On all sides of the Syrian conflict, the commitment of the belligerents to democratic values and alignment with Western interests is, at best, untested. Al-Qaeda has now entered the conflict, effectively on the side that the United States is being asked to join. In such circumstances, U.S. policymakers encounter a choice not between a “realistic” and an “idealistic” outcome but between competing imperfections, between considerations of strategy and of governance. We are stymied on Syria because we have a strategic interest in breaking the Assad clan’s alliance with Iran, which we are reluctant to avow, and the moral objective of saving human lives, which we are unable to implement through the U.N. Security Council.
Since the Arab uprisings began, four governments have fallen, and several others have been seriously tested. The United States has felt obliged to respond to and occasionally to participate in this drama, but it has still not answered fundamental questions about its direction: Do we have a vision of what strategic equation in the region serves our and global interests? Or of the means to achieve them? How do we handle the economic assistance which may be the best, if not the only, means to influence the evolution?