The American strategic mistake in Syria no one’s talking about

For all the talk of intervention or lack of intervention, there’s one strategic error the U.S. made in Syria that nobody’s discussing — President Bill Clinton’s failure to give full American backing to an Israel-Syria peace deal when it was still possible.

By Gilad Halpern

Bombed out buildings in Aleppo, Syria. December 26, 2012 (Freedom House/CC)
Bombed out buildings in Aleppo, Syria. December 26, 2012 (Freedom House/CC)

The headline “A president is born” is probably being written at this very moment, if it hasn’t been yet. Donald Trump’s order to strike Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase in response to Damascus’ use of chemical weapons against civilians received bipartisan praise, even among his most devout detractors on both sides of the aisle. For the first time in Trump’s political career, he is not at odds with the consensus.

Thursday’s attack was lauded as a correction of America’s failed strategy in Syria under Barack Obama. Finally, observers say, America put its foot down, showed Russian President Vladimir Putin who’s boss, and made clear that it has red lines — unlike Obama in 2013, in the wake of the previous chemical attack widely blamed on the Syrian government. The days of leading from behind are over.

Whether you’re a fan of the former president or not, you should be ready to concede that his hands-off approach, hoping that the Syrian conflict would somehow dissipate or resolve itself, has failed. In light of this, greater American involvement may seem like the right answer, but it fails to account for the fact that American interventionism is one of the major causes of the current mess that the Middle East is in.

In reality the endless debate on who’s to blame for the protracted conflict in Syria — Obama’s overcautious realism or Bush’s gung-ho neo-conservatism — misses the point. The gravest strategic mistake on Syria was made by Bill Clinton. Why Clinton? Because he didn’t push hard enough for an Israeli-Syrian peace deal when it was still possible.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat at the signing of the Oslo Accord (photo: Vince Musi / The White House)

The reactions to this statement, in Israel at least, range from a raised eyebrow to seething outrage, depending on how far to the right the person is. In fact, since the start of the Syrian civil war, Israelis have emitted a collective sigh of relief that all efforts to reach an accord with Syria, based on the principle of land for peace, ultimately failed. Israelis praise the heavens that they didn’t give back the Golan Heights, because then ISIS would be sitting on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, minutes away from Israeli towns.

But this is a short-sighted perspective that accepts the current situation of endless bloodshed as inevitable. Syria is the train wreck that it’s become because it was made into a regional chessboard, where different powers push and pull their levers in a more or less equal measure, preventing the balance from being tipped. Precisely because of this political limbo, we are unable to envisage an endgame for Syria. What would be a better outcome — Bashar al-Assad surviving or being toppled? As they say in Yiddish, it’s like choosing between the plague and cholera.

An Israeli-Syrian peace deal might have pre-empted that. That’s why it was, at least on paper, a prime strategic goal for America — not because it would have brought quiet to Israel’s northern border, not because Damascus would have welcomed Israeli tourists, and not because it would have provided the U.S. with another client state in the region (Egypt and Saudi Arabia are enough trouble as it is). Its strategic importance would have been in placing Syria resolutely within the American orbit.

America’s patronage would have filled the power vacuum, whose harrowing results we’re witnessing these days. In a pro-American Syria, Washington would have called the shots, instead of Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, Riyadh and Doha each having a go — and a stake. If Russia and Iran had lost Assad (the elder and later the son) as a strategic partner as early as in the 1990s, they wouldn’t have invested so much military, political and diplomatic capital in saving him. They wouldn’t be fighting to the death – of many innocent civilians – to save his skin.

This is one reason why similar upheaval in Egypt never descended into the paralyzing chaos that we’re seeing in Syria. The situation in Egypt is far from ideal either, but I’d take the authoritarian Abdel Fatah al-Sisi over the murderous Assad without giving it a second thought.

Gilad Halpern is a journalist and broadcaster, host of “The Tel Aviv Review – Ideas from Israel” podcast on TLV1 Radio.