There are several paths for the United States to choose from. The first is to stay the course and condemn the violence. The second would be to intervene through diplomatic channels, such as unilateral talks, multilateral talks, or through an IGO such as the United Nations. Finally, the last path for the US to take would be one of military intervention, either through its own armed forces or NATO’s. However, while all of these options are legitimate, none of them can work without taking into account Syria’s past, and the lessons that need to be learned from it.
Throughout its history, Syria has always garnered a deeply seated mistrust of the West. This constant suspicion derives from the West’s complete disregard for cultural and geopolitical boundaries of not just Syria, but the Middle East as a whole. This repeated disrespect began with the Crusades, but a better modern example (and a key to understanding Syrian-Western relations) is the French Mandate of Syria.
Officially known as the “Mandate for Syria and The Lebanon”, it was an order given by the League of Nations after World War I that served to divide the lands gained from the Ottoman Empire by the French. It would end up giving the French control of modern Syria, Lebanon, Alexandretta, and parts of Turkey. However, the British had promised the Arab Revolt (a Pan-Arab movement that fought alongside allied troops in the Middle East) land all the way from Syria to Yemen. Consequently, instead of honoring their previous agreement with the AR, the British recognized a secret accord they had formed with the French called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which effectively split the Ottoman Empire between the two.
Ironically, an American commission on this exact issue at the time (King-Crane) concluded that the Syrian population were strongly opposed to the League of Nations’ mandates, against the Balfour declaration, and sought autonomy. However, these warnings were widely ignored and the mandates were carried out. This then led to the Syrians rejecting the UN mandates, holding peaceful elections, and forming their own government. However, the French did not recognize the new government and entered into the Franco-Syrian War (March, 1920 – July 1920). The French would win the war quickly, govern Syria until 1936, and completely pull out by 1946.
Essentially, the French Mandate is the basis for contemporary Western mistrust in Syria. It’s an unfortunate series of events that highlight Western arrogance but also pinpoint certain issues with Syria-Western relations that need to be handled before any attempt at foreign intervention takes place.
The French mandate shows us that if diplomatic relations are founded on lies, then they will only be defined by anger and mistrust. When the British betrayed their agreement with the AR, they set the tone for the rest of Western affairs in the region. If diplomatic channels are to be utilized and taken seriously, then the first step has to be to build mutual trust between the US and Syria. With an honest base, unilateral, straightforward talks can begin and ulterior motives will not be as much as an issue. Without it, US-Syrian relations will continue to stagnate and a peaceful, diplomatic solution will never be reached.
Another lesson that must be taken from the French Mandate is that occupation, or any sort of prolonged foreign presence cannot be considered an option. While the King-Crane commission made its recommendation on the Syrian people during the early 1920’s, its conclusions are still relevant. The commission decided the main principle that had to be respected was self-determination. As long as this is kept in mind, and is made known to the Syrian people, then the population will be far less likely to oppose any sort of foreign intervention. However, using the US’ current Iraqi mission statement of “…for Iraqis to take full control of their country as soon as possible...We will remain in Iraq as long as necessary…” cannot be an option. It needs to be made clear that as soon as the conflict ends, so does the foreign presence. However, this would be extremely difficult if the current, dysfunctional trend of US-Syria relations continues.
On that point, to say the US has a healthy, working relationship with Syria, or has had one in the past is debatable. Tensions between the two have always been high, and usually little is necessary to spark controversy. However, sometimes more than enough is provided, such as the displays of collective disrespect have served to define US-Syrian relations for the last 60 years. Such incidents as the failed CIA coup attempt on Syrian President Adib Shiskali in 1957, and the Syrian-involved assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minster in 2005 are both examples of mutual disrespect (and breaching of international law).
Oddly enough, the US and Syria have both made attempts at thawing relations numerous times. Such examples as the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement, multilateral cooperation during the Gulf and Lebanese Civil Wars, assuring the release of western hostages in Lebanon, multiple presidential summits across different administrations, and limited cooperation on the “War on Terror”. While some may speculate that many of these incidents were due to the Syrian government seeking political and western legitimacy or other ulterior motives, these actions still show a willingness to “play ball” with the US.
Nevertheless, history can only advise our decision-making. It’s the analysis of current events, actions, and possible consequences of those actions that will ultimately dictate the decision.
Although the current situation in Syria is grim, it began under a very different pretext. During the Arab Spring of 2011, protests began in Damascus in March 2011 and swept across the country. While the Syrian Government initially made concessions for protesters by releasing political prisoners and lifting the semi century-old state of emergency, they were sending in tanks to crush protests by May. The situation would then only go on to escalate to a full-blown civil war in only another six months. Both the rebels and the Syrian Army have taken casualties, but the real burden of the war has fallen upon the non-combatant civilians.
Human rights violations occur regularly, hospitals are few, and schools are not open. Every natural right of the Syrian people is being encroached upon, or denied outright. But what can be done?
This is the question being asked by not only the US, but intelligence communities around the world.
The first option, as previously mentioned, is for the United States to “stay the course”, continue to watch, and do nothing. This route has been deemed most preferable by the US, but only because no action usually brings no immediate consequence. However, “no immediate consequences” is not necessarily a bad thing. With the US fighting multiple conflicts within the Middle East, Southeast Asian tensions rising, a slowing economy, and an upcoming presidential election, The United States has a lot on it’s plate, both internationally and domestically. Doing nothing let’s the US focus it’s resources on the country’s current myriad of problems, not create more. However, the negative repercussions of this decision are not light, and continue to grow as the conflict continues. Nevertheless, repercussions such as the rising civilian death toll, the denial of natural human rights, and further destruction of Syrian infrastructure weigh less heavily on the American, realist-thinking mind, than more possible problems for the US in the Middle East.
The second option, mediating through diplomatic channels such as the UN or multilateral talks, is the most consistent with US interests. With economic sanctions already off the table (Via two Syrian allies, Russia and China, who sit on the UN security council), this option shows US initiative to help the Syrian people, but doesn’t require thinning US resources. This satisfies the United State’s “White Man’s Burden” syndrome (the feeling of having an obligation to help/rule other people until they can take their place economically, politically, and socially), saves the country resources, and does not escalate current problems, or create new ones. The worst-case scenario is that talks with Syria freeze (with the UN or US), and the conflict continues as it did.
The only problem is just how viable this option actually is. The Syrians have shown in the more recent past that they are willing to cooperate with the United States diplomatically, but are still extremely mistrusting of the west as a whole. However, if talks begin on the basis of mutual trust, honesty, and respect (as outlined earlier), then they have a chance at working. If these talks were to succeed it would provide a future template for all Middle Eastern diplomatic relations, as well as change popular Middle Eastern public opinion of the United States. The US could capitalize on this situation, and change their image as arrogant oppressors to understanding mediators to the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi (the new, democratically elected, Egyptian President) was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying that “the US needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world, showing greater respect for its values and helping build a Palestinian state, if it hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger.” This quote perfectly supports the fact that in order for diplomacy in the Middle East, the United States must completely overhaul its diplomatic strategy.
In any event, the third and final option that is still on the table is a US or IGO-led military intervention. However, NATO has just announced that it will not conduct a military intervention in Syria because it would not “bring an improvement to the situation.” Therefore, the only plausible military intervention candidate left is the US, although the possible cons of this decision severely outweigh the pros. If this decision were to take effect, the results would be disastrous. Not only would the United States be involving its time and (increasingly thinning) resources in yet another Middle Eastern conflict, but also it could be potentially throwing itself into what could become a war of tangled alliances. Syria’s allies range from countries as powerful as Russia and China (the economic retaliations would crippling to an already-slowing economy) to as unstable as Iran. Iran has also made it abundantly clear that there would be consequences for a Western or Israeli intervention. Pulling itself into a multilateral conflict is a concept that the United States cannot afford to even risk. Lastly, any conflict, even on an operation as delicate and short-lived as Libya, costs money and will incur debt. Interestingly enough, the United States is just above 15 billion dollars in debt at the moment and any increase serves to make the US currency and economy weaker.
As with every conflict, there are possible gains to be had. If the US were to succeed in its military endeavors, it would have a friendly foothold not only in the Middle East, but very close to Iran as well. Aside from the obvious humanitarian benefits of an intervention, it could also provide increased Middle Eastern operating capabilities (i.e. Military bases within Syria), possible diplomatic tools for future talks (i.e. Possible moderate Arab mediator for more Israel-Palestine discussion), and increased trade. Nevertheless, these benefits do not outweigh the colossal risks of a military intervention.
The escalating civil war in Syria presents tough decisions for the United States. However, there are really only three routes for the United States to take at this point, and are all quite dissimilar. The first option (and current stance) of the United States is to continue to monitor the situation and take no action. This simply is not a viable choice anymore due to public outcry, the increasing amount of innocent deaths associated with the conflict, and the denial of the Syrian people’s basic human rights. The other non-feasible option that the United States could take would be one of military intervention. As I mentioned previously however, the risks associated with a military endeavor in Syria far outweigh the possible humanitarian and logistical benefits it could provide. Therefore, the best and last option would be for the US to intervene diplomatically, be it through unilateral or multilateral means. This option soothes the US’ feelings of “responsibility”, does not require any resources from an already ailing economy, does not cost any American lives and could possibly set a “new” tone for US-Middle Eastern relations. If talks begin on a platform of real honesty and mutual trust, it could not only solve this conflict, but also change everything from US diplomacy, to Middle Eastern public opinion. It’s time for diplomacy to be an option in the Middle East, not just an afterthought.
Max Ringbom is an Analyst at 361Security