A Syrian child mourning at the funeral of his father
A Syrian child mourning at the funeral of his father // Rodrigo Abd/AP

Egypt vs. Syria

This summer, Syria and Egypt turned into nightmares for U.S. foreign policy that now present very difficult choices for U.S. policymakers.

In Syria, where over 100,000 people have been killed since 2011, Hezbollah is fighting on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front became a major force in the increasingly Islamized opposition. There are few good choices to make there. Staying out of the conflict ensures further bloodshed. Supporting the regime in Damascus is impossible. And the scattered rebel forces are, by turns, ineffective and partially in league with al Qaeda.

In Egypt, meanwhile, Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, was deposed in a military coup d’état after massive protests in the country delegitimized his rule. When the military decided to remove an unpopular but democratically elected president after enormous street protests, Egypt – initially considered a triumph of democratic governance during the Arab spring – became a morass of untenable choices. Supporting a military coup is obviously deeply distasteful to the Obama administration, which claims to pride itself on its support for democracy and human rights around the world. At the same time, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s disastrous misrule of Egypt is unappealing both domestically and in light of the coup.

Of course, the choices are not that simple.

The complexity of Egypt and Syria is compounded by a vicious budget battle in Washington. Both the Departments of State and Defense are facing spending cuts to their operations in addition to living under sequestration. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the State Department’s fiscal 2014 budget for “a sense of uncertainty in key areas” — like what it plans to do in Syria. President Barack Obama’s June order to begin arming certain Syrian rebel groups hasn’t cleared the confusion. For Egypt, civilian and military aid is unchanged in the 2014 request, but it’s also unclear if it will continue as the U.S. government decides how to react to the recent military coup.

With increasingly limited resources butting up against demands to do something about both crisis, policymakers have a tough balancing act. Tom Donilon, Obama’s former national security adviser, told CNN in June that the U.S. had “over-invested in our military efforts in South Asia and in the Middle East” and was more concerned in the long run with economic developments in East Asia.

Since the Arab spring toppled the former military dictator Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. has not had a developed policy for Egypt. “The Obama administration has watered down our interests in Egypt to one thing: the peace treaty with Israel,” said Eric Trager, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. “While maintaining that peace is important, more difficult issues like counterterrorism or completing a transition to democratic stability took a back seat.” In the meantime, Trager said, the rapid destabilization of Egyptian society risks the very peace treaty the U.S. government has prioritized. “The peace treaty is in Cairo’s interests as much as it is ours.”

The stakes in Syria are much more dire. Western intelligence officials are deeply worried that al Qaeda, which is slowly taking over the rest of the opposition, might acquire loose chemical weapons. The U.S. has confirmed accounts that the Assad regime has used sarin gas, a dangerous chemical weapon, against some rebel groups.

The various rebel militias fighting are a difficult challenge as well. “The real problem is distinguishing between rebel groups operationally,” said Kirk Sowell, the principal of Uticensis Risk Services, a consulting firm that specializes in Arabic-language research. “The ‘good’ or ‘less bad’ groups cooperate militarily with the worst groups against Assad despite their differences.”

The U.S. has decided to arm some of these groups after vetting, though so far the effect seems negligible. “More weapons, especially anti-armor weapons, and more supplies – including just food and other humanitarian aid – would tip the balance” in favor of acceptable, relatively moderate rebel groups, Sowell said.

The reality is that the Obama administration still is mulling whether to send heavier weapons into the conflict. Should the Assad regime collapse under a massive rebel onslaught, the fighting would almost certainly continue or even get worse. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, among others, has said repeatedly that he worries most about what happens in Syria then, the day after Assad falls. “It matters who wins this one,” Sowell added. “But much more who wins the next war, the struggle between rebel groups which will play out once regime forces are no longer a factor.”

It’s unclear if the U.S. ever will be willing to commit the weapons and money — or the stomach — to not only defeat the Assad regime but also to defeat the growing forces aligned with al Qaeda.

But it is also unclear what the U.S. could do in Egypt. The Eastern Mediterranean is undergoing tremendous change, and diminishing resources in Washington are going to force some difficult decisions about priorities and focus very soon.

Obama needs to decide where the U.S. will be committing its time, energy, political will and resources in both crises. He must explain to American and Middle Eastern publics his decision-making. In other words, it is time for Obama to lead.

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