Why Syria’s Assad is still in power
We can’t afford to throw him out.
Last week, likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney caused a tempest in a teapot when he told CNN that he thought the top U.S. geopolitical foe is Russia. President Obama’s White House seized on the comment, rebutting that al Qaeda is actually our top foe abroad. But if we look at the way American foreign policy has been enacted since the beginnings of the global crisis, it’s clear that America’s biggest opponent on the world stage is really itself.
Take what’s going on in Syria as the most recent example. That country’s leader, Bashar al-Assad, continues to tease the world’s diplomats by claiming to want peace for his people, yet he cracks down with unfettered abandon on their protests against his oppressive regime. Having just agreed to yet another peace plan, a troop withdrawal by Apr. 10, it’s clear he’ll find some way around his latest bargain, as he always has. What’s even more shocking is that the peace deal, negotiated by Kofi Annan, did not even call for Assad to leave power, which to outside eyes seems like a precondition for any sort of success. And the absence of the demand that Assad go is squarely due to the U.S.’s refusal to back it up with the sort of severe consequences it used to dole out: military strikes, preemptive wars and overwhelming use of force. For the U.S., at least for now, those days are over. And Washington won’t make foreign policy promises it can’t or doesn’t intend to keep.
After all, consider the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Here was a decades-long enemy of the U.S. whose people rose up against him in a huge insurgency. His people lived in a backward state while he enriched himself with billions of stolen dollars. To borrow a phrase, the case for his deposal was a slam-dunk. Yet even this most climactic act of the Arab Spring did not draw out a single ground-troop commitment from the Obama administration. The U.S., in fact, only ran about 10 percent of the total NATO bombing runs over Libya – not exactly the type of campaign the U.S. military is used to making against brutal dictators with bad reputations who antagonize it.
So what’s changed? Well, first it’s worth noting that while Libya was a lost cause, Syria has been a pawn in a larger proxy war in the Middle East being fought in the U.N. Security Council chambers, with Russia and China blocking every U.S. move to force Assad out. Second, even though the Gulf Coordinating Council is eager for U.S. help in Syria (and with containing Iran, and all its other problems), there is obviously fatigue over the amount of blood and treasure that’s been committed to the region by the country over the years, one that Obama is sensitive to. He’s going to support the GCC, but he’s not going to fight its battles unless the American interests in them are great and unmistakable.
But perhaps the real reason the U.S. is not leaping into the breach is because its own house is not yet in order. The U.S. still has high domestic unemployment and a structural debt problem, thanks to years of reduced tax revenue and the prosecution of two expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans are bracing for a summer oil shock that everyone seems to know is coming. All this is what has led us to the world’s present G-Zero condition: The U.S. isn’t in Syria because, among other reasons, it simply can’t afford it. This is a symptom of a leaderless world.
Whether you think America’s habit of leaping into foreign conflicts is good or bad, here’s the reality of how tepid U.S. support of the insurgency in Syria will play out: Assad will find a way to keep military control over Syria, even as his support from other leaders in the region withers. (Former ally Turkey, for example, has turned strongly against Assad’s government.) Meanwhile, Syrian citizens will continue to push for a popular uprising, which will lead to more violence in the streets. But without U.S. backing, neither Saudia Arabia nor Turkey – nor any other country in the Middle East that wants to see Assad gone – will dare go in alone. We’re reaching the limit, in other words, of kicking this particular can down the road. The stalling won’t work, the humanitarian crisis will get worse, and by the end of the year, Assad will most likely still be in power, and many more people in Syria will be dead because of it. The probability of a successful outcome in Syria is falling off a cliff.
The world is looking for the U.S. to get its house in order so that it can pay attention to global affairs again. The Arab League, NATO, the United Nations, and many others are beseeching Washington to play a role. In fact, the U.S. is playing one, but it’s nothing like what it’s been typecast for. To be sure, American diplomats are active, but they are doing things differently than the U.S. has done them in a very long time. We’re never going back to a pre-2008 world, the one where the U.S.’s “cowboy mentality” defined its foreign policy. Whether that change is good or bad – right now it looks like a little of both – the bottom line is the U.S. just can’t afford to be that cowboy.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.