While the media in the U.S. and in Europe spent the last two weeks largely focused on the final Olympic medals count in London, reports on the rising body count in Syria ran second on the nightly news. Parallel to the drama unfolding in Syria is the continuing debate in Washington and various European capitals over what to do about the bloodshed. Election year mudslinging in the U.S. is at full force now, with the result that more energy is expended in rhetorical battles in Washington than in directing help to those battling a dictator in the Syrian streets. In Europe there is more focus on the euro than on Aleppo.
The fact is that on either side of the Atlantic there is neither the political will nor the popular support for enhanced engagement in Syria. Doubts about the makeup of the Syrian opposition forces, along with the legacy of Afghanistan and Iraq, leave the American public wary of any engagement, particularly with military forces. Voices warning that a price will be paid for withholding support from those seeking to overthrow Assad generate others who recall the high price paid for the Iraq war based on faulty assumptions and expectations − let alone the belief that one can successfully steer the consequences of a complicated civil war. Today’s struggles in post-Gaddafi Libya adds to that doubt. One can peer even further back in history for other examples of misjudging the tracks of a civil war.
And still − as Aleppo looks more and more like Benghazi did on the verge of genocide − efforts to help the Syrian resistance battle Assad’s remaining loyal forces are needed now. Those efforts inevitably come with risks in not knowing what the post Assad scenario will look like and who will contest who for control of Syria’s future. We see those same risks presently in Egypt, Yemen, or in other countries that still stand in waiting for their own convulsions − think Saudi Arabia.
Yet in weighing the choices, neither the U.S. nor Europe can expect that whatever they decide to do will by necessity rebound to the benefit of either. Condoleezza Rice captured that dilemma when she stated in Cairo in 2005 that the enormous investment the U.S. had made in the Middle East to secure stability and peace had achieved neither goal.
National leaders act in their own perceived interests for better and for worse. They rarely shape their policies in terms of gratitude. Hence, it is a mistake to expect such a response from forces reshaping a country in the wake of a revolution and the formation of a government. The days of puppets are past. The U.S. has to recognize that reality every day in Kabul and Baghdad. This is made clear in the current efforts to seek an operative relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Now, Syria illustrates another instance of a revolution whose outcome is impossible to predict.
The events on the ground in Syria will be continuously relayed in the media, and calls for help from the Syrian rebels will get louder. Given the Russian and Chinese blockade in the UN Security Council on forging a common response to this crisis, the question remains in the hands of each country watching the events in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria − how do we respond with what tools and with which goals? There is no consensus on the answers to that question in Europe or in Washington, even as the regional powers around Syria begin to confront each other over the future spoils of this civil war.
The daily horrors reported in the transatlantic media about Syria have generated a good deal of hand-wringing and meetings to condemn the atrocities, but also an equal amount of ambivalence about any military engagement. Syria does not generate the same responses as in the case of Libya, or earlier in NATO circles regarding Kosovo. Too complicated, it is argued. But the clearer explanations have as much to do with the uncertainty of what is going on in Syria as with the confrontations among those outside of the war-torn country. The long history of the competition for power and influence in the Middle East is extending its chapters.
It is evident that the Syrian fire can easily jump the borders of many of its neighbors. The interests of Iran, Iraq, and Israel again become embroiled in the future of Syria, as do the ambitions of Turkey and Russia. The role of the U.S. is unavoidably in the middle of this struggle, as it has been for decades.
But where does this leave Europe? What role can the EU play in the effort to find a way to extinguish the fires in Syria.
While Europe remains fixated on its financial crisis, its usual responses to these crises, such as supporting civil society developments and strengthening trade relations or imposing sanctions, are not going to be enough. Responding to the wave of revolutions moving through the region − where domestic groups are battling for power while other countries seek influence − in the longer run requires a more proactive policy. Europe cannot afford to be an observer.
At a time when the U.S. is struggling with its own strategic approaches in the Middle East, it is being challenged to explore relations with the new Islamist leaders in Arab societies emerging from the revolutions. The U.S. is making an effort to sustain the peace agreements between Israel and Jordan, as well as Egypt, while maintaining the drive to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Europe is not any more free of those concerns and cannot isolate itself from the consequences of things going very wrong.
One initiative being taken in Berlin, supported by the German Foreign Office and led by the German think tank StiftungWissenschaft und Politik in collaboration with the U.S. Institute of Peace, is a forum for Syrian opposition leaders to work out plans for ” The Day After,” as the project is called. Working to develop a plan to implement in a post-Assad Syria is going to depend on the ability of those now in opposition to work together.
Because the turmoil in the Middle East will inevitably continue with efforts by many to exploit the region’s fragmentation for many years ahead, the challenge for Europe and the U.S. to develop and sustain a strategic response is a shared opportunity. In the meantime, there are no medals awarded for just watching.