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What Does the US Really Mean By Syria?

Sep 17 , 2013
  • Jin Liangxiang

    Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institute of Int'l Studies

The agreement between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov on September 14 certainly means an opportunity of peace. However, it by no way means the conclusion of the crisis. Not only the agreement framework itself listed conditions, under which the US might take military actions, but also American media is vehemently talking about the high possibility that Bshar Assad will hide the chemical weapons. It seems that the US is preparing both legally and at media for a postponed war. In Syria, the US certainly has much more sophisticated calculations rather than mere chemical weapons.

It is naïve to think that the US has not learned the lessons of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. On the contrary, Washington did learn. Otherwise, Barack Obama would have already gone to war without authorization from Congress. The reason why he went to the congress is simple. He does not want to shoulder the responsibility of the unexpected negative consequences of the potential strike, as exemplified in Libya. He is very clear about the outcome.

It is equally naïve to believe that the advocacy for military action is really out of concern over chemical weapons. Though the US did present evidence showing Bashar Assad’s forces using chemical weapons, it is not sufficiently persuasive. Why should the dominant forces use chemical weapons? And, history tells that the US has never intervened in the case of chemical weapons. In the 1980s, the US actually turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons to kill more than ten thousand Iranians.

Washington has its own reasons to intervene for the sake of Syria. The last month witnessed the success of Bashar Assad’s forces in reoccupying territories crucial for the prospect of the conflict. By seizing Qusair, the town bordering Lebanon, by which the opposition is logistically connected with outside, the regime has become more and more confident in winning the battle, while the armed oppositions felt frustrated about the future.

For Americans, Syria’s internal war is not one between good guys and bad guys but between bad guys. They neither like the regime, since it is allied with Iran, nor like the opposition since a significant part of it come from extreme Islamists. But the problem is that if the opposition is totally defeated, who can they expect to overthrow the regime? How can the US continue the game?

Before an acceptable force comes out of the conflict, Washington’s policy is to wait and see. Barack Obama proclaimed that the coming war should be a limited one. The reasons are numerous, and one of them is to keep a nuanced balance between the regime’s forces and the armed opposition. Therefore, Barack Obama’s administration will depend on the ability of the armed opposition to survive the regime’s strike.

To reverse Syria’s domestic dynamics might be the first impetus. But its Iran strategy is a more important part of the potential military intervention. By advocating for a Syria intervention because of chemical weapons, Washington has sent signals to Tehran; that is, the US has zero tolerance for Iran’s nuclear weapon program, and will be ready to take all measures including a military one if Iran crosses a red line.

That is the reason why politicians from Barack Obama to John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have frequently emphasized the significance of the potential Syria action in resolving Iran’s nuclear problem. Washington believes that a strike on Syria will soon push Tehran for its compliance in Iran nuclear issue.

Dennis Ross, who used to serve as President Clinton’s special Middle East coordinator, wrote openly in the Washington Post that blocking action in Syria makes an attack on Iran more likely. He argued that if the US would not take actions in Syria, Tehran’s hardliners would feel that there is only an economic cost to pursuing nuclear weapons but no military danger.

Tehran is not the only audience for potential military action. Israel might be the second most important audience. Israel has always said that if Washington is reluctant to act toughly and resolutely on Iran’s nuclear activities, it will act alone. Through potential intervention in Syria, Washington intends to assure Israel that it will deprive Iran of its nuclear weapons so long as Iran crosses a red line.

China and Russia are also the target audiences. In the last years, China and Russia have jointly vetoed three UN Security Resolutions on external intervention, which more or less undermined the US image as the sole dominant power in the region. Through Syria intervention, the US intends to signal that it still dominates the dynamics of the region.

All in all, it seems that it is not relevant whether the Syrian government really used the chemical weapons or not. What is really important is that the US needs to deliver information to relevant actors and the world at large. Maybe, that is just what we call politics. For the US, the chaos and the humanitarian crisis of post-Qaddafi Libya might not be more important a calculation than these important signals.

US policy toward Syria certainly produces negative implications on great power relations. China-US relations will be no exception. Bonnie Glaser, a senior expert on US-China relations of CSIS, believes that it is unlikely that China would allow a strike by the US on Syria to turn into a cause célèbre in the relationship. However, the potential military action, even if not taking place, will undermine China-US relations to some degree.

The Middle East issues remained an important area where China can have a new type of great power relationship with the US. In this new type of great power relations, China first means to cooperate with the US, despite its differences. A military action, or even a threat, will further undermine the stability of the region, which China depends on for energy and markets. Though China might not be able to stop US actions, it will feel further frustrated with its intention of cooperation.

Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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