Despite a flurry of diplomatic engagement, Syria appears no closer to a negotiated political settlement. In fact, the prospects for a “Geneva II” meeting proposed by the United States and Russia appear grim, with a delay now announced. While some may consider the lack of progress a failure of diplomacy, others are beginning to consider it an adequate interim situation, with a stalemate possibly even benefiting the United States. It may be tempting to consider the confrontation between al-Qaeda-linked organizations and Iranian-backed forces as a mutual depletion of assets, sparing the United States and the West. Similarly, Iran’s costly investment in the Bashar al-Assad regime’s survival can be interpreted as advancing U.S. interests. But such reasoning is flawed.
First, we should consider the ghastly toll in terms of continued human suffering in Syria. But even if pure realpolitik applied, there are several problems with this view. Allowing Sunni and Shi‘a extremist militants to neutralize the dangers that they both represent to U.S. interests was an approach reluctantly adopted by the United States in Iraq. However, both extremist camps came out of that period stronger, and an Iraqi common national ground has effectively been obliterated.
The primary fallacy in the concept of al-Qaeda’s self-consumption in Syria is its failure to evaluate the modus operandi of this international terrorist network. There has not been a reallocation of assets on the part of al-Qaeda for the Syrian conflict but instead a massive self-generation of new assets. Many of the foreign extremist fighters in Syria are new recruits, often self-financed. Those who do not lose their lives in Syria will return to their homelands with newly acquired skills and an even more deeply radicalized ideology. Syria is not the burial ground of the next generation of terrorists. It is its incubator.
Hezbollah, too, is far from being depleted by its foray into Syria. The roster of Hezbollah “martyrs” in Syria displays an inordinate number of young recruits, taken from integrated villages in Lebanon and thrown into Syria’s sectarian cauldron. Initial reports of commendable Hezbollah actions have given way to video clips of these same fighters engaged in summary executions of the wounded, among other atrocities, in a heightened sectarian atmosphere. Lebanon, it seems, will soon be poised for its own civil conflict of the kind that has afflicted Iraq and Syria.
It is hard to believe that these trends are not being considered by proponents of this “double-containment” approach to Sunni and Shi’a extremism. The Obama administration, in contrast to its predecessors with the Iran-Iraq War and post-2003 Iraq conflict, may not be actively seeking double containment, but is doing little to prevent it from occurring. Indeed, the references to double containment mentioned to the press by White House officials may be little more than another means to rationalize Obama’s hands-off approach.
The Obama administration’s drift on Syria, as opposed to its more focused approach to Libya, stems undoubtedly from differences between the two situations. The action in Libya was possible under the cover of a quasi-international consensus. Russia has ensured that will not happen on Syria. More importantly, if Libya was a relatively low-risk, high-reward proposition, Syria, with its complex terrain, population size, and composition, is a high-risk low-reward proposition. But as costly and cumbersome as it feels to resolve it today, not doing so will entail paying a far higher price tomorrow.