As Washington becomes increasingly consumed with the question of whether to arm the Syrian rebels, the United States must face a difficult reality: no matter whether we intervene in this war, we’re already on the verge of losing our chance for influence in post-Assad Syria.
This impending American failure in Syria will not come solely as a result of the extraordinary difficulty of the crisis, but also because of Washington’s current penny wise, pound foolish, and hopelessly partisan approach to foreign policy. Unless we seriously plan now— including setting aside significant resources— for stabilizing Syria, American national security will suffer.
First, a few words about current U.S. strategy and the very real constraints we face. The Syrian civil war is a tremendously complex crisis. The Assad regime is a brutal and determined foe and, despite its recent successes, the opposition remains fractured and contains some factions that are associated with Al Qaeda. Iran, Russia, and China are still supplying direct support or diplomatic cover to Assad, while the U.S. is understandably preoccupied with issues here at home.
In this context, Washington’s debate about how to increase military pressure on Syria is obviously important. But military strategy is only one part of a much larger policy. Even if we got our military posture “just right,” the United States is currently not prepared to help stabilize a post-Assad Syria.
Indeed, with or without U.S. support, the Assad regime may fall at any moment. When that happens, Syria will face a vast array of challenges, including the need to: establish security and build a functioning government; prevent the continuation of sectarian warfare; maintain its territorial integrity; repatriate refugees, care for the wounded, and rebuild the country’s infrastructure; and address the underlying problems that originally caused the Revolution.
In short, Syrians need to build a functioning state almost from scratch. This will be a long, difficult, and Syrian-led process. But it’s essential that the U.S. both safeguard its most important interests and establish a mutually beneficial relationship with the new Syria.
Yet, despite the Obama Administration’s best efforts to plan for the aftermath— by helping organize the Syrian opposition, planning for contingencies to secure critical weapons sites, and providing over $200 million to mitigate the refugee crisis— American policy on Syria is being undermined both by a lack of resources and by senseless partisanship in Washington.
In terms of resources, the U.S. Government doesn’t have any significant funds set aside for the Syrian transition. This lack of money is going to cripple America’s influence in Syria.
On the day after the regime collapses, regional and global powers, including China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, are going to pour money into the country to protect their interests. In contrast, the next U.S. Secretary of State will arrive in Damascus armed with nothing but words.
This has happened before. At the start of the Arab Spring, the United States sought to help stabilize the regional situation and increase U.S. leverage through increased aid. But Congress endlessly delayed the vast majority of this aid— long before Islamist parties had won any elections— even though it required almost no new funding.
Meanwhile, we relied on others for funding, including the IMF, the G8, and the Gulf states, each of whom had their own delays and interests. And so conditions on the ground deteriorated, American credibility weakened, and the moment was lost.
Of course, even if our response had been perfect, the challenges associated with the Arab Spring were still immense. And yes U.S. taxpayers should not foot the bill for these crises on their own. But when it comes to diplomacy, there is a basic truth: without putting our own resources on the table, our influence diminishes.
Which brings us to our second major problem: mindless partisanship.
Support for critical investments in American national security was once bipartisan. The Marshall plan, the 1989 SEED Act, aid to Egypt after it left the Soviet camp during the Cold War— all received bipartisan support.
Today, there is money for military action. But advancing American interests through aid has become an affront to fiscal responsibility, even though the money involved is a fraction of what would be spent militarily and is entirely irrelevant to America’s debt.
Moreover, what passes for debate in Washington— the Republican response to the attack in Benghazi being a prime example— is not only petty politics, it undermines the type of essential diplomacy we’re going to need in Syria.
Diplomacy— like military action— inherently involves risk. You can’t achieve anything if you’re walled up behind a fortified embassy responding to partisan congressional inquiries.
The U.S. Government must now prepare to seize initiative in the critical weeks immediately after Assad falls.
As an initial step, it should follow its recent recognition of the Syrian Opposition by announcing its intention to create a several billion-dollar Syrian-American joint reconstruction fund for agreed upon activities such as refugee resettlement or infrastructure building; such a fund could eventually also include private investment.
While creating a fund while still rejecting current requests for military assistance may seem callous, the slow U.S. budget process necessitates planning to help rebuild Syria now. At the same time, we have to accept the calculated risks of U.S. diplomats working in Syria soon after Assad is removed and fully support those diplomats accordingly.
Syria is a pivotal country and its fate is a national security priority for the U.S. No matter our military posture, it is in our interests to help it stabilize once its war ends. But that will require having a comprehensive response to the crisis, and it’s going to cost money.
We can plan for that now, or we can fail to learn that lesson once again.