Assad Conundrum: Why Syria’s Dictator May Be ‘Too Big to Fail’

Conclusion:

This, then, is the Assad conundrum. IS cannot be decisively defeated while he remains in power, but removing him would create new dangers and costs. It is truly a “wicked” problem: America’s current, deeply flawed strategy of trying to chip away at IS and hoping things get better without much evidence that they will is the only viable one, at least as long as America is torn between its idealism and realism.

Assad Conundrum: Why Syria’s Dictator May Be ‘Too Big to Fail’

By Steven Metz, Dec. 5, 2014, Column

http://www. worldpoliticsreview.com/ articles/print/14590

U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS) only deals with half of the problem. That militant organization grew powerful in part because the Iraqi government led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was more interested in entrenching Shiite control than in building a stable, inclusive political system. This alienated Sunni Arabs and allowed the Iraqi military to decay through sectarianism and corruption. But IS was also born out of armed resistance to the parasitic dictatorship of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In a very real sense, it took not one but two repressive, inept governments to spawn IS. Its ultimate defeat, then, requires addressing both of its sources.

Unfortunately the Obama strategy focuses almost exclusively on the Iraqi component. It prods Baghdad toward political reform and commits the United States to help revive the Iraqi security forces and arm militias fighting IS. That is all good. The strategy does not, however, explain what the U.S. intends to do about Assad. Because of this, no matter how many airstrikes the U.S. launches against IS or how many more American trainers show up, success will remain elusive.

Syrians understand this. As Anne Barnard wrote in The New York Times, they are appalled by America’s contradictory policy, concluding that the Obama administration is siding with Assad: “[B]y training United States firepower solely on the Islamic State it is aiding a president whose ouster is still, at least officially, an American goal.” This contradictory policy also weakens the coalition that the Obama administration has built to fight IS. Turkey, whose active participation is vital if IS is to be quashed, has refused to put much effort into it so long as Assad’s ouster is not considered as important as defeating the extremists. The Arab Gulf states, while further from the fight, feel the same way.

In the U.S., even Obama’s political allies are uneasy with his ambivalence. In a recent Washington Post essay, Democratic Sen. Robert Casey wrote, “I am concerned that our strategy lacks two important elements: a recognition that the Assad regime in Syria must go and a strategy to address the underlying issues that created space for the Islamic State to emerge and metastasize.”

In the broadest sense, the Obama administration’s unwillingness to take on Assad and IS simultaneously is emblematic of a tension that has run through U.S. security strategy for a century. Over and over, in place after place, Americans have been torn between idealism, which calls for engineering some sort of comprehensive, sustainable solution to crises and conflicts, and realism, which accepts that crafting broad, sustainable solutions to the problems of other cultures is beyond the ability of Americans. All that can be done, realists believe, is to tamp down, contain or counterbalance security threats that rise above a certain threshold, even if it needs to be done repeatedly.

After the 9/11 attacks, the security strategy of President George W. Bush was clearly in the idealist camp, seeking not only to defeat the proximate threat from al-Qaida but to change the structures and even the ideas that fueled Osama bin Laden and his cohorts. While Casey is a Democrat and Bush a Republican, they share the idealist quest for big solutions to security threats, despite the risks and costs.

Ironically, if Obama’s strategic thinking has an antecedent, it is in the post-Vietnam War strategy of President Richard Nixon. Nixon was skeptical of the ability or willingness of the U.S. to alter the conditions that give rise to security threats. He hoped that if the U.S. resisted the temptation to try and permanently fix security problems, other nations would step in and do it. Therefore, he was willing to contain threats and wait them out. Being skeptical of the viability of permanent fixes to security problems, he was willing to accept something less than a big win when committing American power to a security problem. The same is true of Obama, who, like Nixon, is squarely in the realist camp, despite his idealist rhetoric.

Understanding the context of the Assad conundrum is important, but does not automatically indicate what the U.S. should do. Casey is probably right that Assad must go if there is even the slightest chance for a sustainable peace in Syria and Iraq. But even if removing him is possible, doing it and then walking away, hoping that other nations will midwife a political transition or that Syrians will do it on their own, would be a grievous error. Libya is now a failed state precisely because the U.S. and its allies helped remove a parasitic dictator without helping to forge a political structure to replace him. Instead they hoped that Libyans themselves, coming out of a long nightmare of dictatorship and a vicious civil war, would figure things out for themselves. They couldn’t. Because of Syria’s geographic location and important role in the Arab world, total collapse there would be even more disastrous than Libya’s descent into chaos.

The only way that removing Assad would work is if some sort of multinational coalition committed itself to years, even decades, of peacekeeping, economic reconstruction and political tutelage, possibly in the face of armed resistance from local militias and warlords who have grown powerful during the civil war. The U.S. could never lead such a coalition; only a broad grouping of Islamic states could. Yet the chances of that are close to zero.

This, then, is the Assad conundrum. IS cannot be decisively defeated while he remains in power, but removing him would create new dangers and costs. It is truly a “wicked” problem: America’s current, deeply flawed strategy of trying to chip away at IS and hoping things get better without much evidence that they will is the only viable one, at least as long as America is torn between its idealism and realism.

Steven Metz is director of research at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute and the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter @steven_metz. All ideas in this essay are strictly his own and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Army or U.S. Army War College.

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