Realpolitik in the Syrian Civil War
By Zoe Robbin
In March of 2011, Americans across the country sat before their televisions, the channel turned to CNN as they watched men, women, and children demonstrating on the street to demand democracy. They could head the Syrians chanting “horreiyah,” the Arabic word for freedom; they could hear the news anchors calling the protesters courageous in their fight against tyranny; they could hear their president, Barack Obama, declaring that Bashar al-Assad stood in the way of the people. For many, support for the protests was a test of American values and ideals centered around freedom, liberalism, and, most of all, democracy. Americans questioned themselves and their government: would the United States compromise its values when it came to the Syrian people? With over 400,000 people killed to date in the conflict, it appears that our idealism in Syria has replaced Realpolitik strategies. Championed by Machiavelli and Bismarck, the term Realpolitik is derived from German, and means realistic politics. It refers to the belief that practical factors and political circumstances must be considered over ideology or ethics.
After a five-year-long civil war that continues to rage with no clear ending in sight, it is long past time to weigh our idealistic dreams for a democratic Syria against the economic, political, and human cost of their pursuit. At present, the United States maintains a frustratingly weak and untenable position on Syria. In 2011, there was hope among Americans that the Obama administration could assemble and train a moderate, secular, and democratic militia to fight to Assad regime and safely transition Syria from a dictatorship into a democracy. However, as Pentagon reports reveal that the $500 million funneled into such programs have yielded a mere handful of Syrian opposition fighters on the ground, such plans become increasingly embarrassing and far-fetched. Militia groups that evolved in Syria, such as the Free Syrian Army have grown progressively more radical and Islamist in nature, making them unlikely to receive significant United States support or alliance. Additionally, strong United States support for an organic opposition group in Syria elicits memories of the Taliban, a group once assisted by the United States in its early days before it took a radical turn. Firmly against the regime of Bashar al-Assad while also leading the military coalition against ISIS, it seems the United States has yet to choose a viable candidate or group to rule Syria. Staying true to our American ideals, we have a policy based on fantasy.
Many believe that the United States must follow through on the Obama administration’s stance against the Assad regime. Barak Obama’s famous statement that Assad’s use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring American intervention has falsely provided the Syrian people with an expectation that United States will remain firmly against the regime and with the people. As the regime continues to carry out attacks on civilians, the United States has failed at present to take decisive action against Assad. As the next President takes office, there is hope among members of the international community that the United States will take a decisive stance on Syria, ushering an end to the devastating civil war. Russia and Iran currently back the Assad regime against the rebel groups both militarily and financially. It seems unlikely that rebel groups will be able to take on the regime as they lack similar backing from a major superpower. Without strong United States intervention to depose Assad, the civil war will continue long into Syria’s future, only to be won by the regime. Minimal United States support is too little, too late to make a decisive change in the civil war.
Should the United States choose to work towards deposing the Assad regime, we must learn from our experiences in Iraq and Libya. Simply deposing a dictator is not enough; it must be followed by a lengthy and costly course of nation-building. A coalition of Gulf states, with significant help from Lebanon, have the ability to foot the bill of rebuilding Syria, and any such offer would further Sunni religious and political aspirations for a post-Assad Syrian government. To avoid the disasters of Iraq and Libya, the United States must begin forming mechanisms for the Syrian people to receive food, medical care, and power, long before initiating a military intervention. For a smooth government transition, such efforts must be taken by a body or political party that is prepared to govern rather than NGOs or other humanitarian organizations.
Additionally, the United States must find a Syrian group to take power after Assad is deposed. Failure to support a future government to rule Syria will leave a power vacuum in place similar to the one created in post-Gaddafi Libya which led to the current state of anarchy. The likelihood of decisive United States support for the Free Syrian Army is doubtful due to the group’s level of decentralization and its relationships with radical Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Additionally, such an American relationship with a militant group bears striking resemblance to United States support for the Afghan Mujahedeen, a group which later grew into the Taliban. This means that in order to install a government to replace ousted President Bashar al-Assad, the United States would need to vet, arm, and train thousands of moderate Syrians, many of whom hold sectarian or tribal allegiance that are more important to them than political beliefs. In the unlikely event that the United States is able to partner with and support such an army within Syria, the path to stabilization will not be fast nor will it be easy – as witnessed in Iraq.
With the memory of the Iraq War potent in the minds of Americans, the public does not have the stomach for another long-term military engagement. Deposing Assad will also have broader implications for United States foreign relations. Foremost, United States intervention against Assad will launch a proxy-war with Russia and jeopardize the nuclear deal with Tehran. Rather than working diplomatically to fight fundamentalist violence, potential allies will be transformed into enemies. As an intervention to depose Assad looks increasingly unlikely, American leaders must question the message that their rhetoric sends around the world. United States leaders such as President Obama continue to maintain positions against the Assad regime. However, continuing to stand for an unlikely outcome that we are unwilling to actively pursue only serves to make the United States appear weak on the international stage and unwilling to follow through on its rhetoric. While we take pride in our uniquely American values as we voice support for the Syrian opposition, the only choice we have truly made is one to prolong the suffering, agony, and death in Syria through our paralysis.
Perhaps it is time for the United States to take a lesson in Realpolitik from Machiavelli and Otto von Bismarck, shifting our focus from ideology to practicality. Bashar al-Assad, like Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi, is a murderous dictator, responsible for the deaths of thousands of children. Yet as Americans, we must accept that the Middle East was safer and more stable before the United States aided in the deposition of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi. Saddam Hussein was unthinkably brutal to the Kurds and rebel groups during his time in power, however the death toll under Saddam was only a fraction of what it was from the United States invasion into Iraq and ongoing civil war. It is time to admit that our idealistic dreams for a democratic Syria are simply dreams that, if pursued, will only lead to more death and destruction. We must stop advocating for positions we are unwilling to pursue. If the United States declares that chemical weapons are a “red line,” we must take decisive action upon their utilization. Failing to do so undermines our credibility on the international stage and politically confuses the conflict. Democracy must develop organically in Syria, not as the result of United States interference.