Thirty years ago this month, 800 U.S. Marines waded onto Beirut’s beaches tasked with facilitating the evacuation of thousands of PLO terrorists out of Lebanon in the hopes of ending a conflict that had ensnared Syria and Israel. That mission, explicitly defined and time-limited, was successful. Shortly after the last Marine left Lebanese soil, however, President Reagan ordered them back in again while more than doubling the size of the force and vastly expanding its mission. This time, U.S. forces were asked to strengthen Lebanese state institutions in order to restore a “one law, one gun” maxim.
What was once a 60-day peacekeeping deployment became a 17-month misadventure. U.S. forces clashed with Syrian troops, maintained ill-coordinated postures with Israeli forces, and were ultimately withdrawn under fire and humiliation following the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in the fall of 1983 by Hezbollah. It was not America’s finest hour.
As planning for a post-Assad Syria accelerates, the Obama administration is signaling its desire to keep Syrian political and military institutions intact. However, America’s own, now lengthy and bloody, history of Middle East state building suggests that doing so may be costly, unwise, and at odds with the region’s natural proclivity. Rather than uphold the illusory political order installed by the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement, the U.S. should encourage the creation of a federal Syrian republic with far greater autonomy for its component parts.
When U.S. forces landed in Beirut in 1982, President Reagan’s primary mandate was the “restoration of a strong and stable central government.” While this would necessitate the withdrawal of PLO, Israeli, and Syrian forces as well as the disbanding of all sectarian militias, Reagan assured the American people that the U.S. had “no intention or expectation” of getting involved in hostilities and that it would withdraw immediately if fired upon. In February 1984, following repeated clashes with Syrian forces as well as the devastating twin bombings of the U.S. embassy and Marine Corps barracks that left nearly 300 U.S. servicemen dead, President Reagan ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon. Thirty years later, Reagan’s objectives remain unachieved: the Lebanese central government is frail, Hezbollah is the dominant political and military force, and a multinational force continues to provide a false sense of security.
Iraq marked the second U.S. state-building venture in the Middle East. The nine-year commitment of significant U.S. blood and treasure did indeed manage to stand-up a somewhat-functioning Iraqi state, but its long-term viability is far from certain. The Iraqi constitution, a document that enshrines federalism as well as recognition of the many, non-Arab Iraqi peoples (Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen), gives significant autonomy to Iraq’s 18 provinces as well as the three-province Kurdistan region, where the Kurdistan Regional Government has established a fully-functioning quasi-state, with its own parliamentary, diplomatic, and proto-military trappings. Similarly, over the past year, several Sunni-majority provinces have pushed for the constitutionally-guaranteed right to establish their own, self-governing region. The U.S. is once again trying to uphold a fragile order at great cost.
Enter Syria. Unified Syria, a French concoction, is crumbling under the strains of an 18-month long rebellion. While the rebel forces are dominated by the long-repressed Sunni Arab majority, other minority groups, such as the Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border, are leveraging their participation in the rebellion for greater recognition of rights and self-governance in a post-Assad Syria. Similarly, Druze, Christians, and, most understandably, Alawites fret over what a Sunni Arab-ruled would mean. Once again, however, Washington’s instincts are to uphold the status quo rather than support devolution of power and authority.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has supported keeping all Syrian security forces together while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has advocated a “managed transition that keeps the institutions of the Syrian state intact” in order to avoid the violent years in post-Saddam Iraq. Given America’s state-building experience with two of Syria’s neighbors, an attempt to patch together a European-inspired entity—especially without boots on the ground—is a Sisyphean task.
The Sykes-Picot era of European-created Middle East states held together by Arab nationalist strongmen is rapidly unraveling. Much like how the collapse of the Soviet Union heralded drastic changes in Europe’s political borders—ones the U.S. did not stop—the ongoing Arab revolt could also promulgate the Balkanization of the Middle East.
Rather than apply superglue to the widening cracks in Syria, as the U.S. tried to do in Lebanon and Iraq, Washington should encourage the establishment of a federal Syrian republic, enhancing the autonomy of its distinct, minority peoples, such as the Kurds and Alawites. Just as Britain and France inaugurated the Sykes-Picot order during the first great Arab Revolt of the 20th century, the U.S. can euthanize it in the first Arab Revolt of the 21st century.
Gabriel Max Scheinmann, a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University, focusing on international security, alliance architecture, and grand strategy.