Bombs, Bullets, and Leverage

The sheer number of conflicts in the Middle East is daunting. Battles are raging in Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, and in Libya. There is a low-grade insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, and Shi`a communities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are seething. The Western Sahara raises tensions between Algeria and Morocco. Tiny Jordan hosts millions of refugees from three neighboring states, and it labors to prevent radical Islamist movements from two of them from inspiring radicals in the Hashemite Kingdom. The entire Middle East seems on fire.

But paying attention to the number of Middle Eastern armed conflicts is the wrong approach. What is most striking about the Middle East’s conflicts isn’t their number, it’s their duration. Many have gone on for decades or more, with little sign of resolution. While some see the region’s ongoing armed conflicts as a sign the Middle East is simply hopeless, the conflicts are in fact a reminder of something else: the military tools that many have relied on in the Middle East are often poor instruments with which to solve the region’s problems.

The wide array of military-led republics in the Middle East would certainly have you believe otherwise, as would many of the monarchies that would prefer a world in which politics play a small role. Yet, the “win” column for military victories is small. Arguably, the Jordanian army defeated a Palestinian state-within-a-state in 1970, and Israel ended a similar Palestinian presence in southern Lebanon in 1982 (inadvertently ushering in an 18-year Israeli intervention). Each solved a particular problem for an individual government, but neither brought a conflict to a close.

The best many states seem to hope for is continuing to deter each other with only periodic scuffles. Examples of this include Iran’s tensions with its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) neighbors and the long-running standoff between Morocco and Algeria. After tens of billions of dollars of arms purchases, the situations remain roughly as they were, albeit with tens of billions of dollars invested in weaponry rather than human capital.

Making peace requires at least two parties. Even so, peace efforts have had some improbable successes. Part of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s insight was to understand after three wars that he could not defeat Israel on the battlefield, but he could shape the terms of the diplomatic negotiations by going into battle first. While Sadat was a military academy graduate and liked to present himself in military garb, he was always more political than military. An officer with no combat experience who played the role of wild-eyed propagandist against the British occupation of Egypt and for the military government of Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, Sadat saw politics as a pathway superior to military action.

Contrast this view to that of Saddam Hussein, who was constantly at war—with his own people, with suspected traitors in his own government, and with his neighbors. Preoccupied with uncompromising victory, he struggled for more than three decades before he met with defeat.

Part of what drove Saddam is what has driven other leaders in the region: a conviction that any relief from battle was illusory. That is, they and their followers have resigned themselves to conflicts that won’t end. In this view, efforts to end conflicts do nothing to eliminate existential threats, they merely mean continuing to battle from a weaker position.

The Trump administration would do well to remember this dynamic as it assembles a Syria strategy in the wake of its attack on a regime airbase last week. First, the administration should make clear to Bashar al-Assad and his patrons that the United States will not allow Assad to emerge victorious. No country in the world has a wider variety of military tools at its disposal than the United States, and it is newly ready to use them on Syria at the time and place of its choosing.

Yet, awesome military instruments only go so far. To be effective, they need to create a desired political effect, and that political effect needs to provoke the desired diplomatic outcome. These are the steps that the United States has not yet taken in Syria, and which the United States and its allies have often failed to take, especially in the Middle East.

The biggest single obstacle to the Trump administration having its desired impact in Syria is that it seems confused just what its desired impact is. The president has been outspoken in his opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria, and he has been relatively quiet since the U.S. strike. While the president has been vocal about the need to keep operational details secret, secret strategic goals keep one’s own government, let alone one’s allies, from being partners. That makes no sense and develops no leverage.

A sensible goal at this point would be to ensure that the United States helps shape Syria’s future. Despite billions of dollars in humanitarian relief and untold hundreds of millions in covert support over more than five years, creating strategic leverage wasn’t the clear goal then, and it isn’t now. A bit of operational unpredictability is helpful here, but strategic opacity isn’t. The Assad government has labored for six years to give the world a choice between itself and the Islamic State group. From a U.S. perspective, that’s no choice at all. The military campaign should be designed to put the United States in strategic locations and retain the U.S. ability to harm others’ interests, if necessary. It should send a signal not only to Assad that victory isn’t possible, but also to his supporters that the United States will act to further its interests.

The United States is not going to “win” in Syria. No one will. Left to its own, the war will simmer, like so many conflicts in the Middle East. For the United States and its allies, a Syria that oozes radicalism and discontent is not merely a sore, it is a threat. Military instruments cannot fix Syria, but they can prepare the ground for negotiations that might.

(This article is reprinted from the April 2017 issue of CSIS Middle East Notes and Comment.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, holds the Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and directs the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2017 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

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Jon Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program