Steven Heydemann writes: Did Syria’s sectarian make-up doom it to follow Iraq down the path of sectarian polarization, extremism and territorial fragmentation? Did demographics and history determine Syria’s fate? Only if we accept that these conditions are the causes of violence — a product of the “ancient hatreds” and not its effects. In the Syrian case, however, the evidence points in the opposite direction: polarization, extremism and fragmentation are the effects of escalating violence, not its causes. Participants in the uprising, as well as forthcoming research by Princeton political scientist Kevin Mazur, highlight the regime’s instrumental use of violence to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Recent survey data reflect the impact of sectarian polarization in Syria after years of conflict, but also the extent to which Syrians continue to express tolerance and a desire for cross-sectarian compromises in the name of peace.
Despite deep flaws in the assumptions underlying the administration’s policy, advocates of engagement inevitably run up against the ultimate defense of inaction: Syria just isn’t worth it. Supporters of the administration’s approach regularly fall back on the claim that the Syrian conflict is simply not central to U.S. strategic interests. Politically, they note, Syria has always been an adversary to the United States. Economically, its ties to the United States are trivial. However wrenching the conflict might be, the United States has little at stake in its outcome.
The only basis on which such a claim can stand, however, is to adopt an anachronistic, rigid conception of state interest — a conception the administration knows is inadequate in an era of hyper-globalization and increasingly porous state borders. Does the United States have an interest in preventing atrocities and supporting international mechanisms, such as Responsibility to Protect? Is it a matter of interest to the United States whether Iran consolidates its position as regional hegemon in the Arab east? Should the stability of Syria’s neighbors matter to the United States? Is the stability of the European Union in America’s interest? Does the United States have an interest in preserving a liberal international order that constrains authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran, including by raising the costs of aggression, whether in Syria or the Ukraine? As freedom of movement within the E.U. erodes, a global network of authoritarian regimes emerges to weaken liberal norms and institutions globally, and while the Arab state order unravels, it is increasingly clear that what is at stake for the United States in Syria was never simply about U.S.-Syrian relations. It is sadly ironic that the president’s commitment to inaction has undermined his vision of an international system in which military restraint and a smaller U.S. footprint would produce a more stable and peaceful international order. [Continue reading…]