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Bromund: U.S. Syria policy has no staying power

A rebel fighter aims his weapon as he

A rebel fighter aims his weapon as he stands amidst snow during clashes with Syrian pro-government forces in the Salaheddin neighbourhood of Syria's northern city of Aleppo. (Dec. 11, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

President Obama has shown no urgent desire to get involved in Syria. While interventionists on both the right and the left -- from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to UN Ambassador Samantha Power -- have urged a more assertive U.S. policy, Obama has been content to let the Syrian factions fight it out.

Yes, the White House said in June it had authorized the arming of Syria's rebels. But those weapons were never delivered. Undoubtedly, the emergence of the Islamic Front made it harder for the United States to find moderates to support.

But the administration's guiding belief is that the United States will be worse off no matter who wins the war: The rebels will bring radical Islam, while Bashar Assad is aligned with Iran. U.S. policy is thus for the war to continue, while we tilt first to one side and then the other to ensure that no one wins too fast.

This is a plausible, if cold-blooded, strategy. But it has a flaw: Sooner or later, this war will end. So the United States must decide who it wants to win. And the victor must not be the Assad regime. The dangers of an Islamist takeover are undeniable. But Assad also has Islamist allies based in Tehran. And unlike the Syrian rebels, Tehran's radicals have a nuclear weapons program.

In 2002, President George W. Bush rightly warned of the grave dangers lurking "at the perilous crossroads of radicalism and technology." After 9/11, the risks of conventional Islamist terrorism are clear. But the power of atomic weapons is incalculably greater, and Assad is the face of that danger. He must lose.

The administration's long-war approach in Syria would make sense if it were part of a broader strategy to impose costs on Iran. Supporting Assad is expensive: It forces Iran to expend money, men and reputation. Tehran does not have an infinite supply of these, and while Western sanctions were fully in place, every extra effort hurt the regime. No single cost was crushing, but collectively, they added up.

We do not talk much about the strategy of cost imposition. That's too bad, because it's an approach that plays to our strengths. It relies on the fact that we are a rich democracy, while our enemies are autocracies that have trouble combining economic growth and political stability over the long run. If we can find ways to make life expensive and hard for them, we come out ahead.

Cost imposition can be military. By bombing Germany during World War II, the U.S. air power forced German fighters to come up where they could be destroyed. The impact of the bombing was real, but the destruction of the Luftwaffe was decisive.

But much cost imposition is less dramatic. Throughout the Cold War, the West sought to restrict trade with the Soviet Union to deny it hard currency and advanced technology. That effort was never fully successful, but cost imposition does not have to be perfect to make life harder for the other side.

By going for a nuclear deal with Iran, the administration has made nonsense of its Syria policy. With the easing of the world's sanctions, Tehran will be able to bear its Assad-related costs.

The broader problem is that -- from the "pivot" to the Pacific, to its anxious negotiations with Iran, to its desperate insistence that Israel still holds the key to Middle East peace -- the administration has shown a lack of regional commitment coupled with a desire for quick results.

Cost imposition requires patience and commitment. It relies on the long-term weaknesses of our enemies to work. But under Obama, the United States has shown no staying power. This approach has not merely landed us with a raft of incoherent Middle Eastern policies. It is lethal to any strategy.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.