The U.S. is currently analyzing its options on Syria based on preliminary intelligence indicating that the Syrian army recently used chemical weapons in an attack conducted in Damascus' suburbs. While the U.S. and its allies wage their options, here is brief overview of the U.S. interests in Syria.
U.S. Key Interests in Syria
American interests and values continue to be directly related to maintaining the status quo which is preserving regional stability with a strong focus on Syria since it is strategically located within short distance of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. U.S. interests in the region can be divided into two categories, primary and secondary objectives. First, it is extremely important for the U.S. that American interests promote regional stability primarily because a fallen Syrian regime could trigger a civil war based on sectarian conflict that could evidently spill over into neighboring states. A spill over would seriously jeopardize both the U.S. and allies costly reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In addition the U.S. has two more primary interests which are the need to target terrorist groups within Syria and relinquish Syrian ties with Iran. Additionally, the remaining secondary objectives in regard to U.S. interests are: promoting democracy, advocating human rights, and maintaining a sustainable international order. The U.S. is highly concerned with foreseeing a plan of action in Syria that would promote a diplomatic resolution rather than a military one that could lead to increased sectarian conflict. The current situation in Syria has the potential to lead the opposition forces into a far broader sectarian civil war that would split rebel forces all over the region. Such a possibility implies that conflicts among the population in Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan would increase to intolerable levels. A full blown regional uprising would ultimately lead to increase levels of violence, human rights violations, illegal trafficking, and a complete deterioration of all diplomatic and commercials ties in the area.
Maintaining Regional Stability
Syria’s increasing violence can have potential negative effects in destabilizing neighboring countries by spilling over and debilitating already weak governments like those in Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon would experience the direct effects since the situation in Syria could incite the Sunni community in Lebanon to join their counterparts in Syria which could even lash out against the Shi’ite and Alawite communities further increasing violent factional conflicts. The crisis in Syria furthermore has the potential to incite other Sunni states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and many Persian Gulf countries; on the other side, it can incite Shi’ite majority states like Iraq and Iran which would lead to proxy wars. Any uprising would prove extremely volatile in Iraq since U.S. reconstruction efforts have been rather slow and it is still considered weak in its ability to provide domestic security. In the event that Syria’s strife spreads into Iraq, the U.S. would have to increase military intervention in order to secure its foothold in that specific area which is an option that the U.S. wants to avoid. Such increased conflicts directly undermine all peace prospects in that region and could destroy whatever is left of any peace negotiations between neighboring countries. Lebanon has experienced a significant flood of refugees since the beginning of the Syrian uprising which has continually added more pressure to Lebanon’s already weak economic state. The overflow and the added pressure could trigger a similar civil conflict within Lebanon.
Reducing Iran’s Regional Presence
The U.S. has the opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional posture and pressure it to concede with its previous agenda on abandoning nuclear proliferation. Syria has been a relatively important partner for Iran and has constantly enjoyed its support through the provisions of armaments and financial commodities. Targeting al-Assad’s regime and ensuring its downfall will hurt Iran by reducing its regional influence and hindering their ties to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. More importantly, reducing the power and influence of these terrorist groups would be greatly beneficial to the security of the Israeli state and the currently weak Iraqi government. Iran has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since January 1984 by the State Department . Additionally, Iran has been found to have extensively assisted the Taliban in Afghanistan, thus undermining the U.S. efforts in that state to eradicate al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. Isolating Iran and limiting its ties with terrorist proxies can help U.S. interests of maintaining it from acquiring nuclear fissile material necessary for the creation of nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). A nuclear Iran would be a huge threat to all neighboring Middle Eastern Countries.
Targeting Terrorist Groups
Targeting terrorist organizations is the third highest priority for the U.S. in the Middle East Region next to maintaining regional stability and engaging Iran. Under the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy, disrupting and dismantling al-Qaeda and any terrorist affiliates is still one of the highest National Security priorities. The U.S. will make use of any openings or weaknesses that terrorist organizations might make in order to hinder their operational efficacy and severely limit their capabilities to hit key U.S. interests. Syria has had a long history of being a state sponsor of terrorism and perhaps the most important conduit of arms smuggling to such organizations. Many weapon shipments have been smuggled from Iran through Syria into Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian territory. Because of heavy U.S. military operations in Iraq, Iran has been somewhat limited into being able to smuggle weapon shipments through Iraq and the most accessible route left is through Syria. By engaging the situation in Syria, the U.S. and its counterparts can severely isolate and limit Iran’s support for the Syrian Regime and its support to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Promoting Democracy, Human rights and a Just & Sustainable International Order
According to the National Security Strategy the United States supports the spread of democracy and human rights. From an historical perspective it has been observed that governments based on democratic values like justice, peace, and legitimacy foster diplomatic international alliances. Through multilateral agreements and relations, these political systems protect universal rights and provide basic fundamental commodities and necessities. Also it is known that established democracies have never engaged in war with one another. Foreign policy realists believe that these types of governments provide a stable approach to world stability. Democracies help limit corruption, abuses of power, and most importantly allow for freedom of expression. Fostering a pluralist view that allows all ethnic or religious groups equal access to human rights, helps reduce violent radicalism.
The current dilemma in Syria poses two grave threats with severe consequences. First, it can lead to a civil war which would ultimately lead to regional sectarian conflicts. The nature of the distinct cultural divisions in Syrian society only means that deep religious and ethnic tensions would grow and increase resentment that would possibly lead to intolerable levels of sectarian violence. This problem poses a direct threat to all the neighboring countries. The growing chaos would expand and would end up spreading conflicts in fragile nations like Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Another possible threat from this conflict is the possibility that the current regime survives every single attack that might come its way. This would lead to instability in Syria and the area as a whole. Al-Assad could remain strong militarily and would lead to an increased threat against Israel and a through vengeance would indiscriminately kill those who are thought to have participated with the rebels. Syria would probably fall into a stronger dictatorship and therefore put in jeopardy all of the U.S.’ plans for the region. Even more devastating, there is a huge possibility that a resentful al-Assad would increase its involvement with Iran and its terrorist proxies to undermine all U.S. goals in this delicate region. Within this context, all efforts to reach an Israeli-Arab peace negotiation would be broken down and consumed by larger sectarian strife. Such an event would deem catastrophic specifically to U.S. interests of helping Israel in the area. The U.S. has limited policy options to engage the Syrian situation; they range from providing light indirect assistance to Syrian Rebels and direct military intervention. The U.S. had the following four policy options available:
- Initially the U.S. and its allies undertook the policy to engage Syria through the implementation and enforcement of tough economic sanctions as a way to foster diplomatic dialogue backed by the United Nations (UN). On February 2012, a group of 137 countries passed a UN general Assembly resolution condemning the current Syrian regime and supported the Arab League’s plan for a democratic transitional government. The U.S. approach was to establish an Arab-led international coalition with Turkey being the intermediary but lacked unity because of the U.S. hesitation to lead and more importantly because Turkey has been reluctant to act for fear of retaliation. When Kofi Annan was sent as a special envoy by the UN-Arab League he had a Six-Point Plan under his sleeve. This plan consisted of working with the international community and Syria as an envoy attempting to reach an agreement to end violence under a UN cease-fire, a request that the Syrian army withdraw from population centers and a request for the Syrian army to stop using heavy weapons. It also sought to allow humanitarian aid, to release prisoners, to guarantee freedom for all journalists, and to allow peaceful demonstrations. However, this plan has proved to be ineffective since it has not coerced al-Assad to stop its military operations thus allowing grave war crimes to continue without impendence. Much of the blame has been pointed at the UN Security Council’s inability to persuade China and Russia from vetoing their resolution plans and the fact that Bashar al-Assad is not going to cooperate in anyway. Russia and China have vetoed three times against the use of direct sanctions on al-Assad for non-compliance on the Six Point Plan. As Gerard Araud a member of the UN Security Council representing France stated, “It is now clear that Russia only wanted to win time for the Syrian regime to smash the opposition.” Despite these failures, diplomacy is still the best way the UN and other western allies can help the Syrian people but it would ultimately also require a more hands on approach.
Light Military Intervention
- The option that the U.S. is currently exploring is helping the Syrian opposition forces by providing them with light weapons and ammunition. This action will help the U.S. augment its perception of power and its interest in promoting democracy in the region. The process for allowing these shipments to reach their destinations was outsourced to Gulf countries. However, this has proven detrimental since radical terrorist groups are the ones getting the weapons instead of the FSA. In order for such policy to work efficiently, mechanisms that ease the flow and recognize which groups are to be armed have to be put into place. This means that the U.S. has to get more directly involved.
Increased Military Intervention
- Perhaps the best policy option in regards to the international community’s failure to reach an agreement is for the U.S. to become slightly more involved by helping gather political support outside of the U.N. Security Council for the Syrian opposition forces and help impose no-fly zones in Syrian territory and designate the devastated areas as ‘civil war’ as a way to allow Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) provide humanitarian assistance. The plan would also require working with Turkey and getting it involved as a peace broker. Also through diplomatic relations with Turkey, the U.S. can seek permission to establish military bases in Turkish territory to provide training, assistance, and provide logistical support for Syrian rebel forces. This policy option is more intrusive but it would not lead to a costly full blown attack on the current Syrian regime. The U.S. could tip the war in favor of the FSA without having to spend too many funds and be forced to help with national building like it did in Iraq. More importantly, the U.S. needs to realize that the majority of the Syrian opposition forces oppose outside military intervention. In a policy brief released by the National Alliance for Syria, a network of Syrian activists, they stated that the Syrian people wanted for the U.S. to stand by the values it preaches and support a new democratic government by isolating the current regime both politically and economically but not through the use of direct military intervention.
Direct Military Intervention
- The last policy option for the U.S. and its UN allies is the most costly and detrimental to maintaining regional stability. Such policy would only be implemented if the onslaught reaches new heights and or al-Assad uses unconventional destructive weaponry. Neither the Syrian opposition groups nor the U.S. and its allies are even considering using this option; however in the unlikely event that it is the only option available, it would not have as much of a negative outcome like the situation in Iraq. Direct intervention would be faced by a smaller opposition force than that of Iraq and reconstruction efforts would be improved by lessons learned from Iraq with broader international support.
The news of Syria using chemical weapons in its civil conflict escalated the situation leaving only two options for the U.S: diplomacy or direct military intervention. President Barrack Obama can either stick with diplomacy in a last attempt to garnish more political support or he can decide to topple Assad's regime. Since the beginning of the conflict, Obama had claimed through international media that he would do anything to stop Assad and help the Syrian people, however even after threatening the Assad regime from using chemical weaponry he still does not show signs of following through with his claims.
Do you guys think Obama should follow through? or do you think he should simply weight the costs of war and back down?