we will involve ourselves and the extent to which we’re willing to escalate:

The debate about open U.S. military intervention in Syria should therefore be built around a frank discussion of the goals, not only the means. At the moment, advocates of arming the rebels switch between making the case that it would strike a blow against the Iranians, and that it would improve the prospects for a negotiated solution. The fundamental tension between those who argue that the rebels need more arms so that Assad will be forced to come to the table, and those who argue that this is a path leading to the complete defeat of the Syrian regime should be resolved now — not after Washington gets involved.

I am extremely uneasy about this intervention.


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