Editor’s note: The following article is an excerpt from The Great Unraveling: The Remaking of the Middle East (Hoover), a series of essays by several distinguished Middle Eastern experts.
Since August 2011 when he demanded that Bashar al-Assad step aside, the president of the United States has refused to make good on his own professed policy of regime change in Syria. Barack Obama has ignored both domestic critics of his position on Syria as well as Washington’s traditional regional partners clamoring for American leadership. In failing to intervene in the Syrian civil war for humanitarian reasons while also seizing a strategic opportunity to topple Assad, Obama has had to face down even members of his own administration, virtually all of whom, including cabinet officials and some of his closest aides, eventually came to argue for arming the anti-Assad rebels. Although Obama contends that he has on his side the vast majority of a war-weary America, an electorate that loathes the idea of yet another entanglement in the Middle East, the reality is that it was Obama himself who consistently undercut any alternatives. The US public, never eager for foreign adventures in the first place, was simply following the lead of a president who never made the case for a policy that could advance American interests and help save those destined for Assad’s meat grinder, without having to land tens of thousands of US troops.
The many apparent turns, nuances, and shifts in the administration’s Syria policy—for instance, repeated promises of enhanced military aid to the rebels, the red line drawn over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the threat to strike regime targets after Assad used his unconventional arsenal, and the decision not to—were parts of a messaging campaign intended to further protect Obama’s steel-like determination to stay out of the Syrian conflict no matter what. Regardless of what one may think of his policy, the fact that Obama deflected every argument, entreaty, enticement, and forecast of impending doom to preserve that policy cannot fail to impress. However, history offers conflicting evidence as to whether single-mindedness and obstinacy are necessarily desirable character traits in a man whose job also requires flexibility, the willingness to listen to seasoned advisers, and the ability to change course—in short, the practical talent of democratic politics. He owns his decisions on the Syrian conflict so singly and so starkly that perhaps the judgment on his policy can only be equally absolute: either he was right and kept the United States clear of a prolonged conflict in Syria and built the foundations of a new Middle East; or he was wrong and in ruining Washington’s decades-long position in the region ushered in an era of instability whose ripples will reach far past the Persian Gulf littoral and affect all the world.
What is difficult about assessing the president’s Syria policy is that there is not much evidence of how Obama sees the Middle East in general and America’s role there. Compare Obama’s regional strategy, for instance, to that of his predecessor. Shortly after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George
W. Bush laid out his freedom agenda for the Middle East in a series of speeches that made a clear case for why promoting democracy was not only good for Arab societies but also in the American national interest. In contrast, Obama’s speeches, starting with his June 2009 Cairo address, have been vague on specifics. To be sure, his speeches and official statements have touched on various priorities—like Arab-Israeli peace, as he explained in his 2013 address to the UN General Assembly, and Iran’s nuclear program—but they lack an integrated vision of the region and America’s purpose there. Accordingly, it’s been difficult for many observers to discern whether this White House has a coherent Middle East policy or if it is simply improvising on the fly.
However, the Obama administration as a whole has tended to favor communicating with the public in settings less structured than public addresses and official statements. It is in Obama’s interviews with the press, as well as information leaked after informal off-the-record briefings with select journalists, where we can find at least some inkling of his grand strategy for the Middle East. The outline started to become clearer in his second presidential term. His goal, as he has explained to David Remnick of the New Yorker in January 2013 and Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News in March 2014, is to create a “geopolitical equilibrium.” By balancing traditional American partners like Saudi Arabia and Israel against the Islamic Republic of Iran, Obama hopes to create a new regional security architecture, one ensuring American interests and alleviating the sectarian conflict now ravaging the Middle East, from the deserts of Iraq to the shores of Lebanon. Obama sees the Syrian conflict in the framework of this larger picture.
Whether Obama turns out to be right or wrong, his critics, including this writer, made a fundamental error in their early assessment of his Syria policy. We questioned his ability to read the strategic landscape of the Middle East. For at least two years into the uprising, his opponents—from US senators like John McCain to the Saudi royal family—pounded their heads in frustration. Doesn’t he get it? Toppling Assad, as retired Marine Corps General James Mattis put it, “would be the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.”
As it turns out, Obama did see the big picture. Like his many critics, he, too, saw Syria primarily in the larger context of Iran. He refused to take serious action against Assad not only because he saw himself as the president elected to extricate America from Middle Eastern conflict rather than further implicate us, but also because it was central to his concept of US policy in the Middle East.
If Obama’s gambit, his big idea about geopolitical equilibrium, and subsequent decision to stay out of Syria turn out to be right, then they will eventually entail a historical reconsideration of much of the American policy establishment’s common wisdom. Obama will have been right to believe that the oil-rich Middle East and America’s long-standing allies there, from Israel and Egypt to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, were for a number of factors no longer as important as US policy-makers had come to believe over the past half-century. Among other things, with the United States perhaps on the verge of energy independence, it will mean Obama was right to see that the region was still important but no longer vital to American interests, and the US could afford to draw down. And in minimizing the American footprint, Obama will have been right to have bequeathed to the region a new arrangement balancing Washington’s traditional Sunni Arab allies in the Persian Gulf against Iran. Although it will continue to be impossible to regard the Syrian civil war as anything but a tragedy, in balancing the Gulf’s two great powers, Obama’s success here will be to have precluded the possibility of a similar conflict from ever erupting again. If the Middle East was still nothing like Scandinavia, Obama’s big idea had nonetheless worked to stabilize it.
If on the other hand Obama turns out to be wrong, then failing to stop Bashar al-Assad will forever stain his historical legacy. It will have been the broad mainstream of the US policy establishment and America’s Middle East allies who were right. Sure Obama stood firm, but for what purpose? By allowing the Syrian civil war to drag on and Assad to stay in power, he was idle as Syria’s neighbors, including US allies, suffered catastrophic refugee crises, while Iran extended its reach across the Levant. Obama’s manifest weakness, underscored by his dealings with Russia, his treatment of allies, and his exertions to shrink America’s profile in the region unraveled the American-backed order of the Middle East. Washington’s position as a great power and a power broker was established and maintained
by generations of Americans—presidents, policy-makers, diplomats, soldiers, educators, businessmen, and missionaries—who understood the region not only in terms of the energy resources that made postwar America possible, but also as a testing ground of the country’s political, military, historical, and cultural role in the world. What right did Obama have to toss away a national patrimony, and for what purpose?
II: History’s Seeds
The seeds of both the Syrian rebellion and the Obama administration’s response were planted long before the uprising started. Regarding the former, it’s useful to turn to the post–World War I French mandate, which eventually lead to modern Syria and Lebanon. France’s main geopolitical rival in the Middle East, Great Britain, managed its regional holdings largely through the Sunnis, but the French worked through minorities. In Syria, Paris played on minority resentment and anxiety to create a military, security, and intelligence apparatus out of the Alawites and other heterodox Shia sects, like the Ismailis and Druze, long despised by the Sunni urban elite for their “heretical” beliefs and practices. As plans were being drawn for post-mandate Syria, the Alawites petitioned French authorities for their own state and begged not “to be joined to Syria for it is a Sunni state and Sunnis consider them unbelievers,” as a letter from Alawite notables to the French prime minister explained. The “hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim,” the letter went on, would expose the Alawites to “annihilation.”
There were theological sources for Sunni triumphalism, vigorously expressed, for instance, by the fourteenth-century Hanbali cleric Ibn Taymiyya, a major influence on the Salafi-jihadi movement. He wrote that war against and punishment of the Alawites “are among the greatest of pious deeds and the most important obligation.” And there were also class and cultural factors dividing the Sunnis and Alawites. In his 2012 book The Syrian Rebellion, the great historian of the modern Middle East Fouad Ajami recalls that, “In my boyhood in Beirut, there were countless Alawi servants, young girls delivered into families with means to feed the girls’ families back home.” The Sunnis regarded these inhabitants of the coastal mountain range as peasants—“a heterodox sect of peasants,” writes Ajami, who “had conquered their homeland.” Damascus had been the capital of the historical Sunni Arab heartland dating to the seventh Umayyad caliphate (661–750 CE).
In a sense, the March 2011 uprising was simply another phase in a prolonged conflict that started when a minority sect came to rule the country’s, and the region’s, Sunni Arab majority. When Hafez al-Assad became president in 1970, replacing Syria’s first Alawite ruler Salah Jadid who had come to power in 1966, he met Sunni resentment with punishing resolve during the course of a Muslim Brotherhood-led insurgency that began shortly after Syria’s 1976 invasion of Lebanon. Assad’s counterinsurgency culminated in the massacre at Hama, a Brotherhood stronghold where his men killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people.
Bashar al-Assad used the history of Sunni-Alawite enmity as the cornerstone of a strategic messaging campaign that resonated in a post-9/11 America reeling from the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. We share the same enemy, Assad told the Bush White House—Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda. What Assad’s narrative elided was that sometimes the regime in Damascus would team up with Al Qaeda, most spectacularly against the Americans themselves. And it is here where the roots of the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian conflict are intertwined with those of the anti-Assad rebellion.
For some time after 9/11, the Assad regime seemed to cooperate with Washington, reportedly sharing intelligence and accepting detainees for extraordinary rendition. The relationship began to sour with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which both Syria and Iran initially saw as an existential threat drawn up to their borders. Both fought back in their customary fashion, through terrorist cutouts, with the Iranians sponsoring mostly Shia militants and the Syrians offering their services to Sunni fighters. Damascus International Airport became a key transit hub for foreign jihadists, who were then bused by Syrian intelligence to the Iraq border where they took up arms against US troops and their Iraqi allies.
American officials, civilian and military, warned the Syrians on this and other matters, but the regime turned a deaf ear, perhaps assuming the Americans weren’t serious, and even if they were Assad had more pressing worries. He was concerned that the Sunni majority he ruled would draw a dangerous conclusion from the White House’s project next door. If the Americans were largely driven by a post-9/11 animus toward the Sunnis that saw Saddam Hussein as the most convenient way to teach the Arabs a lesson, the freedom agenda still spelled trouble for a minority Alawite regime. Syria’s Sunni community could hardly fail to notice that if democracy meant that power fell to the country’s Shia majority in Iraq, in Syria it would mean the rightful restoration of Sunni sovereignty in the beating heart of Arabism and, Assad feared,
the inevitable satisfaction of a vendetta against the Alawites.
Assad continued his proxy war in Iraq to prevent regime change and carnage at home by showing Syrians that the Americans’ so-called democracy was nothing but sectarian slaughter. He ignored the Americans because this mighty foreign power was also fickle and always had a soft spot for Damascus.
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