Interview with Daniel L. Byman on the Syrian Spillover

By Bilal Y. Saab – Despite the fact that things are getting worse in Syria, U.S. and Western appetite for military intervention is still non-existent. Is it time for Plan B then? Plan B is the containment and management of the Syrian civil war. I know, easier said than done, right? The policy was tried in Iraq, the only difference however is that there were American boots on the ground in Iraq to implement the policy and obviously there are none today in Syria.

To learn a little bit more about the prospects of this Plan B and how realistic and challenging it is, I talk to Dan Byman, a good friend and a former Brookings colleague. One of the nicest guys I have known in Washington, Dan is also a prolific and intelligent Middle East security and terrorism analyst. He is currently a senior fellow and the director of research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. In June 2007, Dan and Ken Pollack teamed up (as they often do) and produced Things Fall apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press). They also released an analysis on August 10 in Foreign Policy entitled The Syrian spillover. It is required reading.

1- Rarely do morality and material strategic interests come together when great powers contemplate intervening in civil wars. Syria happens to be one of those examples. And yet the United States has opted to stay out of Syria for several reasons. Obviously things keep getting worse in that part of the world. Do you think the United States has been so cautious on Syria to the point where it is now undermining its own strategic interests in the Middle East, or is it that on balance, the Obama administration has been wise not to intervene militarily?

On military intervention, much depends on how it would be done. A limited intervention would probably fail and could be a disaster for the United States. And I do not think there is significant domestic, regional, or Syrian popular support for a more massive U.S. intervention at this time. I’d favor a more aggressive effort to aid the Syrian opposition as one way to help yet not stray beyond what is realistic.

2- U.S. President Barack Obama has explicitly stated that his red line on Syria is usage by the Syrian regime of chemical weapons against its domestic opponents. In essence, Obama is telling us that he is willing to throw caution out the window and disregard all the risks and costs of war that this administration seems to have studied very carefully the moment Assad uses chemical weapons against the rebels or protestors. Can you explain to us why? Do we have reason to question the credibility of this threat given that it is still election season in America and this president does not want to go on another military adventure in the Middle East?

I believe, but do not know, that the Obama administration is trying to head off one possible crisis that might increase pressure for a more massive intervention. I think the hope is to deter Syria and, in so doing, avoid an increased demand for intervention. It would be too much to guess their response based on their rhetoric – much depends on the circumstances surrounding use.

3- In the absence of military intervention and under conditions of civil war intensification, Plan B for Syria is containment and management of the civil war. The United States tried to do it in Iraq. Some say it succeeded others say it failed. You and Ken Pollack wrote about the Iraqi spillover in Things Fall Apart and now you just released another analysis in Foreign Policy on the Syrian spillover. Are the challenges of containing and managing the spillover in Syria more formidable than they were in Iraq? Will the potential containment exercise be conducted under the policy framework of “leading from behind” (working with US regional allies on a logistical, political, and financial level) or will the United States have to put some boots on the ground?

Spillover with Syria is quite real. In Iraq, the civil war fell in its violence after our book was released, so (thankfully) many of our arguments could not be fully tested. However, because of Iraq the region was already tense and the spillover could happen more quickly. The two most vulnerable countries are Lebanon and Iraq as they are less stable than were Iraq’s neighbors. I think the overall risk of problems is higher. Washington will be reluctant to put boots on the ground in a permanent way (though training is quite possible).

4- How much of a problem is Russia in Syria? How high do you rank that obstacle compared to Assad’s repression, sectarian dynamics in the country, Iranian assistance, domestic politics in Washington, etc…

Russia’s support for Syria is both psychologically important to the regime and an impediment to intervention as many states want UN approval for any aggressive measures, and Russia would block this. In my view, this is an important but second concern given the dynamics of the region.

5- It may be only a matter of time before another al-Qaeda insurgent movement is born in the Middle East because of what is happening in Syria. So far al-Qaeda has had a cellular presence but it is nearing an insurgency status. I’d love to get your take on Al-Qaeda in Syria. Are you a little surprised that the terrorist organization has not gone “all in” on Syria given the tremendous opportunity presented by the crisis?

Al-Qaeda is following an old model in Syria: work with locals, gradually coopt and lead them, and then form its own movement. So far it has gone from “non-existent” in the opposition to “negligible” to “only a small part.” Its credibility grows while that of the United States and other friends of the opposition shrink. Al-Qaeda central, however, is weak, so its ability to control this movement is limited. But it is an opportunity that could grow.