Syria, Red Lines, and Obama’s Folly

by Benjamin Studebaker

A while back, Barack Obama said that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against the Syrian rebels was a “red line”. This was meant to indicate that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Now it looks like the Syrian government may have gone ahead and used them anyway. This puts Obama in a bit a pickle–he has never wanted to intervene in Syria, and for good reason, but now, if he fails to carry out his threat, he makes himself and the country appear weak. Howso? That’s what I’m on about today.

First, it’s necessary to remember why intervention in Syria is such a bad idea. At present, Syria is ruled by Bashar al-Assad, leader of Syria’s Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. Yes, Ba’ath Party. As in “Ba’athists”. As in the Syrian counterpart to the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, of which Saddam Hussein was, until 2003, leader. Syria and Iraq have a lot of things in common in their histories. Here’s a comparison:




Pre-WWI Government

Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Empire

Interwar Government

French Mandate

British Mandate

Post-War 20th Century Governments

Republic, Dictatorship, Republic, Ba’athist Dictatorship

Monarchy, Republic, Ba’athist Dictatorship

Ethnic/Religious Spread

60% Sunni Arab, 14% Sunni Non-Arab, 13% Shia, 10% Christian, 3% Druze

Roughly 65% Shia, 35% Sunni (15% of which is Kurdish)

Both of these countries ended up with Ba’athist movements culminating in Ba’athist dictatorships–the Assads in Syria, Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In both cases, Ba’aathism is motivated by ethnic and religious differences. We don’t often bother to ask what it is that men like Assad and Hussein actually believe in. We note that they kill people, we dismiss them as murderers, and we leave it there.

Ba’athists have tied to them two key principles:

  1. Arab Socialism–a combination of socialism and Pan-Arabism, the goal of which is a modern united Arab state with socialist economic characteristics.
  2. Secularism–the state is not meant to have a religious affiliation or bias.

If you think about it, these principles are quite well-suited to the post-imperial situation. Iraq and Syria are artificial countries created out of the territory of the Turkish Ottoman Empire by European countries. The people of these countries have little loyalty to them directly. Their loyalty is mostly local, ethnic, or religious. So how might one forge a functioning state out of this? If say, we take a big national identifier that is common to the majority of the people, being Arab, and then we attempt to link identity to political principles, like socialism, and we promise to be secular, and not to favour specific subgroups, we might be able to shift a given population out of these local, ethnic, or religious loyalties and into more national categories.

The trouble is that these Ba’athist governments were unable to maintain their impartiality. Saddam Hussein favoured Sunnis at the expense of Shias and Kurds, killing many of the latter. The Assads have favoured Shias, particularly Alawite Shias, at the expense of Sunnis. In both cases the dictator, as part of the minority group, becomes an instrument of repression against the majority group. In both cases, the dictator, who comes from an ideology linked to tolerance, becomes himself an instrument of intolerance and repression.

Now, in Iraq, when we got rid of Saddam Hussein, we had to deal with a Sunni insurgency. Why? Because the Sunnis feared that in a post-Saddam Iraq, they would in turn be abused and maligned by the larger, majority group over which they previously enjoyed supremacy. In Syria, the rebels are presently facing a government faction that refuses to surrender or give up. Why? For the same reasons–it represents a minority that fears its fate in a democratic Syria.

These minority groups are right to be afraid. In Iraq, the Shia-dominated elected government grows steadily more repressive toward the minority Sunni population. In countries in which loyalty is geographic, ethnic, or religious, all elections do is institutionalise the dominance of the largest sect. This is why republics and dictatorships tend to follow one another in succession in Middle Eastern and African countries. The dominance of one group is maintained by a dictatorship, which falls to popular protests from the maligned group. That group institutes a democracy and begins maligning the former group. Eventually, one of the minority groups in the democracy pulls a military coup, bringing an end to the tyranny of the majority. It is a cycle born of having countries that have not cultivated strong national loyalties.

The rebellion in Syria has a chance to change that–the worse Assad’s violence and repression get, the more this behaviour unites the country’s people against the regime, and, potentially, gives them a sense of national Syrian identity. This identity could displace local, ethnic, or religious identities that have dominated to this point, and give Syria a chance of actually become a real country.

Of course, none of this happens if the United States comes in and wins the war for them. Then you get the Iraqi case–because the people did not have to fight together to overthrow the dictator, they have no national identity, and the new government is doomed to both be repressive and, sooner or later, to get overthrown in turn. The new government is also likely to owe something to the United States for intervening, meaning that it will serve American economic interests rather than the interests of the Syrian people. Once again, this lays the groundwork for a failed state.

For this reason, intervention in Syria has always been a terrible idea. In the long-run, it would only contribute to further regional instability.

But despite this, Obama came out with the “red line” rhetoric. He probably meant well. Perhaps he thought the Syrian state would be intimidated by his tough talk and refuse to use all of the weapons at its disposal, sparing the Syrian rebels some suffering. This was foolish from the get-go–once the Syrian state was sufficiently backed against a wall such that, without using its chemical weapons, victory was impossible, it had no other option but to take the gamble and use them. It was inevitable that, if the rebels were to win the war, the Syrian state would eventually use whatever it had. The rebels would then have to overcome this, and, in so doing, hopefully forge that identity that might, for the first time in Syrian history, make for a stable new state.

Of course, now Obama has put himself in a hard place. When you say you have a red line and someone crosses it, if you do not act, you give the impression that your “red lines” are all talk. Now the president must choose between damaging Syria’s long-run prospects for future stability and making the United States appear weak-willed. If he had stayed silent and let the Syrians work their conflict out, he could have the appearance of bravely refusing to embroil the United States in a costly foreign conflict. Instead, whatever he does, he will look like a candy ass.