What Syria portends

Phillip Lohaus Research Fellow, Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies
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The timing of the Syrian Revolution could not have been better for Bashar al-Assad. During the Bush administration, he softened his approach with the United States for fear of facing the same fate as Saddam Hussein. Times have changed. Although Assad may lose sleep over the opposition groups that continue to wrest large chunks of Syria from his control, he can rest easy knowing that the U.S. is distracted. In the past, he would have worried about the U.S. taking decisive action. Now, however, he can use the time given him by U.S. failure to engage in the crisis to establish a firm grasp of the Syrian coast or to ensure that his loyalists are well-placed throughout the country. The U.S. is now working with its NATO allies to position Patriot missiles along the Syrian border. But this will merely prevent the conflict from spreading to Turkey, and will do little to effect change within Syria’s borders. In a different era, Assad might have been gone by now. But now, he has time and room to maneuver. For the United States, it is a case of less money, more problems.

There are many reasons for the tepid U.S. reaction to the crisis in Syria. War weariness and foreign involvement complicate the situation, and there is no obvious militant group or heroic figure behind which to throw our support. Even if there were, though, it is not clear that the U.S. would be in a position to support them. As evidenced by a letter sent from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Senate and House leadership on Wednesday, sections of the NDAA would “impede DoD’s ability to effectively plan for options related to Syria.” The nature of the cuts proposed by the administration, however, might have a similar impact, and would reduce the options available to the U.S. to support the ouster of Assad.

The hands of the United States are somewhat tied until a clear picture emerges of what the defense resources base will look like after the budget negotiations. Meanwhile, the world keeps turning. Countries whose budgets are less pressed than that of the United States have thrown their hats into the ring: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are funding opposition groups that they hope will leave Syria in the hands of the Sunnis. Make no mistake: this is not a hastily arranged exercise in offshore balancing. In the absence of U.S. leadership, the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra has gained traction in the field and support from the Syrian Opposition Coalition. We’ve seen the consequences of allowing Sunni Gulf States to fund Islamists, and yet our hand-wringing and negligence has provided a window of opportunity for extremist groups.

A truncated defense budget would even further complicate the decision-making process. A full-scale invasion would likely become as untenable fiscally as it is politically. Surgical strikes against Assad strongholds or the regime’s chemical weapons-related facilities might be ruled out as too risky and expensive due to Syria’s relatively sophisticated air defenses. Finding money to fund appropriate rebel groups would also become more difficult. In light of the budget crisis, our options have become more limited.

Yet the situation in Syria cries for some sort of attention: Assad has begun using incendiary bombs and Scud missiles against his own people, the refugee population has soared to over half a million, and more than 40,000 people have been killed. Add in foreign involvement from Iran and the adversarial positions of the Russians and the Chinese, and the conflict has the potential to grow in terms of geography and complexity if left unchecked.

It appears that the administration understands what is at stake in Syria: red lines are not issued without the intent to deter if not actually intervene. Yet by insisting on defense cuts, we limit our ability to follow through on our promises to hold Assad to task. If our military is re-tooled to win one war at a time, well, we are already at war in Afghanistan, and the crisis in Syria may be too much to take on.

Power is about the ability and confidence to choose. The fewer choices available to the United States, the less it can exercise its influence abroad. Hacking at the defense budget would provide short-term gains at the expense of long-term consequences that will be impossible to measure. It would undermine our efforts to secure an advantageous outcome to the crisis in Syria and would create opportunities for others throughout the world to act counter to American interests. One would hope that hesitation about Syria does not foreshadow an America that would allow fiscal austerity to get in the way of its ability to advance its own interests.

Phillip Lohaus is a research fellow with the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.