by Aaron Brown
Chemical weapons inspectors are currently in the process of dismantling Syria’s arsenal, and reports thus far have indicated that Damascus is cooperating with the effort. It is reasonable to conclude that this development is a welcome one for the Obama administration, which can now focus on other pressing matters (such as the debt ceiling debate). President Obama, with more than a little help from Vladimir Putin, was able to avoid a military response and shift Americans’ focus to domestic matters within several weeks.
If the weapons watchdogs continue to do their job hassle-free, the president’s strategy will look quite remarkable. Obama drew a red line, Assad crossed it, and his weapons were dealt with accordingly. But there is still one problem. Syria is a mess. Over 100,000 people have died since the war began in 2011. Refugees are pouring into neighboring countries by the hundreds of thousands. One refugee camp in Jordan is home to 120,000 people—roughly the size of Charleston, South Carolina. Death and dispossession remain everyday realities for many Syrians. If there is an end in sight, hardly anyone knows what it will look like.
Though most Americans are reluctant to get involved in another Middle Eastern war, it is important for the United States to understand its role in Syria’s conflict. American allies in the region have a direct stake in what happens in Syria. Israel still occupies the Golan Heights, a swath of territory within only a short drive of Damascus. Despite Assad’s opposition to Israeli policies, he has been relatively painless to deal with. Hardline Islamists, in the event that they seize control of Syria, will most likely be more volatile. Saudi Arabia, another key American ally, is actively supporting the rebels fighting Assad—many of whom are affiliated with Sunni terror organizations.
If the prospect of Islamic terrorists seizing control of Syria seems foreboding, maintaining the status quo is equally undesirable. The Assad family and its allies Hezbollah and Iran are no more interested in peace than a terror organization like Jabhat al-Nusra (which has become a sizable presence within the rebel camp). One only has to look back to the Lebanese Civil War to get an idea of what an organization like Hezbollah is capable of.
Still, the United States has options. Recently elected Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has expressed interest in a potential rapport with the U.S. Though his overtures should be viewed with skepticism (particularly since the ayatollahs have more power than Rouhani does) it is important that Iran be involved in the Syria discussion. The Obama administration should seize the opportunity to at least begin a constructive dialogue with the Islamic Republic. The longer Iran continues to support Assad and keep the world guessing about its nuclear program, the more unstable the Middle East will remain.
The U.S. should also maintain a dialogue with Russia. Though Putin continues to support Assad’s brutal war, it is obvious that he is willing to stand up to the dictator when pressured. And, the truth is that Assad is much more likely to listen to Moscow than he is Washington. Ultimately, Russia is no more interested in an explosive Middle East than the U.S. is. The Obama administration should work with Moscow to prevent Syria’s conflict from spreading any further.
Though the U.S. has a few options at its disposal, it faces tough choices. Syria’s war is a complex web of religious and political elements which seem almost impenetrable. Why would the U.S. want to get involved in such a conflict? The reality, however, is that the bloodier the conflict gets, the more the world will wonder what the Americans are going to do about it.
The views expressed by the author are his own.
Aaron Brown is currently a PhD candidate at Ohio University studying US history and foreign relations. He is also a fellow at the university’s Contemporary History Institute.