A few months back, a number of observers were very excited about the prospects of an international intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds. These calls inherently meant that President Assad would be removed from power. Burden for this intervention seemed to rest on U.S shoulders but it never occured. I am quite certain that it won’t occur.
So who stopped a military intervention in the first place, in the first three weeks after the large scale chemical attack within Syria on August 21? Many observers would immediately answer, ‘Russia did’. But this answer obscures the bigger picture. Indeed, ‘burden for international intervention’ has been perceived as an integral part of the United State’s responsibility and duty to the international community. The U.S has a capable host of allies especially in Europe, who mostly share its world views. Since the end of the Cold War, the United State’s position has grown in leaps and bounds and its interests have often determined the directions in which the United Nations take. And where the U.N is paralysed by UNSC inaction, the United States has acted unilaterally. I believe that as in Iraq the United States could have moved in to oust Assad, if it wanted. But it did not. Why? I think strategic considerations help us understand this better than an off hand answer that spotlights Russia.
First, it was not initially clear what kind of groups made up the opposition to Assad’s government. The Middle East, being what it is, is a very complicated place. The United States is stuck in Middle East for a couple of reasons. They include, Israel’s security, energy supply, and al Qaeda. In Assad’s Syria, the al Qaeda factor has always stood out. President Obama is known to have said severally that all options were on the table. He was telling the truth. One of those options or possibilities his team of strategic experts were gazing at was a possible take over of Syria by the al Qaeda triggered by a major military intervention that topples Assad or even a large supply of sophisticated weapons to the opposition, whose character and make up was constantly changing.
Would the U.S risk sending in sophisticated weapons that could help the rebels gain decisive victory only to learn later that terrorists had hijacked those equipments and are hitting American interests across the region? If the U.S has learnt anything from its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq this century, it is that military victories are easy but rebuilding and restoring peace is a long, costly, and uncertain process. Especially in the Middle East.
This perception of the opposition now proves true as the United States can now confirm that there is indeed a significant number of terrorist groups fighting against Assad’s government…and ‘moderate’ rebels. More so, the civil war has attracted all kinds of militias across Middle Eastern borders into Syria, ostensibly to help Assad or the opposition groups. But it appears that these outside militias are really there to strengthen the positions of their patron state powers likely Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States might have intervened to score a point against Iran’s reach for leadership in the Middle East and strengthen its ties with Saudi Arabia. But then, the U.S would have had to start an extensive and intensive military campaign against Assad, al Qaeda affiliated groups within Syria, and the mercenaries flowing in from across the borders and at the same time protect civilians from further harm. Even if the United States had the support of all its so called ‘coalition of willing states’, it would have been an exhausting endeavour. I am not sure the United States was even ready to fund another invasion, when its economy is still recovering from the financial crisis of 2008/2009.
So what was the strategy? It was a wait-and-see strategy. It was one that the U.S and its allies could easily get by given Russia’s large but in fact weak presence in Syria in support for Assad’s regime. The waiting period has allowed the terrorist elements to unmask themselves and therefore create a good enough ground explaining why sophisticated weapons could not be sent in to support the opposition. Besides, Assad’s position has generally improved and therefore diminished the rationality behind asking him to give in to the opposition or that he should step down. In the end, Syria must find its own political solution. But one that will see Assad remain in office.
Such a resolution does not exactly threaten America’s strategic interests in the Middle East. Israel’s security is not on the line. Energy supply has not been disrupted in any significant manner. And more so, the U.S may be finally getting a head way in its negotiations with Iran over their nuclear programme. The building U.S-Iran entente is also one more reason the U.S can take refuge in avoiding a major campaign in Syria. The real big picture that this things add up to is that the U.S wants to exit the Middle East ASAP.