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Did Obama Make the Wrong Call on Syria?

A jarring cover fronts next week’s Economist: “Syria: The Death of a Country” is the headline article inside. The whole piece is worth the read, but here’s a juicy bit that backs up what Via Meadia has been arguing for some time now.

… President Barack Obama has suggested that saving lives alone is not a sufficient ground for military action [in Syria]. Having learnt in Afghanistan and Iraq how hard it is to impose peace, America is fearful of being sucked into the chaos that Mr Assad has created. Mr Obama was elected to win economic battles at home. He believes that a weary America should stay clear of yet another foreign disaster.

That conclusion, however understandable, is mistaken. As the world’s superpower, America is likely to be sucked into Syria eventually. Even if the president can resist humanitarian arguments, he will find it hard to ignore his country’s interests.

If the fight drags on, Syria will degenerate into a patchwork of warring fiefs. Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction: unlike, say, the 15-year civil war in Lebanon, Syria’s disintegration threatens them all.

About a fifth of the rebels—and some of the best organised—are jihadists. They pose a threat to moderate Syrians, including Sunnis, and they could use lawless territory as a base for international terror. If they menace Israel across the Golan Heights, Israel will protect itself fiercely, which is sure to inflame Arab opinion. A divided Syria could tear Lebanon apart, because the Assads will stir up their supporters there. Jordan, poor and fragile, will be destabilised by refugees and Islamists. Oil-rich, Shia-majority Iraq can barely hold itself together; as Iraqi Sunnis are drawn into the fray, divisions there will only deepen. Coping with the fallout from Syria, including Mr Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, could complicate the aim of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

President Obama had an opportunity to intervene in Syria before it spiralled so far out of control. Indeed, that was precisely what a number of his top military and political advisors urged the President to do: arm the moderate rebels and work with allies to boot out Assad.

Now, however, Syria is in a much more complex position. And America’s interests are threatened. The best-equipped and most determined fighters who have risen to become Assad’s most dangerous enemies are not America’s friends; moderate rebels are few and weak. Israel has been drawn unwillingly into the war, protecting itself by preventing Hezbollah from seizing powerful weapons.

VM doesn’t suggest that had Obama acted all would now be well in the Levant. But it’s clear that as the Syrian war drags on, the likelihood grows of it dragging in the U.S. and/or Israel increases in one way or another, despite Obama’s best efforts. As the Economist notes darkly, “Mr Obama wanted to avoid Syria, but Syria will come and get him.”

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