Obama in a quandary over Syria
Published in Gulf News, 15 June 2011
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
This was probably inevitable. Sooner or later the Arab Spring was bound to present US President Barack Obama with a situation demanding nearly impossible choices.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt confronted Obama and other western leaders with a quandary: support old friends whose time was clearly past, or embrace the future, uncertain as it might be? The difficulty, however, rapidly vanished: doing the right thing is a lot easier once it becomes clear that the military is unwilling to fire on protesters.
Libya was not all that difficult either. Intervening on humanitarian grounds is a fairly easy call when one's target has few friends in the Arab League and fewer still in the West. Yes, things have failed to unfold in the smooth manner many optimistically predicted, but that is a separate issue. Today's topic is that initial ‘What are we going to do' decision?
Bahrain has been tough, especially for the Americans. Even so, making unsavoury policy choices is presumably easier when access to a major naval facility is potentially at stake. If one of your major regional allies makes it clear that restoring the status quo is, from their perspective, a non-negotiable strategic imperative, that too makes quietly looking the other way just a little bit easier.
Yemen has always been easy. Revolutions in remote countries that most Americans have barely heard of and struggle to locate on a map present Washington policy-makers with a more or less free hand. Policy-makers, as a rule, very much like such scenarios.
And then there is Syria.
A political and military keystone to the region. A deeply-entrenched regime willing to do nearly anything to hold onto power. Every country bordering Syria is, somehow or other, an American ally (or, in the case of Iraq, at least a serious American concern).
Some of these (Lebanon) are themselves potentially unstable. Others (Turkey, Iraq) host large concentrations of American troops. The fact that Syrian unrest might impact Israel catapults it, for better or (probably) worse squarely into the arena of American domestic politics.
Then there's Iran. Since January every tottering Arab leader has publicly blamed his troubles on Tehran, hoping desperately that invoking Iran's name will yield the sort of reflexive support their Cold War-era predecessors could rely on by shouting "communist threat."
Syria, as a country that really is allied with Iran, presents a somewhat different problem: will Tehran intervene to help its beleaguered friend? If so, how? Might it do so indirectly — by stirring up trouble elsewhere in the region? What if Tehran sees the unrest in Syria as a western plot directed toward Iran itself (absurd? Yes. But isolated authoritarian regimes are capable of convincing themselves of quite strange things)? Might it then raise regional tensions in response?
The international community has already done the easy part by imposing increasingly tough sanctions on the Syrian regime. But does anyone seriously think sanctions are going to change the behaviour of a government that was isolated before this all began and is now fighting for its life? They do not seem to have had much of an effect in Libya and in this, as in all other things, Libya was always much the more ‘solvable' of these two uprisings.
Making the choices more difficult is this simple fact: people will watch what happens in Syria. They will care about what happens in Syria. But there is no way on earth that America or any other western (or Arab) power is going to intervene militarily in Syria. Washington is already over-extended and its Nato allies, as outgoing defence secretary Robert Gates noted last week, can barely muster the will to participate in fights they claim to support.
Since the odds of anyone being willing to intervene in Syria are very slim the question western governments, and Washington in particular, need to consider is how they will react to either a slow collapse of order, leading inexorably to civil war, or to a government crackdown on the order of what happened in Hama 30 years ago (before mobile phones, digital cameras, the internet, satellite phones, e-mail and Twitter)?
As the Arab Spring turns to summer, Syria may be the first place where the West is forced to decide how it will deal with an old guard that has won the battle against protesters completely on its own terms.
If that happens, Washington will be forced to make some very tough decisions. Can you celebrate change in some countries while engaging with those who crush it in others? Doing so will be difficult, undesirable and unpleasant. But also, perhaps, necessary.
Gordon Robison teaches political science at the University of Vermont.