The Syrian civil war, all acknowledge, is a humanitarian tragedy and a threat to regional stability. For many, however, it is also a proxy battle in a larger struggle between Iran and the United States. Worse, many say that the U.S. is losing that battle or as Vali Nasr, who is a Brookings non-resident senior fellow and dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, puts it in a recent op-ed, “Iran is beating the U.S. in Syria.” In an echo of the Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, the U.S.-Iran rivalry will now play out in shadow wars and guerilla struggles across the Middle East. As we often heard during the Cold War, the United States must fight its enemy everywhere, lest it lose credibility—in Nasr’s words “the aura of power”—in the larger struggle.
This is the logic that brought us the Vietnam War and innumerable ugly and unnecessary struggles in Central America and Africa during the latter stages of the Cold War. It was dangerously wrong then and it is similarly wrong now.
The U.S. and Iran are clearly locked in competition, but to see Syria as a prize in that competition is to misunderstand the dynamics of the Syrian war. Neither the United States nor Iran has any hope of effectively controlling Syria. Syria, like Iraq, will remain both too unstable and too nationalistic for that level of control for many years to come.
We have too often assumed that tactical victories by either side foreshadow total victory. The current conventional wisdom holds that the Assad regime’s victory in Qusayr portends an unstoppable momentum; just as opposition advances a few months ago spelled doom for the regime. In fact, neither side has the capacity to achieve a decisive victory anytime soon. Assad has the allies and the firepower necessary to sustain himself in Damascus and other cities, but he lacks the manpower and the mobility to take to the fight to the insurgents throughout the country. Similarly, the opposition has the numbers in the population and sufficient access to external support to maintain an insurgency and to control rural areas effectively forever, but they cannot stand up against the superior firepower of massed regime security forces.
In these circumstances, external support is rarely decisive, as long as both sides have such support. As is so often the case, weapons and fighters from outside simply reinforce the dynamics of the civil war, bringing it to new levels of violence but not to any sort of decision. Iran and Hizbollah on the one side and the Turks and Gulf Arabs on the other are playing this game, but far from acquiring an “aura of power,” they are simply wasting themselves in the process.
For Iran and Hizbollah, in particular, the Syrian war offers few upsides. To try to save an allied regime, they have alienated publics throughout the Middle East, including in Lebanon and Palestine, and exposed themselves as more interested in Iranian or Shi’a power than in popular sovereignty. They have wasted precious Hizballah cadres and weapons that they might have preferred to put to better use elsewhere, while Iran, already short of foreign reserves and allies, is forced to throw money and political capital down the Syrian pit. And the war simply continues on.
As Napoleon supposedly counseled, “when your enemy is in the process of making mistake, do not interrupt him.” The Soviets did not interrupt the U.S. in Vietnam with direct intervention. The United States paid them the same geopolitical courtesy in Afghanistan. In each case, the appearance of masterly inactivity did far more for credibility and the aura of power than getting bogged down in an unwinnable war. In this vein, the only thing that can redeem Iran’s disastrous commitment to the Syrian civil war is for the United States to muddy the waters with Western intervention and to become similarly bogged down. Then at least, Syria would offer Iran the opportunity to pose once against as the regional defender against Western imperialism and to attack its enemy directly on the favorable terrain of a Middle Eastern civil war.
So by all means, let us try to deal with the humanitarian tragedy of Syria and try to find a settlement that might preserve regional stability. But a Syria in the process of implosion is no prize and if the Iranians want to make the mistake of seeing it as one, the United States should let them.