It is interesting to note that the debate concerning any intervention into Syria is a binary one, where we debate either using hard power to ‘punish’ the Assad Government for use of chemical weapons, or we do nothing. This is interesting because somehow we are unable to publicly consider using soft power in this instance–we are unable to conceive alternate courses of action that circumstance demands from us.
Look at where the world is right now. First, at the UN Security Council Russia and China will block any punitive measures against the Syrian Government. Their reasons for this are varied, but we would be remiss to not acknowledge that Libya and Operation Unified Protector are not ancient history. Their begrudging acquiescence to western intervention was, from their perspective, too much. We shouldn’t now nor should we into the future count on any approval from the UNSC for military interventions in the old Soviet sphere. Syria is not a big enough issue to eschew the auspices of the UNSC, especially in light of the importance placed on UNSC authorization by NATO and the western powers in Libya.
While this may cause some teeth grinding among many, it should not. After all, the US was the cornerstone in designing the UNSC, and Russia and China are well within their rights on the UNSC to do as they do. So, what’s next? Something short of direct application of hard power.
The argument could be made that the transfer of small arms and ammunition to rebel forces in Syria is the ethical thing to do in light of our own forces not being permitted to take any action. However, taking such action does not lead directly enough to a desirable end-state for the current civil war in Syria. It leaves open too many outcomes and flies in the face of lessons learned from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
So, what is a best case for resolution to the Syrian civil war–what should we work towards?
In short, we should work towards: A much more friendly neighbor for Israel in any new Syrian government, Iran losing their proxy, Russia has loosing the lease on their naval base, the Russian strategic communication strategy they’ve employed being turned around and used against them, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s ability to handle situations like Syria being strengthened, and lastly that the United State’s position in global leadership reestablished.
Israel has spent the last two years in the eye of a hurricane. Most of Israel’s neighbors have experienced some degree of revolution and civil war. However, at least in the public’s eye, Israel has remained passive and not gotten involved in the Arab Spring. But, in regards to Syria, Israel has a real opportunity to change the dynamic on their Northern border. In fact, Israel has already begun to do this. Israel has spent much of the last 15 years on the wrong side of the news cycle in the Arab world and in the West. The pictures and videos of Palestinian teenagers throwing rocks at Israeli tanks can’t come across in favor of Israel. The narrative this has fomented has not been to the benefit of Israel, and yet it is not an accurate portrayal either.
Israel must do all it can to connect with the Syrian people by helping their refugees and victims of the civil war. This is vital because it enables another narrative to emerge that can in turn become the foundation upon the next Syrian government being friendly to Israel. In the best case, it would also allow for a new dialog to emerge with the Palestinians and others that to date have not had enough evidence for Israel to be an acceptable neighbor to them.
If Israel can build enough confidence with the Syrian people the likelihood of Iran maintaining their proxy in Syria becomes much more unlikely, and makes serious headway towards containing Iran’s influence to the Gulf. It is at this juncture that the interests of Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council converge, and it behooves both to work together towards their shared strategic goals. What’s more, the relationships established here between Israel and the GCC can be built upon in the future as needs arise.
Russia is attempting to rebuild their naval influence, and it is in the interest of the US and west to counter Russia’s waxing influence on the world stage. The Borei class SSBN, Bulava class SS-N, Neustrashimyy FFG, and missiles like the SS-N-26 and the jointly developed Brahmos missile all put into action the words of the Kremlin. This growing naval clout will depend on a Mediterranean port to extend Russia’s influence outside of the Black Sea. With a very real chance that Russia’s Navy could outnumber all other nation’s navies in the Mediterranean. If Russia seems assertive with their oil and gas reserves towards Europe, what will they do with the strongest Navy and a port in the Eastern Mediterranean?
Russia’s newly waxing influence on the world stage is in the interest of the US and West to counter. Over the Syrian civil war we find a moment to counter Russian moves. Russia has positioned itself through rhetoric as being against Western and US imperialist inclinations. The narrative they draw with their words is backed by the numerous interventions the US and West have been involved in since 2001. They are able to play against the sensitivities many citizens in the West feel for their Governments seemingly constant need to use hard power in dealing with the threat of terrorism.
In addition, Russia has been able to set out a predicted course of action that the governments of the West will take in dealing with Syria. However, in Russia’s most recent remarks they unintentionally highlight their own hypocrisy regarding Syria. The rhetoric from the Kremlin speaks only towards maintaining the status quo in Syria – a civil war that has caused upwards of 100,000 deaths; while also positioning itself to be the mediator (with the US following their lead) in any final peace settlement. The words they speak to the public are backed by their actions in supplying the Syrian Government with weapons.
The United States must take a global leadership role in resolving the Syrian civil war. However, as outlined above this leadership will not encompass hard power being directly applied against the Assad government. In assuming a global leadership position the US needs to build a coalition of nations to deploy humanitarian aid around the Syrian borders and augment the humanitarian efforts already underway there. In seeking to do as such, the US is assured to build a very broad coalition of Nations.
Any deployment of medical and humanitarian teams to include hospital ships would naturally need to have security provided for them. With having refugee camps and a robust security presence in Turkey, Jordan, and Israel the pressure on the Assad government would be great and the ability for any outside sources of support to smuggle in weapons to government forces would be greatly reduced. The presence of coalition forces along the Syrian border would approximate the desired outcome of hard power being directly applied.
In taking real action to support the victims of Assad’s government we are doing more than what the Syrian government’s supporters are willing to do. We highlight the hypocrisy of their words and place them on the defensive, having them to defend why they are willing to allow the disintegration of the ‘Paris of the East’. We bring the World towards examining the motives behind why China and Russia are willing to allow a country that holds chemical weapons to disintegrate into a failed state on Europe’s doorstep. And most importantly we place doubt in the world regarding the future of a world that has Russia with a fascist like Putin at helm.
Russia is content to allow Syria to destroy itself before they go ahead and try to broker peace. They are content with having a failed state far from their borders, but figuratively in the lap of the West. It is time to get ahead of their decision making cycle and help the Syrian people and thereby ensure that Russia does not enjoy undue influence over the Levant at the expense of the US, Europe, Israel, and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Between Europe, the US, Israel, the GCC there are many points where strategic interest converge. In years past, capitalizing on these shared strategic interests was the hallmark of American global leadership. The strategy I’ve laid out here can bring the US back to the role that so many other Nation’s admired in the US. This strategy does not rely on any direct application of hard power against the Syrian government. But, it also does not have the US and the West standing idly by as weapons of mass destruction are employed in a near-failed state.
Through our actions we must move our position on Syria from the very nebulous gray area that other nations exploit to weaken US position. We must, through our actions, demonstrate our willingness to limit suffering and for regional stability. Such actions are good for the US, for Europe, for Israel, and for the GCC, and certainly for the Syrian people. It increases our cooperation with allies and partners, it diplomatically isolates our competitors, and it takes the initiative from those who are willing to watch that part of the World burn.