Commentary No. 353, May 15, 2013
"Syria: No Win for the West"
Nothing illustrates more the limitations of Western power than the internal controversy its elites are having in public about what the United States in particular and western European states should be doing about the civil war in Syria. I shall call the two positions those of the interveners and those of the prudent. Each accuses the other, and with some vehemence, of urging policies that will result in dire negative consequences for U.S. and west European geopolitical power. The thing is that both are right. Whatever the United States and western European states do will in fact have dire negative consequences for them. This is a perfect lose-lose situation for the dominant forces in the world.
Let us look at the arguments being proferred by each group. Time magazine actually asked two major figures - Zbigniew Brzezinski and John McCain - to lay out their opposing arguments in two op-eds in the May 9 issue. Brzezinski's title is "Syria: Intervention Will Only Make it Worse." McCain's title is "Syria: Intervention Is in Our Interest."
Brzezinski argues this way. "The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war in a volatile region whose potential to spread and directly threaten American interests would only be increased by U.S. intervention." Ergo what? "The only solution is to seek Russia's and China's support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be 'persuaded' not to participate."
That argument doesn't convince McCain at all. Rather, he says: "All of the terrible consequences those against intervening predicted would happen if we intervened happened because we did not." Ergo what? "For America, our interests are our values, and our values are our interests."
Another major Establishment figure who called for prudence was Fareed Zakaria in his op-ed in the Washington Post also on May 9. As we know. President Obama talked of a "red line" concerning the use of chemical weapons which, if passed, would require U.S. active intervention. There has been much debate about whether or not chemical weapons have been used and, if so, who used them? Obama has taken the position that the story is not yet clear and was attacked by McCain and others for undermining "U.S. credibility."
Zakaria doesn't buy the argument. He says that Obama's remarks may have been too loose, but "one does not correct for careless language through careless military action." He too calls for a political accord among the parties. Otherwise, Assad's ouster (he calls it the "first phase") will be followed by a "second phase" which "could be ever bloodier - with the United States in the middle." Ergo what? "Military intervention will not end Syria's humanitarian nightmare. It will only change its composition."
This is not at all plausible for the editorial writers of Le Monde. They look at the visit of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow as a betrayal. They call it "Western renunciation" of the demand made last August by the United States, Great Britain, France, and Germany that the resignation of Assad be the prerequisite for intra-Syrian political discussions.
Of the Western powers, it has been France that has taken the most overtly "interventionist" line. But when France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius gave an interview to Le Monde on May 9, he was asked whether France was not now taking a "wait-and-see position"? He seemed to be uncomfortable in his response, pointing to the fact that France could not resolve the situation by itself. He then outlined four orientations, the first of which was to "continue to push for a political solution," endorsing to some extent Kerry's trip to Moscow.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain has been another of the loudest critics of Assad. But he is noticeably shy about any military commitment. He made a now famous statement that he was not proposing any British "boots on the ground" in Syria. It seems no western government is ready to put "boots on the ground." Even McCain does not advocate this. He merely says that it won't be necessary because the United States can succeed in its objectives simply by means of a combination of a "no fly" zone, the use of drones, and military assistance to the rebels. However, the U.S. military has said repeatedly that a "no fly" zone is quite a major operation, one that in the end might necessitate the use of "boots on the ground."
Meanwhile, both the Assad government and the rebel forces have reacted coolly, if not with hostility, to the proposals that there be talks under the joint patronage of the United States and Russia. To make the situation even worse from the U.S./Western point of view, the leader of the rebel group they favor, the National Opposition Coalition (NOC), Moaz al-Khatib, resigned in general frustration with both his fellow rebels and with the western governments.
One consequence seems to have been that some of the rebels heretofore affiliated with the NOC Free Syrian Army have defected to the al-Qaeda group, Jabhat al-Nusra. This group is the nemesis of the western governments and is officially labeled by them a terrorist group. This fact reinforces of course the camp of the prudent.
So, everyone inside Syria is going their own way, fulminating at each other and with the western powers for not supporting them. The United States (and western Europe) have no good options, and their elites will therefore continue to shout at each other, each suggesting policies that will in fact be ineffective.
The civil war goes on. The toll in lives inside Syria is very great and will be greater. The refugees are inundating neighboring countries, especially Jordan. The war is already spreading and could get totally out of control. It is not at all impossible that the interveners win out, and the whole of the Middle East finds itself in one gigantic, uncontrollable, endless war.
The key phrase is "out of control." What the United States (and western Europe) want to do is "control" the situation. They will not be able to do it. Hence the screams of the "interventionists" and the foot-dragging of the "prudent." It is a lose-lose for the west, while not being at the same time a "win" for people in the Middle East.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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Last Updated: 5/15/13