An article at ForeignPolicy last week proposed a disturbing premise: that the United States is missing an opportunity to provide support that would ostensibly tip the battle of the Syrian civil war in favor of the anti-Assad insurgency. The authors, Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh, assert that President Barack Obama has ignored “…an ironclad consensus… among his most senior advisors…including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey…supporting a call by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus, former director of the CIA, to provide lethal support to the Syrian opposition”. Two important points are refutable in this first section:
1. The assumption of “consensus” is tenuous; there is no mention of other members of the Administration. Vice President Joe Biden (known to be less supportive of large-scale investment of U.S. military power in domestic conflicts; best evidence is Biden’s support for a reduced-presence by U.S. military in Afghanistan and a “counter-terrorism plus” strategy instead of a troop surge to Afghanistan in 2009) and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon (also known to be averse to intervening militarily in areas of unclear US interest). How exactly is this an “ironclad” consensus when excluding two of the president’s foremost national security team advisors?
2. What does “providing the Syrian lethal support” entail? The authors at no point go into detail on “lethal support”. Does this involve air assets? Weapons provision? Too often in the past of U.S. involvement in tipping the balance of power in civil conflicts around the world there has been significant blowback and geostrategic implications that elicit a counterproductive outcome for U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.
The Obama administration appears to be shifting towards a more pragmatic and less interventionist policy in its second term as the constraints of military intervention were felt in addressing concerns such as the ongoing Iranian nuclear program. The raid in Abottabad (violating the sovereignty of a country in order to execute a target of great importance to U.S. national security), escalating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to target threats to U.S. national security in countries without a declaration of war (Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), and an understood cyber effort to attack, derail, and slow the efforts of the Iranian regime to continue enriching uranium to weapons grade capacity (see David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power) have been, at the very least, a continuance (and in some cases, an escalation) of the George W. Bush administration’s more muscular foreign policy of projecting American power.
In nominating Senator John Kerry for Secretary of State, Senator Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, and John Brennan for Director of the CIA, President Obama has signaled that his administration will temper some of that power projection (at least militarily) in a second term and lean heavier towards a policy based in pragmatism (Realism). So questions follow: What is a pragmatic approach for U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war? How certain is the outcome with U.S. support? Does the U.S. have the intelligence and logistical support necessary to assist the insurgency in permanently dislodging the al-Assad regime? If dislodged, what fills the vacuum in Damascus? Most importantly, what is the composition of the myriad elements fighting together to unseat al-Assad? Who would be getting this “lethal support”?
The potential for “blowback” is an exceptionally powerful variable in any assessment of U.S. involvement in the conflict in Syria. The history of Western involvement (and intervention) in the regions of the Maghreb, Levant, Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia is riddled with instances of blowback for states attempting to manipulate the balance of power to their advantage. The authors of the article seem more intent on continuing a trend of muscular U.S. power projection and interventionism rather than carefully considering the consequences of involvement in a conflict where there are still many questions about the composition of the insurgents that would receive U.S. support.
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