The United States latest efforts to avoid intervening in Syria is anything but a policy blunder. It is the success of an implicit, multilateral consensus that bloodshed and death are acceptable prices of keeping to enemies fighting.
For common sets of reasons, key actors – America, Russia and Israel among others – see Syria’s civil war as the least harmful in a set of perilous alternatives in an unstable region.
“Our best case scenario is that they continue to busy themselves fighting each other and don’t turn their attention to us,” said an Israeli intelligence officer. “Better the devil we know than the devil we can only imagine if Syria falls into chaos and the extremists from across the Arab world gain a foothold there,” the officer said.
In the face of the Obama administration’s assertion that a military strike – intended to ‘punish’ the Assad regime for the August 21 chemical weapon’s attack – would be “limited” and “not a war in the classical sense,” Washington was forced to face very real security questions that seemed to surface as afterthoughts to its intervention planning: What was the endgame in Syria? If not Assad, then who?
There lies no easy answer.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry faced criticism for classifying the Syrian opposition as “moderate” in hearings in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The rebels have “increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership, and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and an all-inclusive, minority- protecting constitution,” stated Kerry.
That juxtaposed widespread U.S and European intelligence reports, which unveiled extremist groups like Nusra Front, an Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda, among the most powerful opposition boots on the ground.
In August, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, wrote a letter to New York Democrat representative, Eliot Engel, stating “it is in my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today they are not.”
The administration changed its sales pitch. Its Syria plan went from “not Iraq” and “not Afghanistan” to, in John Kerry’s words, an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort,” in what felt like an administration losing confidence in its own plan.
The new plan proposed by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control offered the administration the best way out of a deeply unpopular situation with its public and even, according to many reports, with its military.
The plan would also serve Russian interests, as well as some point scoring for Vladimir Putin for ‘saving’ a situation that no one wanted. Russia gets to profit off higher oil prices incited by an unstable region (a longer term gain than any quick improvements brought about by the treat of military intervention). Russia stands firmly against U.S intrusion in international affairs, but still loves watching the U.S trapped in a mess too.
Above a win for instability, Russia sees any U.S plans to back down from military intervention as a win for Assad. This is according to former National Security Council staffer, Andrew Weiss.
“Throughout the war, the Russians have thought that Assad can shoot his way out of this crisis,” Weiss said. “There has been this sense in the U.S that they’re watching this battle to the death [between] this Iran-affiliated regime and extremists, so we can sort of sit back,” he said, adding later that “[no-one] is comfortable with human suffering.”
At least one American political figure was able to put this deplorable policy into words. A tweet from the infamous Sarah Palin summed up Syria Policy: “Let Allah sort it out.”