So watcha want? Choices re Syria

Sunday, September 15

Now that the US and Russia have reached an agreement to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stocks, the Obama administration needs to take this opportunity to figure out what it really wants in Syria. 

A while ago I posted a set of ten questions that I'd like to hear the Obama administration answer. There was particular love for #9, which was nice to see.

But the big question facing the Obama administration right now is: should the goal in Syria be regime change or ending the conflict?

Obama & Co. seem unsure on this point, and it is for this reason that policy towards Syria has been, to put it charitably, somewhat less than coherent. So far, regime change appears to have been the goal, but the administration doesn't give the impression of having a clear idea about what Syria should ultimately look like (question #2 from last week). More than anything, administration's sabre-rattling seems to have thus far been mainly about 'maintaining credibility.'

Maintaining credibility? Really? If people had a problem with going to war for oil, how are they going to feel about going to war for credibility? At least you can sell oil. You can't really sell credibility, especially if you haven't got it to begin with. 

Confusion over the endgame--regime change or ending the conflict?--is at the heart of the administration's swerving approach to the crisis. I don't think even they know what they want, to be honest with you.

If the priority is regime change, then the administration will be taking on a responsibility that post-Iraq America, not to mention the rest of the world, has no stomach for.

If, however, ending the conflict is the goal, then Obama will probably end up selling out the anti-Assad opposition, at least for the short term.

The thing is, this conflict needs to end, because there are real risks that it could spread to other countries in the region. What's going on right now in Syria will look mild indeed if war also spreads to Lebanon or Iraq.  

Russia has a lot more at stake here than the United States. Much has been made of Moscow's arms sales to Syria, but also it's important to remember that Syria is Russia's last outpost of influence anywhere in the Middle East. The USSR used to be a real player in the region, but today all that's left for Russia is Assad.

While critics have criticized Putin's recent NY Times editorial as self-serving and dishonest, the Russian president is right to point out the dangers that an ill-conceived attack could mean for not only Syria, but the Middle East more generally.

The fact that this issue means more to Russia than to the US should give Obama some leverage. Let Russia take responsibility for a peace agreement if they want to save their client's life, and let it blow up in Putin's face if things don't work out. And if things do work out, then all you've done is broker a peace deal that keeps the war from spinning out of control in the region.

Rather than taking on responsibility for punishing Assad and bringing down his regime, the Obama administration would be better off working with Russia, and perhaps even the new administration in Iran, to hammer out some kind of agreement before this conflict gets bigger. Turkey and France, two governments that have been pushing Obama to take a harder line on Syria, could also be involved.
So while it appears that something positive has developed between Russia and the US regarding Syria, the Obama administration needs to take advantage of this breakthrough to do some real thinking about what its goals in Syria should be.

Better late than never, I suppose.


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