By the time this article is published, there will probably be a completely new American approach to the crisis in Syria. The most recent news is that the U.S. and Russia agreed on a plan to confiscate and destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal (even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov rightly warned that this agreement currently has no legal backing). This successful diplomatic effort is the latest (and first positive) news in the Obama administration's extremely vacillating foreign policy approach toward.
While the government's on-again off-again statements have produced a frighteningly confusing foreign policy for observers and actors, this indecisiveness is not the most dangerous aspect of the U.S. approach. Perhaps the most troubling facet of this two-and-half-year saga is the contradiction between the U.S.’ strategy and the reality on the ground.
The problem with America’s approach to the Syrian crisis is twofold. First, America’s pseudo war/pseudo diplomacy has been irresponsibly ambiguous. Though morally justified, America’s threat of a military response to the chemical weapon attack by Assad followed by a diplomatic halt, while keeping the threat on the table, (sort of), has justifiably angered the Syrians whose survival strategy hinges on the American response.
Secondly, the Syrian force that the U.S. has tacitly supported is a hodgepodge of pro-democracy fighters and jihadis. This point was most recently articulated in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times. The current amalgamation of nationalities, religions, and visions that comprise the current opposition army to Assad’s regime began like most of the other protest groups that are collectively referred to as the Arab Spring. In the spirit of supporting democratic values and denouncing tyrannical actions by their autocratic leader, a group of Syrians in the southern city of Dara’a took to the streets. The swift, violent response from Assad started a bloody domino effect which prompted the formation of the “Free Syria” army. The vacuous effect this conflict had on power and culture dynamics in Syria produced the influx of foreign fighters more committed to the cause of the Islamic caliphate than the democratic future of Syria.
While there has been some lethal infighting between the traditional “Free Syria” groups and the jihadis, it is often difficult to tell them apart, primarily because they share an enemy — an enemy the U.S. also shares. Their shared enemy placed an onus on the U.S. to offer of military aid to the opposition fighters. Thus, effectively, the U.S. has based its militaristic response on the mantra “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” While the crossing of Obama’s “red line” has been the straw that broke the camel’s back, the U.S. had been flirting with the idea of military action for many months before the chemical weapons attack. So, one must ask, how does the U.S. plan to navigate the labyrinth of jihadis to ensure the weapons that U.S. taxpayers have bought will not land in the trenches of Al Qaeda?
The question of “what’s next” has plagued observers and decision-makers. There simply does not seem to be a good solution. This is no doubt the reason why the U.S.’ strategy is so poor and the communication is even worse.
The U.S. should be rooting for freedom and the right to self-express. As for which side is most apt to promote this cause, the answer is unclear. Thus, with wide parameters — like diplomatically removing chemical weapons from the equation — the U.S. should sit back and let the country determine its future. The blurred lines of good and bad make it impossible for the U.S. to justifiably involve itself militarily.
As for Syria’s future, it does not look good. Unfortunately, there is very little we can do to help.