What John McCain’s secret trip to Syria really says about foreign policy

Opps: Sen. John McCain posing with Syrian rebels – and kidnappers.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent his Memorial Day weekend a little bit differently than most of us. He made a super secret trip to Syria to meet with rebel forces there, making him the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria since the 2011 uprising-turned-civil-war began. However, probably the most important take away from his trip is that the U.S. can get in over its head in Syria without even trying.

While in Syria, McCain allegedly took pictures with rebels that were involved in the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims a year ago, a fact his spokesman called “regrettable.” Whoops. A small thing, right? It’s just a tweet. In itself, yes. But it says way more about intervening in Syria than most people may realize: we don’t know who is who.

Sen. McCain is one of the loudest supporters of arming Syrian rebels, but – as his brief weekend excursion shows – we can get mixed up with the wrong people faster than you can say “no-fly zone.” The rebels are a disconnected hodgepodge made up of political reformers to al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamists and everything in between. How do we make sure weapons get to the former and not the latter?

If this story and problem sound familiar it’s because it is. The CIA armed the Afghan mujaheddin (which counted Osama bin Laden in its ranks and eventually became al-Qaeda) in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Short term goal? Achieved – the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. And in the long term? We had 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of lives lost. Though many other factors contributed to these foreign policy developments, al-Qaeda played a large role. The CIA probably did not have these outcomes in mind.

Sen. John McCain visiting a Baghdad market to show how safe it was – accompanied by 100 security guards.

Americans oppose intervening in Syria, and Sen. McCain’s brush with kidnappers demonstrates the need for an extremely cautious Syria policy and why arming the rebels would be exceptionally difficult. Probably not the point McCain was hoping to make, but it’s not the first time the Senator has traveled to a dangerous part of the Middle East only to demonstrate why his position – and reason for going there – was wrong.

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The Iraq quagmire isn’t over yet, and it’s getting worse

Though U.S. troops have largely left Iraq, the problems stemming for the 2003 invasion are far from being resolved. More and more, increasing sectarian tensions, a growing Sunni militancy (including al-Qaeda related groups), power grabs by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and poor relations between Baghdad and Kurdistan are flaring up and causing bloodshed. The deaths of 712 people in April made it the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008.

Growing sectarianism between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims across the Middle East is a major negative effect of the 2011 “Arab Awakening” protests, and Iraq is no exception. (This issue is extremely broad, so I would recommend reading this excellent report from the Brookings Institution for more background.) Much of the violence in Iraq is drawn on strictly sectarian grounds between the majority Shi’a and minority Sunni and is taking form in tit-for-tat mosque and neighborhood bombings across the country.

Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki (Photo credit: AP)

In addition, PM Nouri al-Maliki’s re-centralization of power is sparking memories of Iraq’s previous regime. The PM’s increasingly authoritarian moves have more in common with Saddam Hussein’s governing tactics than Thomas Jefferson’s. Since 2008, al-Maliki and small group of Shi’a allies have taken control over the intelligence agencies, military commanders, federal courts, and the central bank. Al-Maliki also has his own special forces unit that reports directly to him and is seen by many as a tool to crack down on Sunni opposition.

This is simply an inverse of how things stood in pre-invasion Iraq, but now instead of Sunni domination of Shi’a, it’s Shi’a domination of Sunnis. As Michael Knights points out in Foreign Policy, “The executive branch is rapidly eclipsing all checks and balances that were put in place to guarantee a new autocracy did not emerge.”

As questions of governing become more and more couched in sectarian terms, getting Iraq on a path to peace will become more and more difficult. Though its influence has diminished in recent years, the United States has an obligation to be involved and do what it can to encourage reconciliation and peaceful opposition. Otherwise, we will stand on the sidelines as Iraq descends into a repeat of its 2006 civil war – an outcome no one wants. U.S. combat troops may be gone, but our work in Iraq is far from over.

The Bad, the Bad, and the Ugly: 3 Options for U.S. Intervention in Syria

(Photo credit: NewsOne)

After more than a week of tip-toeing around claims from Israel, the UK, France, and Qatar, the U.S. acknowledged on April 25 that supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad likely used chemical weapons against opposition forces. If these initial intelligence assessments hold up – and it seems like they will – it would represent a major turning point in the 2-year long conflict.

After a few false starts that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons – in December 2012, especially – it seems like the conflict has reached a definitive tipping point. For months, President Obama has said chemical weapons were a “red line,” and would force a strong U.S. response. Now it’s time to see what that response is.

I’m not optimistic the U.S. will formulate a perfect policy. In fact, I don’t think it’s even aiming for perfect – and it shouldn’t. The situation in Syria is so complex, nuanced, and unpredictable that the real policy goal is to find the “least worst” way to get involved. Here are a few thoughts on what some options may be, ranging from the wildly impractical to the extremely difficult.

1) Full-scale involvement – Definitely the least practical and most unlikely scenario. The United States does not want a repeat of its Iraq “quagmire,” and that’s what a full-scale, boots-on-the-ground response would lead to. By our own estimates, it would take 75,000 troops just to secure all of Syria’s 50+ chemical weapons facilities. Keep in mind that these troops would be entering an all-out war zone, complete with Hezbollah militants and Iranian-trained fighters. There would likely be a significant number of casualties. However, with the exception of 200 U.S. troops recently being sent to Jordan to assist with the refugee crisis, there have not been any major military movements that suggest an invasion of Syria is imminent.

Then there’s the whole political element of this strategy. Regardless of how strong or weak this policy may be, domestic politics make it a non-starter. Do the American people really have the stomach to occupy another Middle Eastern country less than 2 years after formal combat operations in Iraq ended? My guess is no.

2) No-fly zone and/or safe zones – This option seems to have the most traction in Congress, as members recognize the policy behind door #1 is not going to happen. It would also incorporate the international community to a large degree, and it recently came out the U.S. has been debating carrying out air strikes with European allies. Putting a no-fly zone or multiple safe zones in Syria is certainly possible, but definitely no cake walk. We don’t know exactly what kind of air defenses Syria has, but we do have a good idea. The Russians have provided the al-Assad regime with a number of different weapons systems over the years, and though Western forces would eventually prevail, it would not be as “simple” as NATO’s 2011 foray into Libya.

In June 2012, Syria shot down a Turkish jet that was flying a reconnaissance mission, probably with the SA-22 antiaircraft system, which is a relatively advanced and mobile system that can pack a wallop. More worrisome, however, is whether Syria possesses the S-300, one of the most advanced missile defense systems in the world. Among other things, the S-300 can track 100 targets at once while simultaneously engaging with 12 – certainly nothing to sneeze at. However, it’s important to note that just because Syria has advanced weapons systems, it doesn’t mean it knows how to use them very well. After all, Israel conducted several successful air strikes deep inside Syrian territory this past weekend, and the Israeli Air Force had little trouble destroying a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

Safe zones are also possible but not easy. A number of different players, including Turkey, have called for the establishment of safe zones inside Syria, but many obstacles exist.

“Safe zone” is more or less a thinly-veiled term for direct military involvement. A safe zone requires a guarantee that those providing it will keep it, well, safe. This open-ended guarantee can turn into a slippery slope pretty easily. The 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia showed us a safe zone has to be well-armed and willing to fight. As the Center for New American Security’s Marc Lynch pointed out:

In practice, safe areas would require carving out a part of Syria from the sovereign control of the state and providing the military means to defend it. Safe areas could most easily be established and protected in open rural land, but the threatened civilians live in dense urban centers. Creating and protecting urban safe areas would require establishing military control over those areas, which is effectively equivalent to direct military intervention.

See how quickly that turned into option #1?

3) Negotiated settlement – This is undoubtedly what the Obama administration would prefer, but is extremely unlikely. In order to make this happen, the U.S. would need a significant amount of cooperation from Russia, al-Assad’s most important patron. Russia has a robust intelligence network inside Syria and a naval base in Tartus. And perhaps most importantly, it holds the money. If a superpower were to take the lead on negotiating a settlement, Russia is in the best position to do it. But it won’t.

Russia has warned the Syrian regime not to use chemical weapons but is unlikely to throw itself into the middle of the conflict if al-Assad ignores those warnings. Russia probably realizes the game is up – al-Assad’s downfall is inevitable – and it will lose a long-term and reliable foothold in the Middle East. With that in mind, Russia’s interests are best served if the U.S. takes the lead and gets bogged down and stuck in Syria.

Geopolitical considerations aside, there’s the simple fact that the al-Assad regime has committed war crimes, and more than 70,000 people have died. Any negotiating the Syrian regime did would be prefaced on immunity for al-Assad and his allies, and that makes a negotiated settlement an extremely hard sell. I find it very hard to believe the international community – let alone the Syrian people – would let Bashar al-Assad walk free, and I don’t think they should.

So where does this leave us?

The U.S. is stuck, and the three general policy options the Obama administration has all come with serious shortcomings. On a number of levels, the U.S. can’t afford an intervention, but it also may not be able to avoid one.