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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Grand Strategy Behind Syria Policy Options

Juan Cole has an interesting post on the complicated geopolitics behind President Obama’s request for authorization of military strikes against the Assad regime. Cole, who believes the administration’s strategy considerations “rest on doubtful premises,” writes at his blog:

The increasing importance of al-Qaeda-linked radical Sunni fundamentalist groups to the civil war in the north of Syria has posed a dilemma for the Obama administration, which began calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad in late spring of 2011.
The US now doesn’t want the regime to fall relatively quickly as in Libya, because the al-Qaeda affiliates have become too powerful and could well take over Damascus. Highly undesirable. The US does not want that outcome, and neither do Israel or Saudi Arabia, the two pillars of US policy in the region.
So US policy is to join with Saudi Arabia and Jordan to encourage a second front at Deraa with anti-al-Qaeda fighters a la sons of Iraq and limiting access for heavy weapons to Jabhat al-Nusra at the northern front by intercepting them in Turkey. Turkey and Qatar are upset with this policy and both try to subvert it, undisturbed by the al-Qaeda tendencies of their allies.

Cole adds that “this strategy is likely a multi-year effort” which “has the potential for provoking a Syria-Jordan War, since Jordan is clearly the base.” He believes that the Assad regime sees chemical weapons as an essential part of it’s ability to “level the playing field” against the rebels, while Obama is hoping that the threat of a rapid, Libya-like overthrow will persuade Assad to refrain from any further use of chemical weapons.
Cole sees three major problems with the strategy:

1. There is enormous space for mission creep
2. The premise that the regime can be forced to fight the southern rebels fairly is not entirely plausible
3. The US-Jordan-Saudi rebel forces are Sunni and could well be radicalized by their fight with the Alawite army; the idea that people keep the ideology you pay them to have is simplistic.

Cole also cites the danger of a “failed gambit,” which are usually followed by escalations, rather than a prudent scaling back. Cole does see an alternative, however, difficult:

One way the incipient Washington strategy could succeed is if Russia and Iran can be enlisted in forcing the regime to stop using chemical weapons. It would not shorten the civil war, but it might avoid a US quagmire. The signs that President Obama will go back to the UN Security Council are positive, and might be a step toward this outcome.

That’s a big “if,” though one that merits consideration as an alternative to U.S. military involvement and risking a quagmire. It’s difficult to assess how much of the administration’s policy is based on such geopolitical concerns vs. the moral imperative of taking a strong stand against allowing use of chemical weapons to go unchallenged. What is likely is that a majority of American voters will want to know that all diplomatic paths are fully-explored before military action is taken, which should be clearly delineated in the President’s speech on Tuesday.
UPDATE: Via Ed Kilgore’s Washington Monthly post, “The Game-Changer?“:

There’s no way to know at this point if John Kerry’s “offhand” suggestion that U.S. military strikes on Syria might be avoided if Assad gives up his chemical weapon stockpiles was actually “offhand” or part of the administration’s plan. But now that Russia, the United Kingdom and Syria itself are greeting the idea positively, and the administration is said to be “reviewing” the Russian government’s proposal for how it might happen, this could be a game-changer, at least temporarily. It comes, moreover, in the wake of a report from the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that Russia and Iran were already preparing a peace proposal that involved surrender of chemical weapons and perhaps even a path to free elections in Syria…this new development could represent a 180-degree change in a positive direction for the Obama administration, and a plausible way out of a military conflict no one but neocons seemed to relish.

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