Hussein Ibish

What's at stake for the US in Syria

Many think there are no vital American interests in Syria. They couldn't be more wrong

 President Barack Obama walks to the podium before addressing the nation in a live televised speech from the East Room of the White House in Washington, September 10, 2013.

What's at stake for the United States in Syria? Many American policy analysts have concluded, wrongly, that the answer is very little. The reality, however, is very different. Here's why.


1) Syria has become Exhibit A in the arguments of both those who predict and welcome and those who bemoan and decry the supposed American drawdown from the Middle East. These analysts tend to particularly highlight President Barack Obama's abandonment of his announced plan to strike Syrian chemical weapons facilities in favor of an accommodationist agreement – which, according to publicly-stated American intelligence analyses, gave the Syrian dictatorship a new lease on international legitimacy and Russia a clear foreign policy victory.


This is interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as symptomatic of a broader American policy of disengagement from the region as a whole. If the United States wishes to continue to play the role of guarantor of regional security in the Middle East and to be taken seriously as a major player there, the consequences of its Syria policy in the past two years will have to be systematically reversed.


2) Relative American inaction in Syria has strengthened American foes and weakened American enemies. It's not only allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel who are unhappy with the implications of the essentially hands-off policy: Iran and its allies are delighted with the prospect of an accommodation with the United States at the expense of Syria.


This impression, even if unfair, is now deeply ingrained. Syria is seen as a barometer of American risk-aversion and unwillingness to use its power to affect crucial regional conflicts that will determine the future strategic landscape of the Middle East.


3) It is often alleged that no vital American national interests are threatened by the conflict in Syria. But the American posture since the end of the Cold War of being the guarantor of global order is severely undermined by the evident disinterest from not only the Obama administration, but also the country at large, in seriously committing American resources to shaping the character, incentive structure, and potential outcomes of the Syrian conflict. This is simply not the behavior of a guardian of global or regional norms and stability.


4) In fact the United States does have vital national interests at stake in Syria. Unless the United States embraces a complete restructuring of its strategic posture in the Middle East, it cannot maintain its position while neglecting the Syrian war. Friend and foe alike, fairly or unfairly, believe they are detecting American fatigue and irresolution. They will act accordingly, and that will not be in the American national interest.


5) The Syrian war is an incubator for everything that is most hostile and detrimental to American interests in the region. As the conflict has been proceeding, it has strengthened Russia at a global level, Iran at a regional level, and Hezbollah at a local level. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda-inspired organizations are drawing thousands of fanatical young men to be trained and battle-hardened in the Syrian crucible.


The extent to which these extremists will ultimately pose a serious threat to US allies in the Middle East, European states, and even the American homeland, remains to be seen. But there is no question that a new generation of Al-Qaeda-inspired Salafist-jihadists of the most vicious variety is being incubated in Syria. In large part, it is because Western and Arab states have been late to the game and have allowed the most fanatical elements to fund and find recruits among dangerous young extremists who will ultimately emerge from the conflict and then almost certainly look for new targets in the region or beyond.


6) The humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis taking place in Syria is simply unconscionable. Responsibility for addressing this calamity does not rest with the United States alone. But the international community, led by the United States, has not done enough – by every estimation – to deal with the humanitarian crisis, let alone the political and military conundrums, produced by the Syrian war.


True enough, the United States cannot be the world's policeman. Maybe it even can't (or rather won't) be the Middle East's policeman anymore. But if it won't even play a decisive role in marshaling the global resources necessary to address this horrifying crisis of dispossession, displacement, privation, and suffering among the most innocent victims, this does even more damage to the American claim to global leadership.


Therefore, what is really at stake is the American role on the regional and global stages. Is the United States still a decisive, proactive, determinative actor? Or has it become a vacillating, reactive, and largely ineffective power?


Those who think the United States lacks a major interest in the outcome in Syria don't understand that these questions will largely be decided by its approach to this most devastating and destabilizing of present conflicts.


But they will.

President Obama about to address the public about the Syrian war. (AFP photo/Evan Vucci)

"The Syrian war is an incubator for everything that is most hostile and detrimental to American interests in the region."

  • rmarcuse1

    Greetings, Hussein -- is there a typo in the first sentence of point 2???

    February 21, 2014

  • Controlledchaos

    While it pains me to read about the events in Syria, I cannot understand why anyone would favor US intervention anywhere, especially the Middle East. It is time the 300 million Arabs and One Billion Muslims police their own region. As for Ibrish being against the invasion of Iraq, he was right and the situation wasn't anything like it is in Syria. WHAT is clear to anypne with an iota of rational thinking is forms of outside intervention are at play, making sure no side wins. Sound familiar? Ask whp benefits from the destruction of Iraq and now Syria and in the answer you will find the source of all the regions misery.

    February 20, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Mr Ibish favors a US intervention because 1- he wants the Sunnis to win, and 2- he wants someone else (the Americans) to pay the price. A free lunch, basically, and he thinks the Americans will cook, set up the table, serve lunch, then clean up.

    February 20, 2014

  • Earth

    You could not be more right. Very well written. Unfortunately, 1 in 4 people dont know that the Earth revolves around the sun...so I'm not surprised if they don't see your point.

    February 19, 2014

  • GOTC

    Ibish was vehemently against the US intervention in Iraq.

    February 18, 2014

  • kybkh

    Where is the money going to come from to pay for what ever type of war you think the US should start? Please Explain how we can "solve" Syria's problems and ensure "stability" in the region because last time we tried that was Iraq and that does not appear to be going to well. In fact. The Iraqi invasion has led to this Syrian uprising.

    February 18, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Very poorly written. The preamble leads the reader to expect an explicit exposition of certain items that may be at stake, yet one is left with a list of what the US should do, but not the WHY behind those actions. The desperation of those who want to shove the US in the Syria quagmire and continue to urge a reversal of Obama's policy, make them immune to facing the reality: Obama is very very unlikely to reverse his policy on Syria in the waning years of his administration. That desperation again confirms, counter to the desiderata of Mr. Ibish and his Saudi sponsors, that there is in fact no sane argument for a US intervention in Syria. That they have to resort to Cold War vintage reasons using grandiose terms such as vacillation, indecision, ineffectiveness, leadership, that amount to nothing but fear-mongering typical of Republican politics in the US, rather than a logical mathematical accounting of the pros and cons of a US intervention in Syria, reflects indeed the real fact that there is much for the US to gain from not intervening. And even if there were some vague necessity for maintaining alive the comatose and illusory US-Saudi alliance, it is too late. As the Bob Dylan song says, "The line it is drawn, The curse it is cast", and America's enemies - on both sides of the Syrian divide - are the losers as a result of President Obama's wise and far-reaching reversal of an antiquated foreign policy rooted in colonial times.

    February 18, 2014

  • GOTC

    Ibish vehemently opposed the US invasion of Iraq. In hindsight he was correct. Does he ever stop to think that the same reasoning he is using for the US to intervene in Syria are similar to those who supported the Iraq intervention?

    February 18, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Like a good Arab, his reactions are tribal, with any nuance attributed to the level of kinship or tribal affiliation. Mr. Ibish was against the Iraqi invasion because he adhered to the "Arab" tribal reflex against the Western foreigners. In Syria, he drops his thinking one notch to just below the level of tribal affiliation, and has to make a choice between Sunni Arab or Shiite Arab. Since he is of the Sunni tribe, he instinctively and primordially favors an invasion on the side of the Sunnis, radicals or not is immaterial. To buttress my point: Consider that he opposed the Syria Accountability Act of 2003 and sought to protect the Assad regime against US sanctions (again, he was defending an Arab against a foreigner). Now he is against the Assad regime only because it is Shiite regime killing Sunnis. Mr. Ibish does not need to stop and think about anything; he is being a good sectarian tribal Arab adhering to two sayings: 1- "انصر اخاك ظالماً او مظلوماً" (I am with my brother, regardless of whether he is a criminal or a victim), and 2- أنا مغ اخي ضد ابن عمي، ومع ابن عمي ضد الغريب (I am with my brother against my cousin, but with my cousin against the foreigner). Hope this helps.

    February 19, 2014