The United States is not known for subtlety. This is perhaps unsurprising for a nation buffered by oceans and in possession of the world’s largest military and economy. That kind of power carries weight, and that kind of weight does not always allow the United States to be light on its feet. At the same time, Washington does not want to continue slogging around the Middle East, reacting to every crisis that comes its way. While the mixed signals that Washington has been broadcasting toward Syria of late have confounded many, they are not in the least surprising coming from a superpower trying to lighten its load.
Speculation grew earlier this month over the possibility of U.S. military action in Syria when U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that around 200 army troops from the headquarters unit of the 1st Armored Division based out of Fort Bliss, Texas, would be deployed to Jordan. Hagel strongly reiterated that this move should not be interpreted as a stepping-stone to a U.S. military intervention in Syria, saying the unit would instead be involved in training Jordanian counterparts to handle growing refugee flows into Jordan from Syria and would improve U.S. preparedness for any security developments involving Syria’s chemical weapons.
What Hagel chose not to say in his testimony is also revealing. Theoretically, the headquarters unit would allow the United States to significantly scale up military operations if, for example, the need arose for sizable combat operations to seize Syria’s chemical weapons. By itself, however, the U.S. decision to set up a small army headquarters unit in Jordan apart from U.S. special operations forces activity already taking place along the border does not necessarily imply that the Pentagon is moving toward a large-scale military involvement in Syria.
Jordan would present an array of logistical and political challenges as a launchpad for a U.S. invasion into Syria. Despite its tight relationship with Washington, Jordan for good reason has shied away from hosting U.S. military bases. It only very quietly permitted the movement of U.S. special operations forces into Iraq from Jordan in 2003. It faces domestic political dissent and a homegrown Salafist-jihadist presence, meaning Jordan has limits in just how far it can go in publicly aligning itself with a U.S. mission against the Syrian regime. Even as unconfirmed rumors continue to circulate regarding the U.S. deployment of Patriot missile defense batteries to Jordan (in addition to the ones Amman already operates) as a defensive measure to shield the kingdom from any blowback from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, it is far more likely that Jordan will face a spate of suicide bombings before it has to worry about ballistic missile strikes from Syria. The same day Hagel announced the army deployment to Jordan, Assad issued the following warning in an interview: “We would wish that our Jordanian neighbors realize that… the fire will not stop at our borders – all the world knows Jordan is just as exposed [to the crisis] as Syria.”
“Powers that intervene [in conflicts in the region] do so at their own peril and with the unsettling knowledge that any political settlement will fail….” – Reva Bhalla, Stratfor
The moves in Jordan, while notable, are more symbolic than militarily significant. They signal to the Assad regime that the meaningful use or loss of control of the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal would compel U.S. military action that could uproot what remains of the Alawite regime in Damascus. Washington hopes its cautious efforts to prepare a chemical weapons contingency plan will convince the Assad regime that a political settlement would be preferable to a pell-mell regime collapse that could draw U.S. soldiers onto Syrian soil. At the same time, the Obama administration is trying to respond to pressure from Congress and elsewhere by showing that it is at least taking some concrete action to aid the rebellion and prepare for contingencies while avoiding drawing the United States into another Middle Eastern maelstrom.
The subtlety of this middle-ground policy may well be lost on its intended audience, however. The U.S. administration has, perhaps deliberately, publicized an internal debate over its Syria policy. Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have advocated extreme caution when contemplating a military intervention, while Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for increasing aid to the rebels. This is a debate where we would expect the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who understand the military implications quite well, to carry more weight. Indeed, the United States so far has withheld lethal aid from the rebels.
But U.S. restraint in Syria, many will argue, has led to the hijacking of the Syrian rebellion by radical, battle-hardened Salafist-jihadist fighters. So long as the more moderate elements of the Sunni rebellion struggle to get the foreign support they have sought, groups like the Syrian Islamic Front and the even more extreme Jabhat al-Nusra will continue to dominate the battlefield and reap the spoils — and impose their adherence to their austere interpretation of Islam wherever power vacuums develop, to the endangerment of the wider region.
This argument assumes that the United States could overcome its own history in Iraq and successfully pluck out the most moderate and like-minded rebels to train and equip so that they eventually eclipse the radicals. It also assumes that battlefield successes of more moderate Sunni rebels will create the conditions for an equally moderate, and at the same time representative, government to replace the Assad regime and mend the rifts left by civil war.
The dangers inherent in these assumptions are embedded in the region’s history. The northern Levant experiences generational cycles of civil wars. In 1860, a civil war between Maronites and Druze spread from Mount Lebanon to Damascus in a matter of months. In 1958, Maronites went to war again with Druze and Sunni Muslims in a civil war that drew in the U.S. Marines. In 1975, an influx of Palestinian militants into Lebanon and unsettled scores between Maronites and Muslims drew Syria and Israel into a bloody civil war that lasted through 1990 and left Syrian troops in Lebanon for nearly three decades.
Conflict, no matter how it begins, will always penetrate a deeper power imbalance in the region, whether between French-backed Maronites and Druze in the post-Mandate period or between Alawites and Sunnis today. This is a region where mere family disputes can trigger wars, and where conflicts typically end out of exhaustion. Powers that intervene do so at their own peril and with the unsettling knowledge that any political settlement will fail – and frequently exacerbate the sectarian power struggles that define this fractious borderland.
This is a history that Assad has long known and that Washington is learning quickly. In appreciating the unintended consequences of the downfall of the Assad regime, no matter how much it is despised, the United States is understandably preparing for contingencies and hedging its military bets through a number of subtle and seemingly contradictory moves. It is just that justified pessimism toward the outcome of conflict in the region that in the end will likely continue to drive U.S. restraint.
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Reva Bhalla is vice president of Global Affairs at Stratfor, a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis.