As Syria’s internal conflict enters its 20th month, the international community has become increasingly horrified at the levels of violence suffered by the civilian population. Syrian military forces have used their heavy artillery and undisputed airpower to attack insurgent strongholds with seemingly little or no regard for civilian life. In turn, local guerrilla forces opposing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad operate without any central leadership and have been repeatedly documented executing prisoners and otherwise acting contrary to established laws of war. The increasing levels of savagery and de-humanization of the opposing forces and civilian communities believed to support them has resulted in a situation that has regional, if not international, implications. The United States has the ability to play a crucial role ending the conflict, but not through counterproductive rhetoric at the United Nations Security Council – America must encourage and support Russian leadership orchestrating the departure Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad in a manner that returns the country to the pre-conflict status quo.
In the Western media, the conflict in Syria is portrayed in fairly black and white terms. Bashar al-Assad is the cruel Arab butcher who slaughters his people, aided by Russian arms, Iranian logistical assistance, and Russian and Chinese protection in the Security Council. Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has demonized Russia and China, calling their vetoes of Security Council resolutions on Syria “reprehensible,” “destructive,” “dangerous,” and “deplorable.” The hypocrisy of Susan Rice’s self-righteousness is readily apparent for anyone with a background in Middle East history – the United States has been the lone country vetoing Security Council resolutions directed at its own regional ally, Israel, no less than 41 times. Susan Rice has personally overseen a number of appalling UN vetoes, including a General Assembly veto of the internationally supported Palestinian bid for statehood,an SC statement labeling settlement building in the West Bank “illegal” (which it undoubtedly is), and obstructing SC efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the recent clashes between the Israel and militant forces in the Gaza Strip.
Despite the accusatory and antagonistic rhetoric, all is not as it seems. America’s continual advocacy for “democracy” and “regime change” —knowing that both of these prospects pose serious threats to Russian interests — is a de facto recipe for a continuation of the conflict and further shedding of innocent Syrian blood.
It has been speculated by some foreign affairs experts that continued bloodshed in Syria is actually the ultimate goal of the United States. An ongoing civil war in Syria does, superficially, serve a number of strategic interests for the United States. First and foremost, it ‘bleeds’ both Iran and Russia, who are forced to invest monetary resources to prop up a key regional ally. Despite the grand humanitarian statements at the UN Security Council, the facts on the ground suggest that America is, in fact, engaging in the time-honored tradition of confrontational great power politics. Instead of trying to broker a peace where the current Syrian regime remains intact except for the departure of al-Assad, America has pushed for a direction that would lead to the installation of Western-backed groups like the Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army, and now the National Council of Syrian and Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF?). All of these groups have been fundamentally hostile to Russian interests and – were they to come to power – would represent a dramatic shift in the region’s web of alliances.
The fact that the U.S. is supplying the Free Syrian Army with non-lethal resources, as well as tacitly approving the supplying of Syrian insurgent groups with arms by their Gulf state backers, suggests that America is allowing just enough resources and arms into the hands of the insurgents to allow them to maintain the fighting, while denying them the more sophisticated anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons necessary to gain any significant ground on the battlefield. The longer the conflict rages, the more Russian and Iranian resources will be depleted by U.S. proxies. In this equation, human suffering and the tens of thousands of dead Syrians are not taken into account, an unconscionable and foolish lack of consideration on the part of U.S. policymakers who have thus far failed to see the potential backlash for their inaction.
If this is indeed the strategy adopted by the U.S. government, consciously or otherwise, then it is treading a dangerous path, one America has walked down before. When the Soviet forces pulled out of Afghanistan in the 1989, U.S. officials congratulated themselves on wearing down their geo-political nemesis from afar without expending American blood and at a relatively small cost in treasure. What they left behind, though, was a radicalized, psychologically scarred country along with a refugee crisis in Pakistan. These conditions ultimately provided the perfect breeding ground for al-Qaeda and other terrorist operations. The rising rates of butchery on both sides of the conflict in Syria, the increase in inflammatory sectarian rhetoric, the influx of extremist foreign fighters, and a refugee crisis that threatens to destabilize three key U.S. allies (Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq) all suggest that history is repeating itself. If so, the U.S. could go from being a self-assured and self-righteous onlooker to having its own strategic interests threatened in ways that are very real yet unacknowledged by American officials.
In a situation like this, the U.S. cannot have its cake and eat it too. The act of bleeding Russia and Iran and potentially turning a regional antagonist into a regional ally may be appealing, but the question remains, at what cost? We already know what the cost is in Syrian lives, now surpassing 40,000 dead. What the cost will be in terms of regional stability remains unknown, as is the consequences of allowing radical religious jihadists from around the region to gain military expertise on the Syrian battleground, coupled with embitterment towards the West for its lack of support.
It is time to cut a deal with Russia. The idea of sweeping regime change is unacceptable from the Russian side. The departure of Bashar al-Assad as an individual is something that would likely be considered acceptable as long as Russia is provided assurance that its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus and its existing arms contracts and defense relationships remain intact. China, which does not have the type of deep business and defense relationships with Syria that Russia does, must be assured that America will not have gained another strategic pawn to use against it in the UN, and that Syria will continue to support China in General Assembly activity related to flash points in the South China Sea and Tibet.
Russia must be given assurances, if not outright incentives, to shepherd a leadership transition in Syria. If the U.S. is able to maturely assume the role of second fiddle to Russia in the interests of regional stability, U.S. blood and treasure will remain protected, while America will show itself to be a strong partner for peace in the new Middle East.