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 Ronald 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 U.S. forces clashed with Syrian troops, maintained ill-coordinated postures with Israeli forces, and were ultimately withdrawn under fire and humiliation following the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in the fall of 1983 by Hezbollah.
As planning for a post-Assad Syria accelerates, the Obama administration is signaling its desire to keep political and military institutions intact. However, America's own bloody history of Middle East state building suggests that doing so may be costly, unwise and at odds with the region's proclivity. Rather than uphold the illusory political order installed by the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement, the United States 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, Reagan's 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 United States 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, Reagan ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon. Thirty years later, the president'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 region. The long commitment of significant U.S. blood did indeed manage to stand-up to 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 United States is once again trying to uphold a fragile order at great cost.
Enter Syria. Unified Syria, a French idea, is crumbling under the strains of a long rebellion. While the rebel forces are dominated by the long-repressed Sunni Arab majority, other minority groups, such as the Syrian Kurds, 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 nation 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 United States did not stop — the ongoing Arab revolt could also promote the Balkanization of the Middle East.
Rather than apply super glue to the widening cracks in Syria, as the United States 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 United States 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, is a Ph.D. candidate in government at Georgetown University. This piece was made available by the Jewish News Service jns.org.