Critics who complain that President Obama’s decision to provide small arms to select elements of the Syrian resistance does not go far enough and others who fret that he could be leading this country toward yet one more disastrous war in a Muslim land share a common assumption: They view his approach to the Syrian conflagration not as the deliberate pursuit of a strategy in the national interest but as a refusal to make hard choices. Administration officials reinforce this impression when they warn, with equal doses of anxiety, about the danger of leaping into the Syrian maelstrom and about the risk of allowing the war to continue unabated.
But there is another reading of Obama’s apparent passivity that ought to be considered. If one assumes that Obama knows what he is doing and that he is following a course based on US national security interests, then Obama’s statecraft in Syria may look less like indecisiveness and more like a Machiavellian strategy that cannot be described in the usual idealistic vocabulary presidents employ to describe their actions on the world stage.
Firefighters would call that strategy the “let-it-burn’’ approach. Syria is being treated like a forest fire too intense to be extinguished where it is centered. The fire is to be kept from spreading while it rages where it is and eventually burns itself out.
To aficionados of the realist school, the conflict raging in Syria would be defined as a humanitarian tragedy that nevertheless brings some benefits for US interests. Indeed, wittingly or not, Obama appears to be doing to the regime of Bashar Assad something akin to what Assad did to US forces in Iraq in the middle of the last decade.
Back then Assad took at face value what American neoconservatives had been saying about making a left turn and toppling Assad after they had taken down Saddam Hussein. So as Assad’s secular, Alawite regime welcomed fanatical Sunni jihadists at the Damascus airport, his security services saw to it the holy warriors were accommodated not only in mosques but also at army camps, where they could be trained as suicide bombers and planters of improvised explosive devices. The strategic aim was to bog down the American forces in Iraq, bleeding them in a guerrilla war so that they would lose the will to do to Assad what they had done to Saddam.
Whether intentionally or not, Obama’s passive-aggressive approach to Syria is having a debilitating effect not only on the Assad regime but also on its allies, the clerical regime in Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
The increasingly dominant role that Iran and Hezbollah have taken in Syria’s counter-revolution robs them of their claim to be the regional leaders of resistance to the American imperialists and Israeli Zionists. A dramatic turning point came when the leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal, asked the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, not to assist Assad in the butchery of his people, only to be refused. After Hezbollah’s merciless assault on Qusayr, the Lebanese Shiite militia looks to the Sunni Arab world less like the spearhead of resistance to Israel than a willing enforcer for the regional ambitions of Iran.
There is, of course, a danger that Iran and Hezbollah might enable Assad to suppress the Syrian uprising, thereby imposing their sway from Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast, through Syria and Iraq, and eastward to the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But for now, they are spending down Iran’s dwindling reserves, while bleeding and being weakened in a war that could persist for many more years. And though Obama and his advisers appear understandably worried about Al Qaeda affiliates taking an ever-greater role in the Syrian revolution, those jihadists are mostly foreigners and would stand little chance of actually seizing power after the Assad mafia is overthrown.
Whether or not Obama would describe his Syria policy as a distillation of cold national interest calculations, what he has done and not done fits that definition. When it comes to analyzing the behavior of nation-states, you can rarely go wrong assuming the most cynical scenarios.