Is it possible for all sides to lose a war? That is a question the Syrian civil war may just answer. Over the last couple of days, stories that are dispiriting but also illuminating have been streaming out of reporting on the conflict. In President Obama’s much-talked about interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the president says of his Syria policy: “I am haunted by what’s happened,” though he added: “I am not haunted by my decision not to engage in another Middle Eastern war.”
The phrase “engage in another Middle Eastern war” isn’t crystal clear. It could mean a full invasion and occupation. Or he could simply mean that virtually any noticeable involvement constitutes engagement. To the president, it seems to be a combination of both, as he continued:
It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.
Such straw men are never far when Obama is speaking. Perhaps it’s “magical thinking” to say that if we financed the opposition earlier Assad would be gone and there would be peace. But the president’s critics aren’t saying that. They are saying we could have turned the tide against Assad; not that a cash infusion would wave a magic wand and make Assad disappear. But you can tell that this is how the president’s mind works, and it helps explain why his foreign policy is such a mess. Obama lacks patience and strategic thinking. He acts as though difficulty precludes victory. And that strategic weakness has been exploited.
A pair of stories in the UK Telegraph draw attention to the strategy gap. The paper reports that Bashar al-Assad accurately gauged the West’s (understandable) hesitation to do anything that could inadvertently empower Islamist terrorists in Syria:
The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has funded and co-operated with al-Qaeda in a complex double game even as the terrorists fight Damascus, according to new allegations by Western intelligence agencies, rebels and al-Qaeda defectors.
Jabhat al-Nusra, and the even more extreme Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), the two al-Qaeda affiliates operating in Syria, have both been financed by selling oil and gas from wells under their control to and through the regime, intelligence sources have told The Daily Telegraph.
Rebels and defectors say the regime also deliberately released militant prisoners to strengthen jihadist ranks at the expense of moderate rebel forces. The aim was to persuade the West that the uprising was sponsored by Islamist militants including al-Qaeda as a way of stopping Western support for it.
The allegations by Western intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are in part a public response to demands by Assad that the focus of peace talks due to begin in Switzerland tomorrow be switched from replacing his government to co-operating against al-Qaeda in the “war on terrorism”.
If true—and a follow-up story lends credence to it—Assad has very skillfully played the West. But the headline of that follow-up story might give the West too much credit, failing to learn the lesson of its own revelations: “Syria’s duplicity over al-Qaeda means West will not trust Assad.” Syria’s duplicity means the West should not trust Assad. But Western leaders, in agreeing to the Russian chemical-weapons proposal to partner with Assad, may not have given themselves much of a choice at this point.
Which means ultimately they—the West—will lose by being made to look feckless in pronouncing that Assad must go and also having Islamist terror networks thrive in place of moderate rebels partially because of—not in spite of—the West’s decision to sit this one out. Assad will lose too, because terrorist groups will not willingly give up lucrative real estate in Syria, instigating a war of attrition against Assad. If Assad ultimately loses, so does Russia. The moderate rebels will lose for all the obvious reasons, including that they basically already have lost. Come to think of it, perhaps there will be a winner after all: thus far, everything’s coming up al-Qaeda.