America's Interest In Syria
Exactly what is America’s interest in Syria? Far away in that arid clime, nestled tumultuously between Iraq and the Mediterranean Sea, that country and—by way of incessant extension—the world demands of us a response. If America were to intervene in Syria, what is it she would stand to gain? Perhaps more importantly, what possibly would she be willing to lose? It’s a question around which consecutive administrations have circled, but each has yet failed to answer. Neither, verily, has convincingly exerted itself much to the end of addressing it. And still, it’s a question that has, for the better part of seven years, strained the conscience of our public opinion and frayed the nerves of everyone with an international view.
When first this question arose in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, President Obama was embarking upon a widely popular route. Indeed, it was a route to which he owed much of his early political success. He was in the midst of effectuating his long-held promise to bring home American troops from overseas. They had, of course, been stationed in the Middle East for well-neigh the preceding decade. At least since 2001, America had been entangled with mullahs, caliphates, despots, and theocrats of the worst kind in a foreign world. During the Bush years, it appeared to have become an imbroglio to which we were inextricably bound. The administration spoke of massively destructive weapons, but found none. At best, the mere idea of their presence was a chimera; at worst, an untruth. Ultimately, in the pursuit of these illusory weapons, we invested billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives—each and every one as invaluable as the other. We tried to force upon an otherwise ill-prepared and benighted people the concepts of Westernized life. We admonished them and proceeded to feed them helpings of high-minded ideals—one course liberty, the next equality, the last the universality of rights. But the people and their leaders proved, painfully one might add, that so lofty an ideal is an acquired taste, one to which their gullets weren’t yet adapted.
And so, as quickly as it touched their lips, they spit it out. We were left with the sobering realization that there might be some places in the world, disproportionately placed in the Middle East, that’d rather suffer their chains than embrace Western liberality. Much of this can be attributed to our own shameless and often injurious conceit: we imagine everyone as ourselves, and mirror upon others our own aspirations and our experienced dreams. But not everyone hungers for liberal democracy and equality of the sexes the way we had and so continue to do. There are, in fact, massive numbers of people quite sated with the concept of government by Sharia law. Rather than oppose, they embrace the invigilating theocrats by whom so atavistic a legal construction would be administered.
So, after the longueur of ten years, America was enmeshed in two unpopular wars and little for which to show. It was a morass through which she couldn’t wade and she couldn’t feasibly win. Understandably, Americans here at home were upset. They had grown weary of what had become an intractably long and increasingly inauspicious war. Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom certainly proved themselves enduring (and, in so doing, certainly preempted any qualms we might’ve raised about their unexpected length—the warning being on the bloody label) but, frankly, they were never ending. At least they didn’t seem to have the promise of a natural nor a tenable end that would’ve made our time there worthwhile.
It’s through this lens America now views its policy and its interests in the Middle East in a general sense. Most, though doubtless not all Americans will find amongst the following three statements one with which they can quietly agree: that the two wars were ill-conceived, that they were improperly executed, or that they were sustained for too long a time with too little having been gained. And if any prominent politician thinks otherwise on the subject, he’s likely to keep it to himself; as recently as 2014, polls have shown that public opinion is largely against our ever having gotten involved in the affairs of these countries, as well as the opinion being generally resigned to the fact that we hadn’t accomplished its mission nor its stated goal—in whatever way that mission might’ve been defined—itself another topic of dispute.
It’s in large part because of our experiences during those interminable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that our level of tolerance for any subsequent Middle Eastern crisis or conflagration is quite high. That is to say, very little will raise us to the point of action and of throwing our hat into a new ring. And while the situation in Syria is of course lamentable, in the very same breath, it’s proven itself to be completely intractable. Intermittently, when the humanitarian crises are brought before our eyes, we are overwhelmed with a torrent of sympathy and an urge to act and to do something, if only not to do stand idly, that might ease the Syrian people’s plight, but rather quickly we realize that we lack the stomach to do anything that might exhaust our resources or worse, imperil our troops abroad.
Simply put, Syria is not of vital strategic interest to the U.S. To admit as much feels despicably callous, but it’s inarguably true. Syria isn’t a country with whom America regularly nor profitably trades. Its natural resources don’t throttle our cars nor do they heat our homes. Tapped from its soil, you’ll find apples, pears, seeds, nuts, and the occasional copper ore—nary a commodity America needs in any significant way. If Syria were in fact an oil-producing country, holding all other things equal, America’s calculation might change. Wary of unstable markets and compromised exportation, America might assert herself more intimately on the ground to protect so vital an interest. That said, Syria hasn’t that combustible nectar of which those lucky Gulf states have so much, and for this reason, Syria’s relevance desiccates in the American foreign policy expert’s eyes.
Tersely put, America’s interests in Syria are three: in order of the interest that is most important to that which is least, they are as follows. The first is a humanitarian interest. To the best of our capability, we must provide humanitarian relief for the millions of Syrians who’ve been ravaged or displaced by this civil unrest. The second is a very narrow militaristic interest. We ought to begin targeting decisive but limited air strikes against the Assad regime when forced by his recidivism to act. The third is a revolutionary interest. We should, as tactfully as is possible, continue to provision the anti-Assad rebels with necessary equipment and arms. Of course, doing so tempts further engagement and war. Doubtless, that is not where our interests lay. Our interests are not in committing more troops to the ground, or in more aggressively responding to Assad with broader attacks, nor in risking a proxy war with Russia and Iran. America’s approach should be rather reactive to the changing conditions on the ground than proactive in attempting to anticipate and obviate them. It may mean that in Syria, Russia’s influence waxes as ours wanes, and that Russia becomes a country to which Syria looks as a modern suzerain, but that will be at little cost to us. Our job now is to succor the wretched, hope for and abet Assad’s departure, and most importantly, patiently to wait.