Western foreign policy suffers from a major flaw: rhetorical entrapment.
What are Western interests in Syria? The question is not often asked because it is not politically correct to mention interests when innocent people are being slaughtered. In these situations only values are of importance. Our values dictate that we strive to save as many lives as possible.
But what do our interests dictate?
Syria is a nuisance for the West. It fights the West’s strategic and economic interests in Lebanon, the Levant and the Mashreq in general. Unlike Iran it does not do so out of prejudice but rather out of pure self-interest. Syria being dependent on the Lebanese economy and strategic position does not have an interest in seeing any other power dominate Lebanon other than Syria. Damascus had no interest in allowing the US to dominate Iraq and thus becoming a major hegemon in the Middle East, and it was a balance of power reasoning that compelled the Assad regime to help jihadists and Iranians in subverting Coalition rule of occupied Iraq. Syria has kept an alliance with Iran for the same reason: because without sharing borders and conflicting spheres of interest, Tehran and Damascus could mutually cooperate to counter-balance Turkey, Iraq and to discuss the Kurd problem. In addition relying on each other also meant becoming more independent from international superpowers like the US or Russia.
Syria is thus a nuisance because it interferes frequently with Western interests. Syria is not however a major threat since unlike Iran, it does not have the capability to project power (soft or hard) in the region and limits itself to acting in its adjacent periphery. It also does not have energetic resources that might influence the behavior of world markets – like Iran.
The West has therefore only one interest in Syria: to alter its foreign policy paradigm. The best way to do this is to break its alliance with Iran so as to make it more dependent on international superpowers and co-opt it into becoming more acquiescent regionally to Western concerns. An extra benefit would be to see Iran’s isolation grow and sufficient barriers to its adventure in Lebanon, be created.
Taking this into account, should the West intervene in Syria? The answer is ‘no’. Syria is not important enough for a financially vulnerable West to spend resources on, especially when Iran is much higher in the list of priorities. That said, why not make a small contribution to the subversion of the regime?
Here is where American and European foreign policy incurs in an error: Washington and Europe should only try and replace the old regime if there were sufficient guarantees the new regime would be loyal. At this point in time there are none since much of the rebellion is carried out by jihadists and much of Syria’s Sunni majority is by default anti-Western.
The subversion of Syria should serve the one and only purpose of forcing Bashar al-Assad to negotiate. It is not his regime which matters replacing but merely his foreign policy.
Yet the West will not negotiate and the reason is simple rhetorical entrapment. Assad and his regime have by now been so vilified that any political compromise with it would be politically damaging to all the Western leaders who helpless and unwilling to intervene, chose to attack with words instead.
The pattern is not new: during the Second World War, Hitler outsmarted the Franco-British strategy of setting Germany and Russia against each other by securing a non-aggression pact with the USSR and by attacking the West first. Instead of learning from Hitler’s example, the West refused to make a separate peace with the Reich and paid a heavy price for it: eastern Europe under Soviet orbit for the next 40 years. With Japan too, in spite of the fact that the militarist regime was not as ideological as Nazi Germany, no dialogue was opened and unconditional surrender was the only exit offered to Tokyo. The result was the resort to atomic weapons, the cost was a quarter of a million lives.
Since, the tendency has endured with Western demands for humanitarian and democratic principles to be upheld to impossibly high standards and resulting in military interventions by the West in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, which were ultimately counter-productive for its interests. The unwillingness to compromise is recurrently a consequence of populism and demagoguery in justifying military expenditure and intervention, to Western citizens. Instead of justifying them with pragmatic interests, politicians with a 4/8 year policy-making horizon, prefer to justify them manicheistically, making use of a Western fundamental rights and liberties narrative which confronted with violations of those rights automatically confers merit to action (“we have to do something”) and finally warrants intervention. This is nothing but short-termism and is now standard operating procedure in spite of some honourable exceptions such as President George H. W. Bush.
This tendency is a disservice to Western interests which often reaches the absurd of empowering adversaries of the West against Western allies.
It is a tendency also brought about by Western civilisational individualism, which sees the individual as the base of society (rather than family, clan or ethnicity), therefore requiring equal universal [individual] human rights which are reflected in foreign policy by an unreasonable demand for compliance with values endogenous only to the West.
A responsible and skillful politician would have negotiated a political solution to the conflict in Syria months ago. Populists in election year will stick to demands for unconditional surrender.
The West plays a dangerous game for not only does it force extreme outcomes – instead of middle of the road ones – but it also will be compelled to systematically trust the challengers of the regime: every regime has flaws in its ‘good society’ record – be these in democratic practices or humanitarian standards – whereas the challengers are by definition starting anew and are therefore as innocent as a newborn infant – a politically convenient tabula rasa…