By Samson Yuchi Mai
Since its inception in the midst of the Arab Spring two years ago, the ongoing Syrian civil war has resulted in nearly 100,000 casualties and displaced millions. It has evolved into a much wider regional conflict, with Lebanon-based Hezbollah supporting the Assad regime and Al-Qaeda affiliates such as the Al-Nusra Front fighting on the side of the Syrian rebels. In the meantime, Iran and Russia have thrown their support behind the Assad regime with financial aid, military equipment, intelligence and political backing. Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states have done the same for the rebel side. In addition, violence has spilled over to neighboring countries like Turkey and Israel. The stakes in this conflict are high. The outcome will not only dictate who eventually controls Syria but also the balance of power in the region. Considering what’s at stake, it is astounding that the Obama administration has taken a piecemeal and slow approach to the civil war. This piece is meant to offer of an analytical critique of Obama’s strategy toward Syria while comparing it with the actions undertaken by our rivals in the region.
The recent decision by the administration to provide small arms to Syrian rebels is the latest misstep in dealing with the Syrian conflict. The move does little to change the situation for various reasons which I will elaborate on later. What is needed from the Obama administration is a coherent strategy for the Syrian conflict. The strategy so far has been marked by lofty policy goals without the means of which to achieve them. A Syria strategy must have a clear definitive goal backed up by strong action. Early into the conflict, Obama had stated that the goal was the fall of the Assad regime and called for Assad to step down from power in August 2011. The policies and the actions of the White House must reflect that goal. He initially allowed the CIA to send weapons through the Persian Gulf states but later retracted them when the more successful factions of the Syrian rebellion turned out to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Now, he is reversing his policy once more. To borrow from Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson, the Obama policy toward Syria has been one of half measures and “flip followed by flop followed by flip.” Not having a coherent strategy toward Syria will not only hurt American national interests in the region but in the rest of the world as well.
So what will the shipment of small arms achieve? The decision comes too late and will do little to change the situation. Some figures in the media say this is meant to persuade the Assad regime to the negotiating table. This is a ridiculous presumption because CIA analysts have said that US arms would not “materially change” the military balance. Rebel fighters on the ground have repeatedly asked for heavy weapons, especially those that can counter Syrian government’s advantages in armor and air superiority. This calls for greater US involvement in the conflict. Some politicians, such as Senator John McCain, have called for a no-fly zone while others have advocated a limited strategic bombing campaign. There are some feasibility issues and possible negative repercussions of such actions, but these actions do have a past precedent for achieving policy objectives. Towards the end of the Vietnam War, President Nixon ordered a massive bombing campaign in North Vietnam after peace talks had collapsed. The campaign brought the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table and led to the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty, which ended American involvement in the war. A similar action in Syria would send a clear message to the Syrian government while instilling confidence in our allies in the region.
Another mistake committed by Obama administration was allowing the window of opportunity to pass by in this conflict, with two years having gone by without any decisive action. At the beginning of the conflict, the moderate and secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) was at the forefront of the rebellion. The United States had the chance to solidify the position of the FSA in its effort to oust Assad. But the Obama administration only committed to giving non-military aid to the rebels. Although a small contingent of military advisers were sent to Jordan to train and advise the FSA, this was not enough to turn the tide of battle. At the same time, regional rivals such as Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Al Qaeda have become embroiled in Syria. Russia has sent heavy arms and anti-air defenses to bolster the Assad regime. Both Iran and Hezbollah have contributed fighters, with the former recently dispatching a 4000-strong force of elite Revolutionary Guards and the latter playing a key role in the capture of al-Qusayr, a town of strategic importance for the rebels. Meanwhile, the FSA has gradually been pushed aside by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front. With its failure to act decisively, the Obama administration lost the window of opportunity, allowing regional rivals to capitalize.
Time and again, various officials of the Obama administration have expressed desire for the removal of Assad, the formation of a democratic Syria, the end of bloodshed and the arming of rebels among other objectives. What has the administration done to achieve the stated goals? Not much. Take the case of “red line” drawn up by President Obama. He stated that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime on Syrian rebels would constitute a red line for the United States, implying an overwhelming response if the Assad regime indeed crossed the line. When a definitive confirmation of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons reached Washington, the Obama administration’s response was to merely supply small arms to the rebels. Such a response was long overdue, especially when nearly 100,000 people have died since the war started. The response highlights the administration’s preference for cautious policies in spite of its grandiose proclamations, something that could alienate allies and tarnish national prestige.
To make matters worse, the lack of a strong response to the usage of chemical weapons could give the Assad regime reason to believe that future actions of similar scope would go unpunished, emboldening its efforts to quash resistance. There is also a case to be made that “if the US does not act in Syria, its Asian allies will conclude that America has lost the will be to be a great power.” While the Obama administration is accelerating its Asia pivot, how it responds to the Syria conflict may dictate the success of the strategic shift to Asia. If the United States does not act on its word in one part of the world, why would it live up to its word in another part of the globe? Both our allies and enemies will draw lessons from the Obama administration’s handling of the Syria crisis.
Let’s contrast the Syria strategy of the United States with the Syria strategy of Iran and Russia. The reason why I am comparing the strategies of our adversaries is to show the effectiveness of a coherent strategy compared to one that is ad hoc. The ad hoc strategy pursued by the administration has also given Iran and Russia the green light to pursue more aggressive actions in relation to the Syrian civil war.
Iran sees Syria as an important ally in the geopolitical struggles against Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states over influence in the Middle East. Syria also provides supply routes for which Iran funnels equipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Ali Akbar Velayanti, a senior foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said:
Syria is the golden ring of resistance against Israel, and if it weren’t for Syria active government the country would become like Qatar or Kuwait. Iran is not prepared to lose this golden counterweight. 
Another high-ranking official, Hojjat al-Eslam Mehdi Taeb of the Revolutionary Guards, said:
Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and seeks to take over Syria or [Iran’s] Khuzestan, the priority lies in maintaining Syria, because if we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. However, if we lose Syria we can’t be able to hold Tehran. 
Syria is a cornerstone of Iranian foreign policy. The main goal of Iranian policy toward Syria is to preserve its interests and to counter the Gulf States’, United States’ and Israel’s influence in the region. Although Iran prefers to keep Asaad in power, Iran’s bottom line is to have an Alawite regime in Syria.  This will complicate a negotiating process as it is high unlikely that the rebels will agree to an Alawite-dominated government. Thus, holding all things constant, a negotiated settlement is almost impossible.
According to a testimony by Tony Badran, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Iran will spare no expenses to preserve the Assad regime. The Iranians have backed this up in the ways described earlier. Our adversary in the region has shown more resolve than the American government. What kind of message does this send to other countries?
Meanwhile, Russia has also played an active role in propping up the Syrian regime. It has made it clear at the UN Security Council that any call for Assad to step down is a red line for Russia. Russia has invested $4 billion in arms sales and another $20 billion in infrastructure and energy investments in Syria. However, financial investments are not the main concern for the Russians. Geopolitical concerns are what motivates Russia’s stance on Syria. The rebellion in Syria may serve as an inspiration for disaffected minorities in Russia. Russia is sending a message to these groups that it will deal with them in a similar fashion if they dare to rebel. Another stake Russia holds in Syria is the deep water port of Tartus. It is the only military facility outside of Russia for its armed forces and serves as an important port-of-call for the ships of the Black Sea Fleet. The strongest consideration for the Russian government is keeping Syria as a counterweight to American influence in the region. This has been the hallmark of its foreign policy under Putin and Medvedev. The Syrian Civil War has evolved into a proxy war in which both Iran and Russia are testing the limits in which the United States will defend its interests in the region.
For Syria, there is only one viable option right now, which is going all in short of putting boots on the ground. The weak measures undertaken by the Obama administration should be discontinued and be replaced with measures designed to make an immediate and decisive impact. Inaction will result in a stalemate in which thousands will continue to die while the Assad regime slowly retakes lost territory. Meanwhile, Iran, Russia and other regional rivals of the United States will see their positions entrenched. Such an end result is not in the interests of the United States and requires strong action to prevent. Any American action must make it clear that the United States will do whatever is necessary to look after the interests of the United States and of its allies in the region. Taking a more aggressive policy toward Syria is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
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1. Fulton, Will, Joseph Holliday, and Sam Wyer. “Iranian Strategy in Syria.” Institute for the Study of War and American Enterprise Institute. May 2013.