DENVER – “Men and nations,” the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban once observed, “do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” Will this be the case for the United States with respect to Syria – the most intractable and dangerous issue in today’s Middle East?
Until now, US policy has boiled down to pinprick bombings against Sunni extremists and an effort to train some 5,000 Syrian “moderate oppositionists,” who presumably would defeat the other Sunnis, vanquish President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and finally march victoriously into Damascus – perhaps with a flyover by US aircrafts. Thus, the US has continued to do the wrong – or at best inadequate – thing: listening to and, worse, believing those who have been part of the problem.
President Barack Obama is right that the destruction of the Islamic State is a long-term proposition. But, though Obama correctly identified the Islamic State as what the US does not want in the region, he failed to identity what the US does want for Syria – for which America should be galvanizing support in the region and in the broader international community. Just as Iraq cannot be governed by Shia alone, Syria cannot be effectively governed solely by and on behalf of the Sunni majority.
Syria is the proverbial problem from hell, a country whose borders have little to do with the tribal or sectarian identities found in the Levant. Syria’s borders, as many have noted, were hurriedly and secretly drawn a century ago by the foreign ministers of France and Britain. Syria will never have a day when someone does not mention this fact, or propose a new set of facts. Even the Islamic State, for which history seems to have ended in the seventh century, has pointed out the colonial legacy of the region’s borders.