Obama's Syria Policy: The Dynamics of Engagement

23 Jun, 2016    ·   5067

Priyama Chakravarty argues that US President Barack Obama's Syria policy has been realistically cautious and the least worst of a whole range of bad options

One of US President Barack Obama's core campaign promises during the 2008 Presidential election was a military withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Following through, his actions seem to have prioritised diplomacy over interventionist military responses, and policies of 'strategic patience' and the prudent use of power where necessary. Part of the policy package has been the shift from the model of fighting expensive large scale ground wars, to capacity-building in partner countries to prevent the growth of violent extremism and conflict.

Syria is a classic example of this strategy. It can be argued that the US’ policy is aimed at avoiding repeats of interventions in Libya, Afghanistan or Iraq – whose outcomes are virtually impossible to determine, in addition to getting bogged down in expensive nation-building exercises with no definable exit option. This is possibly why despite limited training and capacity building of a select few “moderate rebels,” the administration has been remarkably aversive to play an active role in the war theatre. This has been frequently done against overwhelming allied disapproval, including holding back on the proposed joint strike in Syria with the French forces in the wake of the Ghouta chemical attacks. At best, the US' air strikes have focused on achievable outcomes. Tactics of coercion and dissuasion have been employed to eliminate the Syrian government's arsenal of chemical weapons through diplomatic means, and specific targeted strikes have been carried out by fighters and drones against carefully selected ISIS targets by the CIA, and by having local players do the heavy lifting.

Those who have persistently argued for a US intervention firmly believe that Russia has filled the power vacuum left by Washington’s inaction. The Russian military intervention in Syria seems to have tilted the balance heavily in the favour of the Syrian government. However, President Obama believes that in Syria, “the price of action may be greater than the price of inaction.” He sees Russia sinking into much the same trap the US fell into in Iraq, given the debilitating costs it imposes.

Simultaneously, he has also been able to leverage non-intervention with amelioration: negotiating a cessation of hostilities agreement through the UNSC Resolution 2262 in February 2016. This resort was chosen over challenging Russia militarily in Syria, even though that would not have been realistically possible. All this has raised the benchmark for what constitutes a strategic US interest. Obama’s continued refusal to abide by the ‘Washington playbook’ seems to indicate that he has grasped that an empire can only endure by not fighting every battle.

Another overriding aspect of the non-intervention in Syria was Obama's dogged pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran. Getting involved in combat in Syria would have almost certainly brought the US forces into direct conflict with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Tehran’s proxy, the Hezbollah. A direct US intervention in Syria would have vastly complicated the already convoluted calculus of the nuclear deal. In effect, Obama's Syria policy was subordinated to his Iran policy. In doing this, he was willing to accept tactical “defeats” in exchange for a major and tangible “strategic victory.” If it realises its full potential, the nuclear deal, combined with the economic rehabilitation of Iran, holds the promise of altering the power dynamic in the ‘middle-eastern’ politics as we know it. While it will take time, the lifting of sanctions will lead to a stronger Iran, stabilising the Shia-Sunni conventional balance of power in the region, possibly reducing Iran’s dependence on sub-conventional actors for power projection.

The deal also creates path dependency – i.e. the benefits of maintaining a non-nuclear Iran will vastly outweigh the US’ institutional tendency to pick fights with the Iranians. In effect, this forces the regional US dependents such as Saudi Arabia to seek its own allies and methods to tackle Iran, rather than perpetually seeking the US’ assurances and bogging the US down in intractable and untenable conflicts.

The Gulf Cooperation Council’s intervention in Yemen is the clearest example of the US trying to get its regional allies to bear the cost of their own follies. A stronger Iran will also keep the Sunni extremism restricted in West Asia, while refracting the forces of international Sunni jihadists back onto Saudi Arabia, as opposed to the practice of exporting them abroad.

Finally, the lack of a direct US intervention provides a powerful counter-narrative to the jihadi elements who have perpetually justified their attacks on Western targets on the basis of a prolonged US military intervention in the region. Even though most of these interventions have been at the behest of local allies, those allies remain content to feed the narrative of victimisation at the hands of the West. The clearest example of this was the US basing in Saudi Arabia upon the request of the Saudis themselves during and post the liberation of Kuwait. An intervention in Syria without the regime’s permission would have simply added fuel to the fire. Therefore, a vastly diminished US presence reduces the friction points.

Therefore, Obama’s policy of increasing the diplomatic engagement with minimum use of force is a prudent use of power. It is both visionary and realistically cautious and quite possibly the least worst of a whole range of bad options.