Syria: Middle East Peace and the US Credibility Gap

Reports of significant chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime in the suburbs of Damascus again bring to the fore issues of US credibility deriving from the disconnect between Obama administration rhetoric and action. If the regime’s use of chemical weapons is verified, President Obama will face a stark choice: either use targeted strikes to neutralize regime artillery, military aircraft, and missiles, or watch his credibility evaporate.

When, after all, the President of the United States speaks of red lines, game changers, and leaders stepping aside, it is supposed to mean something substantial; it is supposed to drive implementing actions. Yet even if it happens that chemicals were not in this instance used, hundreds of civilians were gratuitously slaughtered nonetheless. The administration’s ambivalence about Syria—its sense of powerlessness and indecision—is spooking friends and allies. Israel ranks high among them.

As Israel contemplates the security implications of a potential two-state outcome, how—if at all—does Syria figure in its calculations? Conversations with Israeli veterans of past peace process efforts suggest that the ongoing conflict in Syria affects the prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace in one prominent way: Israelis have concerns, derived from the Obama administration’s performance vis-a-vis Syria, about the readiness of the United States to fulfill security assurances it will make to Israel in connection with the establishment of a Palestinian state.

A major part of Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace strategy involves identifying and making commitments to Israel’s security; assurances that would assuage Israeli concerns about potential risks to be incurred if negotiations produce, at long last, an independent Palestinian state. Down through the years several Israeli prime ministers have upheld the need to take risks and make painful compromises for peace. As a practical matter, however, any Israeli leader taking a peace agreement to the Knesset and the electorate will want to argue, accurately and convincingly, that the security of the people of Israel will be improved by a stable, sustainable two-state outcome; that there will be no rolling of the dice when a transition is made from occupation to independence. Enhanced US security assistance and US-Israel understandings on a variety of contingencies will help Israel’s leaders make the requisite case and secure political approval for a negotiated agreement.

Kerry’s efforts to define bedrock Israeli security concerns and identify ways they can be addressed are spearheaded by John Allen, a recently retired US Marine Corps general officer who ended a distinguished career with an outstanding tour of duty as the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan. Allen’s appointment itself is a strong indicator of US seriousness: he briefly played the same role during the Obama first term and he is an officer whose professional credentials are unassailable.  Allen’s security brief is by no means restricted to Israeli concerns. Palestinians too have issues, not the least of which is the potential impact on Palestinian sovereignty of intrusive measures some in Israel’s security establishment might wish to take to mitigate perceived shortfalls occasioned by the withdrawal of Israeli forces from certain areas. Allen knows how to listen, his empathy is genuine, and above all he knows his business. If either party has serious problems with his work, that party would do well to undergo some serious self-examination.

And yet: there are profound concerns in Israel about President Obama’s readiness to transcend personal doubt concerning the ability of the United States to perform effectively in the Middle East. It is not as if Israelis or their government have a specific recipe in mind for an American-led effort to contain and ultimately end the crisis that is consuming Syria and spreading throughout the region. What many perceive, however, is indecision, doubt, and skepticism, rooted perhaps in a presidential belief that the disaster that was Iraq somehow proves that any application of American military force and any manifestation of American leadership in the Middle East will backfire, with catastrophic implications for all but the most destructively negative of players.

Is it fair, or even accurate, for some Israelis (whether discussing peace prospects with Palestinians or war possibilities with Iran) to extrapolate from the Syrian case, and apply it with profoundly negative conclusions to the US-Israel relationship? Probably not. Although the view here is that the administration’s Syria policy has produced dire unintended consequences entirely beneficial to the Assad regime, al-Qaeda, Iran (including its Lebanese militia), and Russia, those consequences were produced in the main by a presidential belief that Syria was another Iraq-in-waiting; another beckoning open-ended hemorrhage of lives and resources that would preempt the president’s domestic agenda and, in the end, do no good. The Iraq analogy has been more than wrong: it has been catastrophic for Syria, disastrous for Syria’s neighbors, and harmful to the reputation of the United States. Yet it is probably not a signal to American friends and allies that they will get disinterested, distant, arms-length treatment from the Obama administration if their security is threatened or imperiled by a third party. The problem is probably Syria-specific.

The real problem, however, is that although the word “probably” may be good enough for an American observer, it will not do for Israelis contemplating fundamental change and serious risk. To the extent that some Israelis—perhaps some well-placed Israelis—think that the United States is being hamstrung in its Syria policy by crippling self-doubt about American power and influence, and a general aversion to the Middle East and its bottomless reservoir of problems, their appetite for responding positively to the leadership of John Kerry and John Allen may prove to be well under control. That appetite might well be tightly circumscribed in the best of circumstances. To the extent, however, that concerns about Oval Office analytical judgments reflecting skepticism, self-doubt, and distance add an additional obstacle to what is already a daunting diplomatic task, it will add an additional prohibitive, if (once again) unintended, cost to the failure of US Syria policy.

The Assad regime, Iran, its Lebanese militia, and Russia have taken the measure of the United States in the Syrian crisis and have concluded they can win. They simply do not accept the Obama administration mantra about the absence of a military solution in Syria. President Obama is free to conclude that the days of proxy wars and military victories are over and that the United States cannot, in any event, lose a contest in which it elects not to compete. He is likewise free to persist in a policy featuring humanitarian help, distant, Dutch uncle advice for an opposition he incautiously recognized as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people, and doing the minimum for the mainstream armed opposition after having had his “red line” and “game changer” bluff called, perhaps repeatedly. He is also free to permit the Assad regime free rein in using artillery, aircraft, and missiles to slaughter civilians and stampede refugees. Even now, he is free to call for an open-ended, United Nations-led investigation into the latest Assad regime atrocity, arguing that he can have no idea about crossed red lines until UN sleuths tell him—maybe months from now—that they might have been.

As commander-in-chief, however, he should not permit his policy judgments to mislead allies and friends about the reliability of American commitments. If there is a case to be made for what the United States is doing and failing to do with respect to Syria, the president would be well-served to make the case personally, both publicly and privately. That case must not reflect doubt or skepticism about American power and the role of the United States in the world. It must not elevate what happened in Iraq—a product of miscalculation as profound as any ever visited upon the American Republic—to the status of permanent, governing analogy for all prospective policy initiatives in the Middle East. It must, most assuredly, make the case that the course of action being pursued by the United States in Syria is, all evidence and indications to the contrary notwithstanding, actually strengthening our allies and friends and upholding the notion that the United States is, in fact, the indispensable nation. The difficulty—the impossibility—of making such a case should not dissuade the president. He owes it to allies, friends, the Congress, and to the American people to take his best shot.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Voice of America News