Your Honor, I rise again in defense of President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria.
Obama has been right in his ambivalence about getting deeply involved in Syria. But he’s never had the courage of his own ambivalence to spell out his reasoning to the American people. He keeps letting himself get pummeled into doing and saying things that his gut tells him won’t work, so he gets the worst of all worlds: His rhetoric exceeds the policy, and the policy doesn’t work.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Republican critics totally lack the wisdom of our own experience. They blithely advocate “fire, ready, aim” in Syria without any reason to believe their approach will work there any better than it did for us in Iraq or Libya. People who don’t know how to fix inner-city Baltimore think they know how to rescue downtown Aleppo — from the air! Personally, I’ll take the leader who lacks the courage of his own ambivalence over the critics who lack the wisdom of their own experience. But ambivalence is not a license to do nothing. We can do things that make a difference, but only if we look at our enemies and allies in Syria with clear eyes.
For instance, today’s reigning cliché is that the wily fox, President Vladimir Putin of Russia, has once again outmaneuvered the flat-footed Americans, by deploying some troops, planes and tanks to Syria to buttress the regime of President Bashar Assad and to fight the Islamic State forces threatening him. If only we had a president who was so daring, so tough, so smart.
Really? Well think about this: Let’s say the U.S. did nothing right now, and just let Putin start bombing ISIS and bolstering Assad. How long before every Sunni Muslim in the Middle East, not to mention every jihadi, has Putin’s picture in a bull’s-eye on his cellphone? The Sunni Muslims are the vast majority in Syria. They are the dominant sect in the Arab world. Putin and Russia would be seen as going all-in to protect Assad, a pro-Iranian, Alawite/Shiite genocidal war criminal. Putin would alienate the entire Sunni Muslim world, including Russian Muslims.
Moreover, let’s say by some miracle the Russians defeat ISIS. The only way to keep them defeated is by replacing them with moderate Sunnis. Which moderate Sunnis are going to align with Russia while Putin is seen as the prime defender of the barrel-bombing murderer of more Sunnis than anyone on the planet, Bashar Assad? Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power. Well, now he’s up a tree. Obama and John Kerry should just leave him up there for a month — him and Assad, fighting ISIS alone — and watch him become public enemy No. 1 in the Sunni Muslim world. “Yo, Vladimir, how’s that working for you?”
The only way Putin can get down from that tree is with our help in forging a political solution in Syria. And that only happens if the Russians and the Iranians force Assad — after a transition — to step down and leave the country, in return for the opposition agreeing to protect the basic safety and interests of Assad’s Alawite community, and both sides welcoming an international force on the ground to guarantee the deal.
But to get there we need to size our rhetoric with our interests in Syria as well. Our interests right now are to eliminate or contain the two biggest metastasizing threats: ISIS — whose growth can threaten the islands of decency in the region like Lebanon, the Kurds and Jordan — and the tragedy of Syrian refugees, whose numbers are growing so large they are swamping Lebanon and Jordan and, if they continue, could destabilize the European Union, our vital partner in the world.
If we want something better — multisectarian democracy in Syria soon — we would have to go in and build it ourselves. The notion that it would only take arming more Syrian moderates is insane.
During the weekend The New York Times reported that “nearly 30,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries since 2011.” So 30,000 people have gone to Syria to join ISIS to promote jihad and a caliphate. How many Arabs and Muslims have walked to Syria to promote multisectarian democracy? Apparently zero.
Why do we have to search for moderates like a man with a dowsing rod looking for water, and then train them, while no one has to train the jihadists, who flock there? It’s because the jihadists are in the grip of ideals, albeit warped ones. There is no critical mass of Syrian moderates in the grip of ideals; they will fight for their own homes and families, but not for an abstract ideal like democracy. We try to make up for that with military “training,” but it never works.
Are there real democrats among the Syrian opposition? You bet, but not enough, not with the organization, motivation and ruthlessness of their opponents.
Everyone wants an immaculate intervention in Syria, one where you look like you’re doing something, but without the political cost of putting troops on the ground or having to make unpleasant compromises with unsavory people. There is no such choice.
I think Putin’s rash rush into Syria may in the end make him more in need of a deal, or at least a lasting cease-fire, that stops the refugee flows. If we can do that, for now, we will have done a lot.
Thomas Friedman writes for The New York Times.