Final Presidential Debate: What Obama and Romney Must Know About Syria

President Obama and Mitt Romney are talking foreign policy during Monday's debate, and when the Syrian issue comes up, it's important to understand the consequences of decisions in this volatile region.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

As the civil war in Syria drags on with no overt U.S. military assistance going to any of the fledgling hodgepodge of groups that make up the Free Syrian Army, one can’t help but be reminded of wars past in which the U.S. did provide arms, military training, and sometimes intervention to make sure the balance of power tipped in our favor. What makes this conflict different? Why is U.S. leadership so wary of providing this kind of support? 

While it may seem both prudent and ethical to arm the anti-Assad movement, help remove him from power, set up a new government and restore order, it seems rather obvious that the Obama administration has been studying its Middle East and Central Asia history books, and is making the correct decision in this scenario, at least for now.

During the U.S.’s proxy war against the Soviet Union, the CIA provided weapons, intelligence, and training to Mujahideen resistance fighters in order to kick the Soviets out of Central Asia and protect U.S. interests. While it was considered a textbook way of fighting a covert proxy war against a powerful enemy in order to avoid wider, more dangerous conflict, it wasn’t until after the campaign that the world witnessed what this assistance helped give rise to, coming to a violent climax with the horrific attacks of 9/11.

Then there was the Iraq war in 2003 in which the U.S. provided the Iraqi military hundreds of thousands arms, a large percentage of which have gone missing, possibly into the hands of insurgents and other hostile groups across the region. 

The Middle East is a historically volatile region and unfortunately one of the most important strategic geopolitical areas of interest to United States. The U.S. has three main goals there: prevent violent Islamic extremists from proliferating, secure energy sources, and make sure no single country gets too powerful and upsets the balance of power in the region. Based on these goals, it becomes obvious that the proxy war in Afghanistan was vital to the second two interests, but helped aggravate the first. The Iraq war of 2003 in contrast did nothing except exacerbate the need for the first goal’s existence: a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now there is Syria; a hotbed of activity involving Chinese, Russian, American, Iranian, Iraqi, Turkish, Lebanese, Saudi Arabian, Israeli, and of course Syrian interests. While the U.S. could easily help arm Syrian rebels and get rid of the Assad regime, the fallout of such action reeks of further unintended death and destruction. 

Iran, the U.S., and Israel are already fighting a covert war against one another throughout the region, and any military assistance to Syrian rebels by the U.S. will certainly go answered by Iran, which sees the fall of the Assad regime as a catastrophe for its ties to Hezbollah in Lebanon and ability to shape events in Israel. It has already been reported that Iran is developing and training a militia to fight alongside the regime against the rebels, and this type of behavior will only increase if the U.S. starts sending weapons or providing training of its own.

China and Russia also have an interest in keeping Assad in power given their trade relationship with Syria. Russia is already Syria’s largest arms supplier, and any flood of military assistance from the West would anger Russia and China, possibly giving them reason to take more aggressive steps to prop up Assad.

One of the worst possible scenarios is Syria becoming ground zero for a hot-cold war involving major world, regional, and extremist powers. The biggest losers in this scenario would be the Syrian people, whose lives have already been tattered and torn and their blood spilled unjustly by a tyrannical regime.

But how long can the U.S. continue to hold out from entering the fray while its adversaries duke it out for the largest power-sucking vacuum cleaner once the regime falls? At some point strategic interests may change, making intervention a more palatable option.

While boots on the ground are an absolute last resort, covert paramilitary forces provide a valuable stopgap measure. There have been whispers of CIA activity from Turkey helping to funnel weapons to vetted anti-regime forces and preventing Al-Qaeda from breeding like mosquitoes in the Euphrates amidst the chaos. But if the conflict escalates further and Syria’s vast stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons become insecure, boots on the ground may become necessary. This will more than likely result in Iran, China, Russia, and pro-Assad groups in Lebanon ramping up their activities, escalating the now international conflict. 

If one thing seems certain, it’s that nothing is. To the chagrin of the Syrian people, the United States’ best option is to play the waiting game until events on the ground necessitate a new strategy. Given Russia and China’s veto power at the UN, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would get the go ahead for armed intervention unless the Assad regime did something really terrible, like use its chemical weapons against its own people. But even then, armed intervention stands a good chance of causing more death, spreading regionally, and reaching an unimaginable level of complication.

The idea of an international conflict in Syria brings one terrifying question to mind: How does it end? 

Hopefully there won’t be a need to answer.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.