Monday, August 26, 2013

Some Thoughts On Syria

The other day I came across this opinion piece of what the US should do about the ongoing civil war in Syria. It's written by a fellow named Edward N. Luttwak who is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. I found it to be one of the more clear headed views on the what's going on in Syria. And it was especially refresshing because it refused to accept the common underpinning of a lot of discussion about American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War: that there must be an obvious and executable policy the US can do to solve a problem in another part of the world.

Luttwak argues that both a victory by Assad's government forces or a victory by the rebel forces fighting to depose him would be problematic for the US. As he puts:
Indeed, it would be disastrous if President Bashar al-Assad’s regime were to emerge victorious after fully suppressing the rebellion and restoring its control over the entire country. Iranian money, weapons and operatives and Hezbollah troops have become key factors in the fighting, and Mr. Assad’s triumph would dramatically affirm the power and prestige of Shiite Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanon-based proxy — posing a direct threat both to the Sunni Arab states and to Israel. 

But a rebel victory would also be extremely dangerous for the United States and for many of its allies in Europe and the Middle East. That’s because extremist groups, some identified with Al Qaeda, have become the most effective fighting force in Syria. If those rebel groups manage to win, they would almost certainly try to form a government hostile to the United States. Moreover, Israel could not expect tranquility on its northern border if the jihadis were to triumph in Syria. 
In many ways I think this analysis is correct. Neither Assad nor the rebels are "good guys" or "bad guys" and neither wining would represent a transformation of Syria into a model democratic society that will make peace with Israel and vote to privatize their state dominated economy. If either wins, the defeated side will be ruthlessly crushed and there is little we can do to stop this if we are unwilling to invade and occupy the country.

This seems pretty obvious but it's remarkable how different it was from the discussion about how the US can approach the Middle East just a decade ago. Back then the obvious assumption among the vast majority of observers was that the Middle East was largely clay in the hands of the West. If we wanted to reshape Middle Eastern societies we could do so, and we should. It's hard to remember now, but the argument that was widdley accepted from everyone from The New York Times to Donald Rumsfeld was that with a application of military force and some political tinkering we could have changed Iraq into a highly functional democracy; a model for the Middle East. Now we realize that while we could put our thumb, or combat boots as it were, on the scales to determine the winner in Syria if we wanted to, we will have little control over what type of society emerges in the aftermath of the war. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately for all of Luttwak's (welcome) hard boiled realism there still are twinges of the old danger of what Matt Yglesias called "The Incompetence Dodge." The dodge refers to an article written back in 2005 by Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld about the tendency of liberal hawks to blame the disaster of post-invasion Iraq on incompetence and bungling by the Bush Administration. As Yglesias and Rosenfeld argue this only obscures the more important point that Iraq was a disaster because of the underlying deeply flawed concepts of "preventative war" or war as a means of constructing democracies in the Middle East. And like thelibe ral hawks of old Luttwak goes all in with an incompetence dodge aimed at Turkey in his analysis:
Back then [2011], it was realistic to hope that moderates of one sort or another would replace the Assad regime, because they make up a large share of the population. It was also reasonable to expect that the fighting would not last long, because neighboring Turkey, a much larger country with a powerful army and a long border with Syria, would exert its power to end the war. 

As soon as the violence began in Syria in mid-2011, Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, loudly demanded that it end. But instead of being intimidated into surrender, Mr. Assad’s spokesmen publicly ridiculed Mr. Erdogan, while his armed forces proceeded to shoot down a Turkish fighter jet, before repeatedly firing artillery rounds into Turkish territory and setting off lethal car bombs at a Turkish border crossing. To everyone’s surprise, there was no significant retaliation. The reason is that Turkey has large and restless minority populations that don’t trust their own government, which itself does not trust its own army. The result has been paralysis instead of power, leaving Mr. Erdogan an impotent spectator of the civil war on his doorstep. 
Luttwak's answers his own question about why Turkey didn't basically invade Syria by saying, "Turkey has large and restless minority populations that don’t trust their own government, which itself does not trust its own army." But instead of acknowledging that these political realities constrain what Turkey can do, he simply blames the constraint on "paralysis instead of power" right after explaining that it's not paralysis by Turkish leaders at all that's constraining Turkish action, but the political realities that underpin Turkish society! 

It's great that we've moved past the Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics, but we still have a ways to go.

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