12/18/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2013

Syria and the Limits of Pretension

Syria weighs heavily on Washington's mind. For good reason. The protracted civil war is offering vivid demonstration of how limited is American influence on the turbulent politics of the Middle East post-Arab Spring. We cannot identify in this free-for-all a contender for the laurels who shares our perspective or our values -- and who has a fair chance of coming out on top. Sectarian passions among Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and Kurds are the main driving force. The secular minded, more or less liberal elites who initially represented the opposition, the Syrian National Council based in Istanbul, have been reduced to being just one among several factions pursuing agendas that coincide only in their dedication to unseating Assad.

We, too, want his downfall. For Syria under the Assads has been a staunch opponent of American designs for the region -- first as a Soviet client, then as a member of the 'rejectionist' bloc that refused to accept the Oslo 'peace process, and most recently as an ally of Iran which supports Tehran's schemes to uncut American influence. Now in the era of free-floating fears about "terror," Washington is hyper-sensitive to any Sunni Salafist group that it suspects of affinities to one of the al-Qaeda franchises. Such jihadi elements that harbor the United States ill will are present in Syria where they play a significant if immeasurable combat role. Hence, the State Department's action on December 10 designating the most prominent of the jihadist formation, Jaghat al-Nusra, a "terrorist organization." In practical terms, the designation means that the Obama administration will take steps to isolate it diplomatically while seeking to deny it material or financial assistance. That amounts to encouraging their supporters and sympathizers in the Gulf to follow suit. The likelihood of their doing so is slight since there are intricate political interests and religious associations at play.

Moreover, Jaghat al-Nusra is but one of a dozen jihadist groups active in the opposition front. It is described as "not Syria's largest jihadi group, but certainly the best known, and the one most likely to gain official approval by al-Qaeda... and is clearly seen by most of the global salafi-jihadi community as "their" group in Syria. " (Aron Lund, "Syrian Jihadism," Swedish Institute of International Affairs September 2012) It competes as well with the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, which have been playing a savvy political game of participating in the SNC (now superseded by the umbrella Syrian Opposition Council) while protecting their fundamentalist credentials among Islamist factions.

In truth, Washington has an incomplete and imperfect fix on who is who in the Syrian civil war. The most authoritative study of the numerous, varied actors prepared by the Swedish Institute identifies two dozen entities. Consequently, it is impossible to get a firm grasp as to how this will play out or even to assign probabilities to the wide range of conceivable outcomes. Meanwhile, we neglect to devise the plans and to cultivate the skills to cope with the various unwelcome outcomes that could present themselves.

This state of affairs greatly irks the Obama administration, and the wider foreign policy establishment, for it undercuts the twin convictions that sustain the United States' foreign policy. One is the belief that the country has a preordained mission to set the world right. The other is the conviction that we have the means to do so. Serial failures across the region over the past decade -- some where we physically controlled the country -- have done little to dent these dogmas of faith. In Syria, the paramount truth is that Washington's influence is at the margins of rapidly unfolding developments. Simply put, this is a situation where results of the political contest are largely impervious to the strenuous efforts of any outside party; indeed, those results are unpredictable -- as has been shown in Egypt. And there, the players were fewer, the sectarian factor less salient, and the drama does not develop in a civil war setting.

Egypt also exposes the lengths to which Washington goes in trying to perpetuate the myth of America as the crucial presence across the region. Recall how the White House spread the idea that Obama had "bonded" with Morsi over Gaza and envisaged him as a partner in dealing with other Middle East problems. Within a few days, Morsi had given himself arbitrary powers, and rammed through passage of the constitutional charter. Moreover, the administration failed to recognize then or now that Morsi is little more than an executant of orders he receives from the Muslim Brotherhood senior leaders: Mohammed Badie and Khairat el-Shater. This explains his erratic actions: impetuous decisions, their reversal or contradiction, and -- at times --slow response time.

It has been demonstrated repeatedly over the past decade that this truth as to the limits of American influence is incontrovertible, particularly in the greater Middle East where we find few countries where the people with whom we have natural affinities are strong enough to have a chance of coming to power. As a consequence, caution should be the watchword unless the status quo is clearly intolerable. Rather than agonizing over the rights-and-wrongs of intervention in moralistic terms, it makes more sense to have contingency plans at the ready for coping with whatever might follow the Syrian multi-party civil war. Moreover, they should be based on a crisp differentiation between what are our real national interests and which are vanity at work -- between the doable and the fanciful.

Instead, Washington is engaged in its habitual practice of confusing motion with action. We convene large assemblies of Syrian self-designated leaders where we pronounce the assemblage "the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people." We organize donors conferences where enlightened governments make pledges of aid (which may or may not materialize) to a non-existent Syrian state-to-be. We deign to give the American stamp of approval to some factions and declare others to be pariahs. We fulminate without stop. The harsh lessons we should have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan -- not to speak of Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya -- are brushed aside.

The Bourbons, in historical lore, forgot nothing and learned nothing. We forget everything and learn nothing.