By: Nicole Goetz
In 2011, President Obama announced his administration’s “pivot” towards the Pacific. As the last of the U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011 and with the scheduled withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan for 2014, it was only logical that the U.S. focused its time and energy elsewhere. However, the year of 2011, nor the Obama administration, could predict the events that would take place during 2013. The Middle East is still the political quagmire that it has always been.
Syria may be one of the U.S.’s biggest headaches at the moment. At the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, the U.S. supported the various rebelling countries fighting for democracy. After all, in theory, democratic countries most likely would not go against the interests of the U.S. However, using the term “spring” to describe these events is not quite apt since “spring” implies that change and improvement would happen soon after the revolutions of the pertaining countries. Change and improvement are both still certainly out of Syria’s reach. This ongoing two year civil war has left 100,000 dead [i] and the country in shambles; despite many world leaders, including President Obama, calling on Assad to resign, he is still in power. The turmoil and unpredictability of events that surrounds Syria’s road to freedom is a delicate problem for the U.S. because of the consequences that follow whether they choose to intervene or if they step back and let Syria and the region handle it themselves.
As one of the most powerful and influential countries in the world, U.S. intervention, especially strong military logistical support, could change the game. However due to actions during the past decade, it is clear that the U.S. must be careful where it chooses to intervene with its military power. In Iraq, the U.S. helped topple dictator Saddam Hussein, but it also costs the U.S. $800 billion dollars [ii] and 4,500 American lives (not to mention at least 32,229 wounded troops) [iii] during those eight years. The U.S.’s war in Afghanistan was another lengthy commitment that would go on to cost the U.S. at least 2,000 American lives and 19,181 wounded troops [iv]. These decade long commitments would prove to be less fruitful than the U.S. had hoped and, unfortunately for Iraq and Afghanistan, the plagues of war will haunt them for years to come. Due to these terrible outcomes, the U.S. cannot afford to invest in another Middle Eastern conflict where the state is chaotic and unstable.
As horrifying as the acts of violence in Syria maybe at the moment, the U.S. must weigh its own personal interests before looking into that of another state’s. While it is true that the U.S. has extreme influence and power, how much power the Obama administration wants to unleash is up to the interests of the U.S. For instance, President Obama stated a year ago that if the Assad regime were to use chemical weapons on its own people then it would be crossing a red line and that the U.S. would intervene. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” [v] Obama said. Although “what” his calculus was vague, it still implied that the US would intervene in someway if chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime on his people. However, one year and many reports of the use of chemical weapons later, the Obama administration has yet to do anything besides verbally condemn the Assad regime. Why? Because intervention in Syria does not fit into America’s best interests at the moment.
On August 19th, Joint Chief of Staff Chairman, General Dempsey, wrote a letter to Congressman Elliot Engel of New York explaining why the U.S. should not intervene in Syria. Although there are other options to intervene militarily without troops on the ground and, without a doubt, is the U.S. military capable of taking out Assad’s air force, any kind of military intervention is undesirable as it would plunge the U.S. into another complicated Arab conflict. [vi]
“We can destroy the Syrian air force,” Dempsey wrote. “The loss of Assad’s air force would negate his ability to attack opposition forces from the air, but it would also escalate and potentially further commit the United States to the conflict. Stated another way, it would not be militarily decisive, but it would commit us decisively to the conflict.” [vii]
“The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance,” Dempsey added. “But it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.” [viii]
Dempsey called the conflict, “tragic and complex,” and it is not merely between two sides, Assad versus the opposition, fighting, but many sides against Assad. Even if Assad were to fall from power tomorrow, Syria would still be plagued with many years of violence and conflict as there is not a cohesive, dominant power within opposition forces yet to progress Syria into a new era.
It is not that Washington does not support Syria’s revolution and the opposition forces. Rather, they are aware that they must be careful on whom they support. Recent reports show the presence of al-Qaida-linked groups, such as Jabhhat al-Nursa - one of the two major active Al-Qaeda groups in Syria - fighting alongside the rebels in Syria. With the presence of al-Qaida and other extremist groups, any kind of intervention in support of the rebels could empower terrorist groups.
The U.S. supported rebel forces before during the Russia in the Soviet-Afghan War. Some of those same rebels would go onto become members of the Taliban and fight against the U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan. [ix] Of course, just as diverse as the individual groups that make up the Syrian opposition forces are, the Afghan rebels are not the same as the Syrian rebels today. But, because of the outcome of the U.S.’s actions towards the Afghan rebels in the 1980s, the U.S. must be cautious when aiding such rebel forces today.
Although it has been said that the U.S. is prepared to provide lethal aid to moderate units in the opposition ranks, it is unclear if any weapons have been deliver so far. [x] Most likely, if any military aid was provided by from the U.S., it would stay confidential to avoid any kind of controversy.
For now, it seems that the U.S.’s best option in assisting Syria is through humanitarian aid and supporting the more moderate opposition groups which, Dempsey said, “represents the best framework for an effective U.S. strategy toward Syria.” [xi] The use of the term “framework” does indicate that if it must, the US may become more heavily involved in Syria depending on how events, that now seem imminent, play out. For now, the U.S. is not ready to commit American lives or time into another Middle Eastern conflict, nor does it want to. Nevertheless, it is in the best interest of the U.S. to not completely be uninvolved because the events in Syria will affect the whole region, and therefore, the U.S. and the world.
[i] Edith M. Lederer, “Death Toll in Syria Rises to 100,000 IN Chief Ban Ki-Moon Says,” accessed August 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/25/death-toll-syria-100000_n_3652448.html
[ii] Chris Spurlock and Joshua Hersh, “Iraq War Cost $800 Billion, and What Do We Have to Show For It?” accessed August 13, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/18/iraq-war-costs_n_2885071.html
[iii] “Casualities: Iraq,” accessed August 13, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/war.casualties/table.iraq.html
[iv] “Casualties: Afghanistan,” accessed August 13, 2013. http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/war.casualties/table.afghanistan.html
[v] James Ball, “Obama Issues Syria a ‘Red Line’ Warning On Chemical Weapons,” accessed August 29, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/obama-issues-syria-red-line-warning-on-chemical-weapons/2012/08/20/ba5d26ec-eaf7-11e1-b811-09036bcb182b_story.html
[vi] Bradley Klapper, “Dempsey Details Reasons U.S. Military Shouldn’t Intervene in Syria,” accessed August 21, 2013. http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20130821/NEWS/308210010/Dempsey-details-reasons-U-S-military-shouldn-t-intervene-Syria
[xi] Maway Shwayder, “Officially ‘Terrorists’: The Haqqani Network, and Why The U.S. Blacklisted Them,” accessed August 13, 2013.http://www.ibtimes.com/officially-terrorists-haqqani-network-and-why-us-blacklisted-them-780813
[x] Bradley Klapper, “Dempsey Details Reasons U.S. Military Shouldn’t Intervene in Syria,” accessed August 21, 2013. http://www.airforcetimes.com/article/20130821/NEWS/308210010/Dempsey-details-reasons-U-S-military-shouldn-t-intervene-Syria