June 20, 2013
Bosnia Offers Imperfect Model.
You don’t have to look very far to find reasons for the United States to get involved in Syria:
*By the United Nations’ count, 93,000 people have been killed in the country’s still-metastasizing civil war. This week, President Obama — gearing up for an unspecified new intervention — put the number at 100,000.
*The brute responsible, Syrian President Bashar Assad, has gratuitously used chemical weapons, defying international conventions and a “red line” drawn by Obama.
*Despite continuing atrocities, Iran and Russia are funneling weapons to Syria in hopes of rescuing Assad, their last Arab ally. Breaking those alliances would be nothing but good for U.S. interests. It would weaken Iran’s influence and disrupt the arms pipeline that fuels Hezbollah, which routinely stirs up trouble in Lebanon and Israel. Hezbollah recently joined the fray in Syria, turning the war in Assad’s favor.
After many months of quiet and mostly ineffectual diplomacy, the Obama administration let it be known last week that it is about to deliver weaponry to the pro-democratic rebels. It won’t yet say what kind, but Obama went out of his way Wednesday in Europe to dismiss reports that “somehow the United States is preparing to go all in and participate in another war.”
At home, meanwhile, Sen. John McCain, along with other hawks, continues to clamor for U.S. missile attacks to erase Assad’s main advantage — his air power — tilting the battlefield in favor of the rebels.
Arming the rebels seems the more prudent course. Either way, deeper American involvement in the war appears inevitable. Assad’s use of chemical weapons provides legal justification. And an expiring European arms embargo provides eager allies, particularly in France and Britain. Having reason and means, however, does not ensure successful ends.
What Obama must not do, but can’t easily avoid, is get trapped on the path of incremental escalation, each step drawing the U.S. deeper into a complex Muslim conflict that it can’t control and which no side seems likely to win.
Bill Clinton, among others, has offered his solution to the genocidal war in Bosnia in the 1990s as a model. In that instance, NATO intervention on behalf of beleaguered Bosnian Muslims finally forced the Serbs who had been brutalizing them to agree to peace talks, where U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke strong-armed them into a settlement.
Some combination of force and diplomacy seems in the offing now. But Syria isn’t nearly as simple. The administration has struggled even to understand which groups among the fractured rebel opposition to back, and because many of them are al-Qaeda-linked Sunni radicals, bringing them to power is not necessarily desirable. Nor is any side seen as likely to win outright, leaving power splintered.
As satisfying as it might be to punish Assad and undermine the Iranians, Obama will need to define a more productive objective than that if he is to intervene — one that can neutralize Assad without tying the U.S. to the rebels in a way that invites gradual escalation in the very likely event that it fails.
So far, no such Goldilocks solution has presented itself.