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Syria: Challenge and Opportunity

Bashar al-Assad has gassed his own people, and the United States is probably going to remove him from power. President Obama wants to consult Congress before we breach the fray, and he’s done us all a favor, giving the American people a week to talk things and me time to write things out.

Over the past few decades, two complicated webs of alliances have been woven, pitting moderate, American-backed Arab regimes—the Jordanian and Saudi Arabian monarchies and the restorationist Egyptian military junta—against anti-Western, Islamist state and non-state actors—Iran, the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both coalitions are fractious, the first beset by personal animosities and border disputes, the second by religious difference. Yet, they hold together on the basis of common goals. The only imperative of the Hashemites, the House of Saud, and the Egyptian generals, all which face persistent, systemic challenges to their rule, is self-preservation, a goal served by American largesse and accommodation with Israel. The Islamic Republic and its clients, notionally at least, depend on popular support for revolutionary ideologies that combine religion, socialism, and anti-colonialism in a number of permutations and are inherently antagonistic toward the West and the Jewish state.

We see in the Syrian conflict a showdown between these two forces, one that will determine the future of the region. Syria is the link in the chain of Iran’s foreign policy, critical in any attempt the mullahs might make to project power beyond their borders. Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim militant group active in southern Lebanon, is funded by Iran. That assistance has been a means by which the Islamic Republic has stuck its finger in the eye of Israel, its more formidable opponent. Indeed, Hezbollah, thanks to the good offices of the Iranians, has developed a nigh-ineradicable terrorist operation on the Jewish state’s northern frontier, leaving normal life to the mercy of geopolitical vicissitudes.

Iranian materiel wends its way to southern Lebanon through Syria, and the Islamic Republic will not stand by idly as a new regime hostile to its interests emerges. Why should it? Britain and France almost went to war in Africa as both pursued the geographical continuity and hegemony on the continent that only one empire could possess. Iran has destabilized post-Saddam Hussein Iraq for the sake its own prestige. It will attempt to do the same in Syria, during the initial stages of an American intervention and after a new regime coalesces in Damascus.

The Iranian malefactors could take a couple of tacks. They might, as they did in Iraq, play on religious tensions and bankroll a bloody insurgency, plunging Syria once again into civil war. The conflict could also turn hot, and there are early indications that it may very well do so depending the scope and aims of the Syrian mission. Yes, full-out war, a fête complete with sarin gas party favors, is a real possibility.

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We could be entering a torturous, exorbitant, and deadly struggle. That doesn’t mean it does not hold out hope of a future worth fighting for. The removal of Assad and his replacement by a pliable, sovereign regime means a far more hospitable Middle East. It means the diminishment of Hezbollah’s military capacity, and curbs on its deleterious participation in Lebanese politics. It means a weakened Iran, and perhaps one chastened to the point of a measured attitude on nuclear weapons. It means the bolstering of American clients, and a greater ability for the U.S. to exert pressure on those regimes. It means a higher chance of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab peace, as one intractable regime is toppled, a second freed from chicanery, and a third mollified.

Conceivable risks abound almost as greatly as rewards. Failure could mean unceasing attacks on Israel from Syria and Lebanon. It could mean empowering elements in Syria, like the al-Nusra front, which will become our foes down the line. Faced with an engagement gone awry, the U.S. might abandon the effort, pitching the region into an abyss it would take decades from which to emerge.

As a geopolitical thinker, a liberal universalist, and someone whose ancestors experienced the horrors of Zyklon B, I favor intervention. However, we must have a conversation about this first. “Words, words, words,” many neoconservatives say, desperate as they are to hit something, anything, everything. Let’s ignore them this time, lest we overlook oure more pernicious adversaries.

Daniel J. Solomon ’16 is a Crimson editorial writer in Pforzheimer House.

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