Washington's battle over Syria
5880 miles from Damascus. (Getty Images)
August 24th, 2011
02:45 PM ET

Washington's battle over Syria

Editor's Note: Joshua Landis is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes the blog Syria Comment, where this was originally published.

By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment

Two distinct camps are forming to battle over Syria policy in Washington. The first is made up of the neoconservatives, who are busy fitting the Arab Spring into U.S. strategic interests as they see them. John Bolton, Michael Doran, and Elliott Abrams have been leading the charge in articulating this argument.

The second group are the “realists,” with a liberal coating. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has articulated a “don’t get involved” argument.

The first group want to take down Assad’s Syria and the second do not. The first see it as a vital U.S. strategic goal, the second do not. The first see it as part of a broader effort to help your friends and hurt your enemies. They see Israel and Saudi Arabia as America’s main friends in the region and want to build them up. They want to crush Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Read: What's behind Assad's violence? Three opinions.

Syria is important because of Iran, America’s number one enemy. They tend to depict the battle in the Middle East as a struggle between good and evil and freedom versus tyranny. The second group sees shades of gray. They see an ugly civil war lurking behind the surface of democracy promotion and are not sure Washington would be wise to get sucked into further expensive commitments that have more to do with messy emerging national identities and less to do with U.S. interests.

The neocons have a number of strengths. Clarity is first. Second is the nature of the Assad regime, which is oppressive and run by a family surrounded by a narrow elite, dominated by Alawis, who are a minority themselves and unpopular among a broad section of the Sunni population. The regime has failed to deliver sufficient economic growth to reverse the growing pool of unemployed youth and to raise the standard of living for most Syrians. The country is suffering from all the ills of a growing income gap, drought and bad policies. Reform has been too slow and many believe it will never come because of the vested interests of the narrow and highly corrupt elite at the top. A growing number of Syrians argue that the entire system must be destroyed and Syria must rebuild itself. Increasingly, leaders of the Syrian uprising are beginning to embrace the ideas being put forward by the neocons. In order to win full U.S. backing, they are pushing for acceptance of a complete strategic reversal of Syria’s foreign policy goals.

Read: Sanctions and their impact.

The neocons are not advocating direct U.S. military involvement in Syria today. They understand this is not politically feasible. But they are preparing the grounds for a much higher level of military commitment in the future. They understand full well that in order to take down the Assad regime and counter the force of the Syrian military, the Syrian opposition will need to develop a full military option. To do so, it will need major U.S. and NATO backing. This will not be a fight for the feint of heart.

Their strategy for angling the U.S. toward making such a commitment in the future is economic sanctions. Broad economic sanctions imposed on Syria by the European Union would have major moral implications down the road. Should Syrians start to starve, as they surely would if real sanctions are imposed, the moral argument for intervention and military escalation would improve.

Should the poorest and most vulnerable Syrians begin to expire, as happened in Iraq in the 1990s, military intervention would become necessary to end the suffering and starvation. Liberals would have to support the military option in such a case. Today, most do not. Sanctions imposed now will make military intervention in the future imperative. Liberals embraced the invasion of Iraq in large part because of the moral argument. Saddam was starving his people. It would be hard to resist such an argument.

Read: Libya and Syria.

European governments have so far resisted imposing blanket trade sanctions on Syria for this exact reason. Once we see European governments impose devastating sanctions on Damascus, we may safely assume that they have accepted the notion of greater military involvement down the line in order to solve the humanitarian problem that sanctions will create. Perhaps they will not support a ground invasion as was done in Iraq, but they could support establishing a no-fly-zone and arming and training a proper Syrian insurgency, as was done in Libya. Of course, in Syria it will be a much bigger and more expensive operation as Syria has no frozen assets that can be diverted to fund the opposition. They Syrian army is much tougher than Libya’s was.

The realists argue that the U.S. should not get militarily involved. They argue that Assad is too strong. The U.S. is trying to prune its military commitments not grow them. The Assad regime still has the support of important sections of the population. It is not a clear good versus evil battle but something reflects deeper civil and sectarian divisions in Syria. The Syrian opposition is hopelessly divided. Perhaps it will develop a leadership, but that will take time and must be left to emerge organically for the time being.

The U.S. should not tie its cart so closely to Israel and Saudi Arabia because both countries are pursuing policies which are not good for U.S. interests in the long run. What is more, the realists do not believe that the U.S. should take sides on the broader religious war being fought between Shiites and Sunnis in the Middle East. The U.S. wants to check Iranian power and dissuade it from going nuclear, but it does not want to enter into the religious war. Most importantly, the U.S. has too many military commitments in the Middle East, a region that has sucked up far too much of Washington’s time and money over the last decade. Greater involvement in Syria is not popular. In the end, this is a Syrian battle and the U.S. should not be trying to decide it.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Joshua Landis. For more, visit his blog Syria Comment.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Syria • United States

soundoff (103 Responses)
  1. nahed

    please help syrian people we deserve to be saved from this barbarian regime bachar asad is children killer

    August 26, 2011 at 10:34 am |
    • George

      Yes, agree, but not by stupid extremists terrorists. No body wants Muslim activists to govern Syria. We want democratic and secular Syria. You want to worship God? do it at home or in a mosque but don't come to the street with your ideas and impose them on others. What democracy and freedon you guys talk about? as soon as one disagrees with you on something you accuse him of being paid by the regime. Who are you fooling? we don't trust you either. You are the other side of the coin of dictatorship and oppression.

      August 28, 2011 at 3:19 pm |
  2. Lara

    Great article, I'm Syrian.

    They have been killing people, imprison, torture quietly for 40 years ago and still do, but now people they can show some I mean some of what they are doing???

    They took over power illegally by military coup using iron fist assertion and torture to all opponents. The is illegitimate government from the word go.

    August 26, 2011 at 10:58 am |
  3. EMack

    You know, rather you're reading and commenting on this story from the U.S., the Middle East, Europe, or the Orient, I would try and remember that not everything you see and hear in the news is the Whole story. There are pieces of news stories that may not include parts (large & small) of the Whole story. Surely everyone allows for this adding & subtracting inside their perspective. (?) If you have ever worked with people, especially people from different backgrounds, educations, etc, and there is a common goal or destination, surely you know that at some point, somewhere, you have to do, or operate outside the lines to keep the larger wheel turning-it just happens because we are human.
    Individual interests combined with group interests always will have conflicts which breed secularism, back-handed-ness, and the A to Z individual agendas. Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? Maybe, but it will never be unanimously felt by everyone in the Middle East, there will be varying degrees of peace, rest, tolerance, retribution, grudges, agreements, etc,.
    I would imagine that the Middle East, in its' most mutually agreeable form will simply be a land of grudging tolerance. That is not meant to sound like a pessimistic viewpoint, but rather an optimistic one.

    Bottom line too, just my opinion,...

    August 26, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  4. Histexpert

    Assad is Iran's best ally among nations these days. He also is the chief provider of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or at the very least, he transships weapons from Iran into Lebanon. The US should not get involved militarily in the Syrian revolution, but we should help those who want to overthrow Assad. All these "Arab spring" uprisings are not events which should get the US involved, we have enough on our plate as is. The real US enemy is Iran which has supplied weapons to the forces in Iraq who have been building roadside bombs which kill our troops. The Iranians are also the primary armaments supplier to Hezbollah which killed 241 US Marines back in 1982 in Beirut. Iran is becoming good friends with Chavez's Venezuela, and Western Hemisphere Hezbollah is planning future mischief against the US homeland. They must be watched carefully and stopped before they do grave damage to us. As far as Israel goes, they are a friend and an ally to the US and a partner in war against Islamic terrorism. They will never ask for US troops to defend their land, but they do need our support to maintain a mideast balance of power. Many of the postings on here are so anti-Israel and so full of hate, I at first thought this column appeared in Al Jizera or Al Manar, not CNN.

    August 26, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  5. Quirkie

    Good lord, this is not what the US needs...another intervention in a mid east country to further lower it's standing in that part of the world. Stay away, moral support may be fine (can the US even claim this ground?)...but do stay away.

    And I agree, this is a side show...let's work on helping our own people by improving the economy.

    August 27, 2011 at 11:56 am |
    • Quirkie

      Besides, there's no oil there!

      August 27, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. CharlieSeattle

    Iran and the Russians are refitting a naval base at the Syrian port of Latakia. That makes for a tender "What to do about Syria" momment indeed.

    Two Iranian warships reached the Syrian port of Latakia via the Suez Canal, Friday, Feb. 25, an Iranian-Syrian naval cooperation accord was signed providing for Iran to build its first Mediterranean naval base at the Syrian port, debkafile’s military and Iranian sources reveal.

    The base will include a large Iranian Revolutionary Guards weapons depot stocked with hardware chosen by the IRGC subject to prior notification to Damascus. Latakia harbor will be deepened, widened and provided with new “coastal installations” to accommodate the large warships and submarines destined to use these facilities.

    Syrian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Ali Mohammad Habib at a ceremony in honor of the Iranian Navy Commander Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, Habib said: “Iranian warships’ presence in the Mediterranean Sea for the first time after 32 years is a great move that is going to cripple Israel.”

    August 27, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Quirkie

      War drums...prefer to beat those that advocate them....leave my kids alone please.

      Now if want to send people like Cheney...well let's talk!

      August 27, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  7. LittleSandstorm

    Of course we need to act in Syria

    But we need to be clever, think outside the box.

    Syria is an incredible moment to build ties with Russia.
    This is the event that can Galvanize all of Russia (it's peoples)
    and move Russia politics more toward democratic values

    Russia isn't China. It has leftover strongmen from the Soviet era, and a powerfull mafia, but all this is shrinking with the new wold that is currently emerging

    Russia must be convince to participate in the operation. It has to be a moderate operation, like Lybia was. One of support, not intervention, where the Syrian peoples determine their future

    Not easy, I'll give you that

    August 27, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  8. outspoken

    Remember the zoinist cabals Russia has a naval Base in Syria !! You have done enough damage to Uncle SAM.
    No more !!

    August 27, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Histexpert

      zionist cabal about the Syrian naval base? you may want to seek some serious therapy.

      August 29, 2011 at 10:36 am |
  9. Support Israel

    America should be a little more discerning when turning its back on Israel. The Saudis can be left to fend for themselves but a smart nation does not turn against Israel. It's been historically proven more than a handful of times that nations who've turned against Israel (God's land) actually cease to exist today. As hyperextended in worldly affairs as we are today, I'd say the last thing we can afford to lose is God's covering.

    August 27, 2011 at 10:55 pm |
  10. George

    The fact the regime in Syria is corrupt and oppressive does not mean we have to support the extremist Muslims trying to topple it and take over. Don't be fooled, the people demonstarting in syria er the worst breed of the extremists. They are murderers, criminals, and terrorists....Ben Laden kinds. Do you wanna help these people take over a secular regime????? I don't think this is the right move for America.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
  11. George

    I think we need to get rid of Saudis and other stupid Arab kings and Emirs before messing with a secular regime like Assad's in Syria. Are we talking about democracy and human rights? are you really serious? democracy and human rights in Saudi or Katar? you must be joking....Don't ever forget Ben Laden and his supporters; they were raised and nurtured by Saudis.

    August 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  12. khaled

    assad will not falls in easy way because assad clan fight as a religius duty they will not care for the Sanctions . and iran support him with billions of dollars . he has 120000 of alawit soliders just under his brother maher . Except for the security forces which are alawite 95% . so he will not fall if there are no Military strikes . also the Military strikes will Encourage the other soliders to Defecting the army .

    August 30, 2011 at 3:41 am |
  13. khaled


    August 30, 2011 at 3:43 am |
    • khaled


      August 30, 2011 at 4:23 am |
  14. John

    I feel for the people of Israel... they will suffer when hell will break loose with islamists in the north, east and south! What will they do when those who faught alongside the talibans in afghanistan and the insugents in irak will push their way to Israel.
    Maybe a small Nuclear bomb in Baghdad will ripple through to jordan, syria and turkey and this will open the road to the jewish state from sea to river. God bless israel!

    September 2, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • JJ58

      Everyone knows that israel has WMDs yet no one does anything!!! if you count the number of human rights violations committed by israel it exceeds the ones committed by saudi arabia! And the US citizens fund those violations with our tax money because the US government is israel's slave!!!
      Israel Has been working hard on the dominance over the region through Media control and weapons control. Anyone that criticizes Israel is branded as an anti-semite! And the whole world runs to the rescue of Israel... the spoiled brat that is no less than a criminal state!

      September 4, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
      • Karel de Grote

        Karel de Grote

        I do agree with you....in particulair America's middle east policy controlled by jewish americans is the core reason for worldwide terror in the air and on the ground. The islam world has decided to fight back...... Meanwhile, it appears to me the USA has not learnt a lesson, it uses the current turmoil in the middle east to unsettle Syrie and create a civil war in that country hoping Iran will also be infected sooner or later they hope Israel will emerge as the only ME super power.

        September 4, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  15. sjdsh

    Joshua Landis' sick thinking: Starve them and then feel sorry for them. Wishful thinking, you can't starve Syria.

    January 18, 2012 at 9:56 am |
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    December 12, 2020 at 1:49 am |
  17. Hans Clifford

    oh well, i always love the taste of chicken soup and other soups, i am a soup addict you know,,


    December 20, 2020 at 6:06 pm |
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