Washington’s latest path out of intervening in Syria’s bloody civil war is anything but a policy failure. This is the success of a tacit, multilateral agreement that blood and fear and death are the acceptable price of keeping two sets of enemies fighting one another.
For overlapping sets of reasons, key players — the Americans, the Russians, and the Israelis, among others — see Syria’s civil war as the least bad of a set of dangerous alternatives in a pivotal region.
“Our ‘best-case scenario’ is that they continue to busy themselves fighting each other and don’t turn their attention to us,” an Israeli intelligence officer told BuzzFeed’s Sheera Frenkel. “Better the devil we know than the devils we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there,” the officer said.
Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that a military strike — designed to punish the regime of Bashar al-Assad for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack — would be “limited” and not a war “in the classic sense,” the White House was forced to face very real strategic questions that appeared to emerge as an afterthought to its war planning: What is the administration’s ultimate goal in Syria? If not Assad, then who?
And there is no easy answer.
Secretary of State John Kerry faced criticism for characterizing the Syrian opposition as moderate in hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. The rebel opposition “has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution,” Kerry said.
That stood in contrast to prevailing U.S. and European intelligence reports, which showed extremist groups like the Nusra Front, an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, among the strongest on the ground.
As recently as Aug. 19, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter to New York Democrat Rep. Eliot Engel obtained by Reuters: “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today they are not.”
The administration changed tack on its sale. Its Syria operation went from being “not Iraq” and “not Afghanistan” to, in Kerry’s words on Monday, an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.” And it began to feel like the administration was losing hope in its own plan.
A plan publicly proposed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, reportedly but not yet officially accepted by Syria, could offer the administration the best out of a situation that was deeply unpopular with the U.S. public, uncertain to win approval in Congress and opposed, reportedly, by many in the military itself.
It would also please the Russians who, aside from scoring points on Vladimir Putin’s saving of a situation that nobody wanted, get to profit from the higher oil prices engendered by regional instability (a longer-term trend than the quick upticks brought about by concrete threats of military action). Russia stands staunchly against U.S. interference in global affairs, but loves seeing the U.S. caught up in a good mess too.
More than win for instability, Russia will see any U.S. move to abandon military strikes as a win for Assad, according to Andrew Weiss, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment and former National Security Council staffer on Russia.
“Throughout the war, the Russians have thought that Assad can shoot his way out of a crisis,” he said.
“There has been this sense in the U.S. that they’re watching this battle to the death [between] this Iran-affiliated regime and extremists, so we can sort of sit back,” he said. “That’s not that anyone is comfortable with human suffering.”
One American figure decided to put this unspeakable international policy into words. “Let Allah sort it out,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin tweeted from the north last week.
By Monday, she was over it: “Enough of this foreign fiasco distraction. Get back to work. It is time to bomb Obamacare.”
With additional reporting by Sheera Frenkel.