No early war in Syria, US would ‘overstretch’

There is a widespread view that the USA’s political pressure on Syria means war on Syria comes next. That is the view of 60 percent of Americans, opinion polls say. Their reasons for thinking that this is the next war are partly due to US accusations that Syria helped Iraq during the war, that it is sheltering high-ranking Iraqis and that it has stockpiled chemical weapons. Beyond that, the key to US policy is that Gulf War II was not just a sequel to Gulf War I. The aim of the war in 1990-91 was to restore the status quo, which is why the USA did not advance on Baghdad and did not aid the Kurdish and southern uprisings. The war aim this time includes disarmament and regime change as steppingstones on the way toward radically changing the Middle East by force and pressure. Stated at its most fulsome by New York Times columnist William Safire and former CIA head James Woolsey, the mission is to bring Western-style democracy to the Middle East and America is «on the march.» However, there will not be any offensive against Syria anytime soon, for which we should all be truly grateful. There are three reasons why the USA should not do it, and two why it will not. The reasons why the USA should not do it are, firstly, because it would be illegal and illegitimate. There is no history of Syrian defiance of the UN Security Council. Second and consequently, war on Syria would be a bridge too far for bridge-builder Blair, just when Germany and France are seeking his aid in finding a new equilibrium in the transatlantic alliance. If US-European cooperation continues on a downward spiral, there will be economic consequences for both the EU and the USA because of the likely effect on world trade arrangements. Cooperation on the ground in Afghanistan, the Balkans and, indeed, Iraq would also be hurt. At worst, NATO would face terminal irrelevance and the current architecture of world security could be irreparably damaged. The third reason against war on Syria is that the USA would be taking another and even more serious risk with stability in the region. A war on Syria in the coming months would not be a strategic move but a roll of the dice. The biggest American claim against Syria will not be weapons of mass destruction or aid to the ex-regime in Iraq. It will be Syria’s support for terrorist groups. Because of that, there would be no disguising that a war against Syria is a war in support of Israel. US missionary zeal might be fired by such a thought but it is extremely dangerous. Escalation in Israel and war in Lebanon are the two most likely short-term results, followed by destabilization of Jordan and a probable fracture in the 25-year US alliance with Egypt. Also at risk would be the Turkish government, caught between a suspicious establishment, sentiment on the streets and the USA. And to the east, Pakistan’s stability would be further threatened. Those reasons might or might not appeal to the US administration. However, there are two reasons they will respond to: The first is the problem of overstretching – not in war-fighting capabilities, but in postwar tasks. The USA has unfinished business in Afghanistan where fighting continues; it may face the same prospect in Iraq. It can fight the war alone if need be, but will not be able to manage the peace alone. The second reason why it will not go to war against Syria is because it does not need to. It can use the demonstration effect of the Iraq war to get some of what it wants from the Assad government. Its aims probably have more to do with concessions about Israel/Palestine and the perhaps-to-be-published «road map» to peace than with short-term demands about weapons and Iraqi fugitives. With or without another war, however, the US agenda in the Middle East is far from concluded, and for the region, as for the EU, the challenge is to find a way to keep a working relationship with the world’s superpower. This is a challenge that, whatever you feel about US policy, it is dangerous to ignore. ((1) Dan Smith, former director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo, is an Onassis Foundation senior scholar and a visiting fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.)