Questions for Cook on Syria

Steven Cook wrote a fair, succinct summary of Syria and the most recent wave of debating US intervention. I was struck by his closing.

Clearly, President Obama has determined that whatever problems Washington will have to confront as a result of inaction in Syria pale in comparison to those associated with becoming a party to someone else’s civil war.  This is not terribly surprising for a president who campaigned on relieving Washington of the burdens of foreign wars and interventions, which clearly resonated among many Americans this past November.  Yet, it is unlikely to end the debate about Syria, especially as the rivers of blood continue to flow.  After all, the United States cannot credibly claim to be on the side of those demanding freedom or an agent of regional stability if it stays on the sidelines as Syria burns. (my emphasis)

Maybe I am reading too much into his wording, but this reminds me of a regular argument of those favoring intervention: More active US intervention in Syria means the opposition will be grateful to the US so they will be more pro-US after Assad. (I’d be interested to see what exactly the US could hope to get in return in this best-case scenario. But that is really another question, and I haven’t even raised my “first” two questions.) The implication is that by holding back, President Obama is squandering the possibility of Syrian opposition gratefulness and its subsequent payoffs.

This thinking raises two questions for me:

1) As Cook noted earlier in this same post, “the side of those demanding freedom” is not a unified side. It is a mosaic of many groups. So does this argument still hold water if the “side” is not really a side at all? Because I can imagine ways in which the fragmentation would reduce the gains of intervention for the US. That is, let me assume for the moment that the US would get benefits from actively intervening; the opposition would owe Washington. Yet given a fragmented opposition, there remains the possibility you back the wrong part of the opposition and that some other wing – feeling neglected or undermined or whatnot – gets mad and sees you as the new, post-Assad enemy. Or, that the group the US backs actively is or becomes nasty or anti-US or tied to jihadists.

2) What are the other cases that should give us confidence in this dynamic? What are the best previous examples where an intervention “investment” paid off after the regime fell? What in history should lead me to even assume that more active US intervention in Syria now means the opposition will be grateful to the US so they will be more pro-US after Assad? Is Libya an example and if so, what have been the gratefulness benefits for the US?

Any thoughts?

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One thought on “Questions for Cook on Syria

  1. During the First World War Mark Sykes interviewed Rashid Rida in Cairo, questioning him on Muslim opinion regarding the possibility of the caliphate being transferred to the Sharif of Mecca. Sykes reported the following:

    “What struck me most was that he never pretended for a moment that if Great Britain assisted in this scheme that there would be the slightest diminution of discontent either in India or Egypt. The liberties and consideration given to Moslems by Great Britain in the past did not seem to him to be causes for gratitude…he cannot bring himself to make the very slightest concession or hold out any hope of actual friendship and loyalty on the part of Moslems.” (FO 882/13)

    I would imagine that this is the attitude that would prevail among the more dedicated, disciplined elements of the Syrian insurgency, the factions most likely to assume control once Asad is gone. That a post-Asad ‘Syria’ (whatever that term will mean by then) will be more pro-American with American intervention than without should not form the basis for American policy in the region, it being based merely on hope and not on a defined interpretation of American interests. Syria is not Kosovo, or even Kurdistan.

    The prospect of weakening Iran is a far more convincing case for intervention, though one with its own problems.

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