|There isn’t a number system in the world in which three is greater than 73. And yet, in Syria, an alliance of three governments has run circles around an alliance of 73, imposing its order on a violent and chaotic situation.
It is tempting to see the whole episode as a sign that alliances are overrated, and that going forward, the United States should worry less about having the world on its side. But if the conflict in Syria teaches us anything, it is that the United States needs to put more energy into building its alliances, since the world we will face after Syria will require them even more.
While the avowed U.S. goal in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State group (ISG) and not fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the two were always related. Assad nurtured the rise of the ISG and harshly repressed peaceful elements of the Syrian opposition. He believed, apparently, that his best hope for survival lay in fighting a foe even more unpalatable to the world than he was. The United States hoped to find a way to dispense with both, believing that Assad’s brutality would only nurture more Islamist extremism. It built a mighty coalition—first 60, then 65, and now 73—to fight the ISG, and it covertly supported a collection of forces intended to create a non-radical Syrian opposition.
But the United States was half-hearted in its Syrian ambitions, and it came up against determined opposition, not just from Assad’s government, but from Iran and Russia as well. The three shared a distrust of insurgent publics, and they saw the United States and its allies as enemies of their interests. In their way of thinking, Syria’s repression was perhaps regrettable but certainly necessary. The alternatives—a Syria controlled by radical forces or a Sunni-led pro-American foothold in the region—were completely unpalatable.
While these three countries share interests, they are allies of convenience. With few shared values and no broader vision, they are united by what they want to prevent, not what they want to create.
Consider how different that is from the world that the United States helped create in the twentieth century. United with allies in two world wars, the United States worked to craft a rules-based system that did much more than resist the Soviet Union. It encouraged free-market economic development, high levels of trade, and democratic governance. The underlying logic of the system was that it made no sense at all to pit the United States against opponents one-on-one. The United States was invariably the stronger party and would win. Instead, the system tried to create a body of allies that largely agreed with U.S. aims and ambitions, and that would contribute to achieving them.
The benefit to the United States lay partly in the financial and military contributions allies made. Even more important, though, was the way that amassing allies reduced conflict. In part, allies were more likely to cooperate with each other, aligning their goals and policies. They were less likely to battle other members of an alliance, too. Most importantly, a large web of allies also raised the cost for anyone to defy the United States.
It was this broad Western-led alliance that persuaded South Africa to abandon apartheid, that helped ease the fall of the Soviet Union and the reconstruction of Eastern Europe, that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and that caused Libya to give up its weapons of mass destruction without firing a shot. Explaining why he abandoned Soviet patronage and made peace with Israel, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat famously observed, “The United States holds 99 percent of the cards.” He was right. Or at least, he was right then.
When it came to Syria, however, the United States chose intentionally modest ambitions for its large coalition. Syria policy was like a silhouette, more defined by what it didn’t seek to do rather than what it did. The alliance existed far more on paper than in reality, and the barriers to entry were left low to inflate the numbers, thereby diluting the purpose. The proper answer to the weakness of the Syria coalition is not to abandon coalitions, but to embolden them. We will need them.
Consider, for example, the challenges that Iran poses to regional security. As President Trump rightly points out, Iran’s neighbors do not merely feel threatened by the development of nuclear weapons. Iran’s regional activities are a major concern, as is Iranian missile development. Alarm over former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s antics drove the world together on Iran policy. The result was a broad coalition that crafted the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to handle the nuclear file, with a strong Western backbone. It also provided a basis for joint action to shape Iranian behavior.
If the United States were to lash out against its coalition, as it seems tempted to do, even friends would be torn between bandwagoning with the world’s largest economy, and balancing against the world’s most awesome and unconstrained power. Some would seek to teach the United States a lesson for abandoning multilateralism; others would pursue their own self-interest after judging the United States unable to take on a world that wasn’t following its lead. It is easy to think of ways this could go wrong, and hard to think of many ways it could go right. If it went wrong, it would play right into the hands of Iranian conservatives desperate to diminish global U.S. influence, and enemies in other capitals who seek the same.
The United States cannot do everything, nor can its alliances. An alliance is no substitute for will or for strategy. But with a will and a strategy, there are very few things that the United States seeks to do where an alliance isn’t a large force multiplier. As the United States thinks about negotiations over the future of Syria, it needs to summon both a will and a strategy. It needs to have real allies helping as well.
(This commentary originally appeared in the October issue of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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