The announcement by Secretary of Defense Hagel that the United States will "rethink all options" including arming Syrian rebel groups, was carefully hedged. "It doesn't mean… you will" (choose any particular path). The statement however moves the U.S. closer to picking sides in a war with no good options and no good allies, and which American public opinion has thus far eschewed. It is important to understand in the broadest sense how we got here.
In two of the three global conflicts of the 20th Century, the United States took sides; in the third, it WAS a side. In World War I, we were less against Germany than with our long-time cultural and political allies, Britain and France. The cordial reception given to Americans in Germany between the wars, and the American affinity for parts of German society made some Americans reluctant to criticize the rise of Hitler. (See Hitlerland, by Andrew Nagorski.) In the Cold War, the United States faced off against Russia. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not about Cuba; the Central American wars of the 1980s were not about Central America. It was a war to the death between communism and democracy.
The end of the Cold War had two generally overlooked consequences. First, non-communist Russia retained its historic imperial nature, characterized by deep concern for and violent repression of threats to its "near abroad." Second, countries and groups in the Middle East were no longer bound to choose between Soviets and Americans as patrons. This was particularly important because neither democracy nor communism is compatible with Islamist thinking. (Obligatory disclaimer: This in no way implies that Muslim people cannot live in democracies or be democrats; or live in communist countries or be communists, for that matter.)
The fourth Great War is less "Islam against the West" (although that surely is there) than it is Sunni expansionists vs. Shiite expansionists. Neither is an appealing partner for the United States in the region, and neither has a natural claim on our politics or our interests. For reasons having to do with Iran itself, the U.S. will not choose to support Iranian-backed Shiites. However, Sunni expansionists are simply no better; Saudi and Qatari-supported Islamists run from the unacceptable Muslim Brotherhood to the even more unacceptable Wahabis, al Qaeda or Jabhat al Nusra – it is like a choice between cancer and a heart attack. (Second obligatory disclaimer: That is NOT to say the U.S. has no interests in the Middle East/North Africa/Southwest Asia, or that there is no humanitarian impulse due. It is to say both Sunni and Shiite expansionists have views and values inimical to Western liberal democracies, and neither is better than secular despots.)
In broad terms, the current fighting in the region is Sunni-Shiite: Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and rumblings in Kuwait all have a Sunni-Shiite component. Turkey thinks of the Ottoman Empire, particularly after the freeing of the "Stans" from Russian control. Iran revisits the Persian Empire. The Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Jabhat al Nusra, and others all find patrons in the region rather than in the U.S. or Russia. Oil money, particularly Saudi, Iranian and Qatari, greases various paths.
As both Sunnis and Shiites try to expand both deeper into their own societies and move farther afield, they run headlong into other regional, tribal, ethnic, religious, and familial interests. Christians, particularly in Iraq, Egypt, and Nigeria, have been hard hit as intolerance increases; it is estimated that half of Iraq's Christians have left the country. As a corollary, the minority communities of Syria backed the secular Assad regime for fear of an Islamist takeover. The U.S. has been attacked and vilified, and Europe is being subverted through "no go" zones for police, the installation of elements of Sharia law, and rising Muslim anti-Semitism. Venezuela and Argentina are Iran's hoped-for proxies, and Hezbollah operates freely in several South American countries.
Long involved in the repression of Sunni Caucasian nationalists, although the Chechen war only took on religious overtones in its second incarnation (2002-2007), Russia has chosen the Shiite side of the larger war. Even the idea of a nuclear Iran does not disturb Russia as much as the idea of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of Sunni terrorists. Russia preferred secular despots in the Middle East as well -- Saddam, Assad father and son, Nasser -- who would repress the Muslim Brotherhood and other internationalist Sunnis. The despots obliged. Nasser outlawed the Brotherhood, Assad killed tens of thousands in Hama, and Saddam ran a savagely secular state to ensure that his minority Sunnis could remain in power. Russia's commitment to Bashar Assad should not be underestimated.
And with shades of the Cold War, as Russia supports the Syrian regime, the U.S. has moved closer and closer to military involvement. Our first choice was to outsource the funding, arms and training of rebels to Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia who chose, naturally enough, expansionist Sunni groups hoping to push Iranian-supported Shiites out of power. American arms are intended to end up with the Free Syrian Army, but according to David Ignatius "Islamist fighters…have formed the backbone of the Free Syrian Army for nearly two years. The Syrian opposition is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, and the Islamists (especially al-Nusra's recruits) have been among the best fighters."
The clear implication is that regardless of what they say to the U.S. to win our support, their long-term aims may be incompatible with ours. The possibility remains for direct U.S. military involvement, although hard on the heels of Hagel's statement about arming rebels, U.S. Special Operations Commander Admiral William McRaven strongly warned against considering the use of U.S. troops.
If American policy in Syria seems feckless, it is because it is feckless.
The President initially tried to "win" Assad to the West by sending envoys and lifting parts of the embargo. But Assad was not "won," and when he turned his army on his people, the President, apparently trying to satisfy American sensibilities with rhetoric, demanded that he step down. But Assad did not step down and rebel bands struck back, which did not displease the President, who was perhaps hoping that the rebels could do what his words alone could not do -- get rid of Assad quickly and without American involvement. The discovery that some rebels have serious jihadist tendencies offended American sensibilities, so the U.S. declined to "arm the rebels." That refusal apparently satisfied American public opinion, which leans heavily against any involvement in Syria; but the grossness of the slaughter, particularly the use of chemicals, did offend American sensibilities. The President's sliding "red line" on the use of chemical weapons offended some parties and satisfied others. Claiming to find "moderate, secular rebels" will satisfy some, but the admitted interconnectedness of the rebels -- and the fact that the Islamists are far and away the best fighters -- will continue to worry others.
The administration's policy on Syria has been a series of visceral reactions to graphic events and horrific casualties, offset by a gigantic distaste for confrontation. Without a definition of America's strategic interests, such as a defeat for both Iran and the Sunni jihadists, the chance remains that America might be dragged into another front in the Fourth Great War. A war in which neither side is our friend.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of The Jewish Policy Center