Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 14, 2013

Jack Segal: Policy dilemmas in Syria

BY JACK SEGAL, Columnist
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---- — I was recently up in Northport helping my mother-in-law, Bette, take down her Christmas decorations. A newspaper lying on the floor caught my eye. It carried the headline, "President Says No Intervention in Syria Called for Yet."

Syria. The U.N. estimates that the fighting there has claimed 60,000 lives, sent more than a million into refugee camps and forced countless others to leave their homes. The reaction of the international community has been to condemn the murderous excesses of the Assad regime, but also to decline to embrace the opposition. Why?

Syria's opposition is quite unlike the one that arose in Libya. In Syria, hundreds of tribal clans, armed gangs and Muslim fundamentalist groups are fighting against the Assad regime. Of these, the most capable are the troops of the Al-Nasra Front — a group linked to al-Qaida and labeled by the United States and Europe as a terrorist organization.

On the regime's side are 800,000 civil servants who owe their livelihood to Assad's Alewite sect (about 14 percent of the population) and the Christian minority (13 percent). They fear a bloodbath if the rebels take over under a Sunni and, even worse, fundamentalist banner. (Or should I say, another bloodbath?)

Backing the regime are the Russians (who have a naval base and a long history of cooperation with the Assad family), the Chinese, and the Iranians (who seem to be using the conflict to destabilize the region).

On the side of the opposition are the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey — all pursuing different agendas.

The U.S. so far has said, "Assad must go." But we've done little beyond providing humanitarian relief to refugees who've made it to Turkey and voting in favor of NATO deploying Patriot air defense missiles to eastern Turkey.

Why U.S. reticence? Because while Assad is clearly a horrible despot, the rebel forces aligned against him could be even worse. We have refrained from committing military forces to this muddled conflict and rightly so. As history has shown, sending U.S. forces into such conflicts often leads to disaster and rarely, if ever, solves the problem. Our worst single loss of life since Vietnam was the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 when 241 American servicemen died in a suicide bombing. That lesson is well-learned in the Pentagon.

What can we expect in the months ahead? The UN's extremely competent negotiator, Lakthar Brahimi, predicts 5,000 killed per month with no end in sight. Spillover of the conflict to Lebanon and Jordan is already happening; unrest could easily inflame the region. It is doubtful Assad will step down and, even if he did, the resultant power struggle could go on for years. Sadly, it appears that this is a conflict we cannot solve — one that must play out to the bitter end.

Oh, yes. That headline? It was from an old newspaper stuffed inside a box of Christmas baubles. The paper was The Daily Mining Gazette of Houghton, dated Aug. 21, 1957. The yellowed pages described how President Eisenhower was under political pressure to commit U.S. troops to Syria to thwart burgeoning communist influence there. Ike decided not to commit the troops. Good decision? Yes, but what Ike decided instead was to fund a CIA coup attempt in Syria. That coup attempt failed and our ties with Syria since then have been virtually nonexistent — one of the reasons we have so few options today.

Jack Segal is a retired U.S. diplomat who served in the Middle East, Russia and Afghanistan. He teaches extended education courses at Northwestern Michigan College.