It was said about Quintus Fabius Maximus, Roman dictator during the invasion of Hannibal, that “Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem”—“By stalling a single man preserved our state”.
Fabius earned this praise, and his moniker “the delayer”, by resisting the famous Roman urge for aggression, and instead pursuing a policy of avoiding battle with Hannibal’s forces in order to prevent the destruction of Rome’s military capabilities. Eventually Fabius was overcome by a camp of more aggressive populists, which lead to catastrophic Roman defeats at Lake Trasamine and Cannea. But until that point Fabius’ tactics had gained Rome precious time, and Rome’s subsequent pursuit of Fabian policies ultimately left Hannibal no choice but to break off his Italian campaign and return to Carthage.
Though the stakes today are entirely different, Obama’s approach to Syria has been characterized by similar ‘Fabian tactics’. It is easy to question the wisdom of this hesitant policy. After all, the fundamental Syrian dilemma seems simple: does the US prefer the rebels to take power, or would it rather stick with “the devil we know” Assad? Once this essential decision is taken, the rest would seem a matter of policy details. But Obama seems unsure even what to want from Syria.
However, perhaps we can see a deeper strategic rationale behind Obama’s apparent dithering. In this regard it is helpful to consider Henry Kissinger’s approach to the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war of 1973.
In the period leading up to 1973, Israel had been relatively unresponsive to Egyptian President Sadat’s attempts to start peace negotations, not being ready to give up any territories gained in ’67. Seeing this Israeli stubbornness, Kissinger came to the cynical but ultimately insightful conclusion that Israel had to experience a degree of Egyptian military pressure in order for negotiations to be effective. As such, Kissinger noted with some approval the impressive Soviet build-up of Egyptian military capabilities between 1967 and 1973, notably in the form of SAM surface-to-air missile batteries and SAGAR anti-tank missiles, both of which proved critical during the Yom Kippur war. In the end, Kissinger’s approach was borne out. Egypt managed to surprise the Israelis in 1973, and Israel consequently came to depend heavily on American military support. It was this Israeli dependence on the US that President Carter was ultimately able to exploit at Camp David in order to pressure Israel into an agreement with Egypt, and a withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula.
How does this reflect on Obama’s approach to Syria? The insight is that in delaying support to Syria’s rebels Obama may be mimicking Kissinger’s approach. Obama knows that once he is committed to fully supporting the Syrian rebellion, he will thereby have lost much of his ability to force the rebels to unite and dissociate from their radical allies. As such, Obama realizes that it might be good for Syria’s rebels (as well as their Qatari and Turkish allies) to get some taste of defeat, just so as to subsequently appreciate American support all the more. At that point, once the Syrian rebellion has a bloody nose and has become willing to accept American demands for assistance, Obama can always opt to open the valves of support. Indeed, this policy of Obama’s may already be producing results. Recent days have seen Syrian rebel leaders emphasize the need for a single command for all opposition forces, as well as speaking out against the radical foreign fighters in Syria’s struggle. Of course it remains to be seen whether the fruits of Obama’s tactics will prove sustained. But if so, I bet Obama will slowly but surely abandon his current Fabian role as “the delayer”.
[UPDATE: Clearly Obama’s strategy not having the desired effect on Syria’s rebels quite yet, as the Syrian opposition can’t even agree on a delegation to send to the Geneva Conference. Story here.]