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Friedman: Syria: You fix it, you own it, so just rent it


Two weeks ago, standing on the Syria-Israel border in the Golan Heights, I wrote a column positing that this frontier was the “second-most dangerous” war zone in the world today — after the Korean Peninsula. Your honor, I’d like to amend that column.

Having watched the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, where North and South Korean athletes marched last week into the stadium together in a lovefest; and having also watched Israel shoot down an Iranian drone from Syria, bomb an Iranian base in Syria and lose one of its own F-16s to a Syrian missile; and after U.S. jets killed a bunch of Russian “contractors” who got too close to our forces in Syria, I now think the Syria-Israel-Lebanon front is the most dangerous corner in the world.

Where else can you find Syrian, Russian, American, Iranian and Turkish troops or advisers squaring off on the ground and in the air — along with pro-Iranian Shiite mercenaries from Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan; pro-U.S. Kurdish fighters from northern Syria; ISIS remnants; various pro-Saudi and pro-Jordanian anti-Syrian regime Sunni rebels and — I am not making this up — pro-Syrian regime Russian Orthodox Cossack “contractors” who went to Syria to defend Mother Russia from “crazy barbarians” — all rubbing against one another?

As The Washington Post pointed out, “In the space of a single week last week, Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel lost aircraft to hostile fire” in Syria.

The term “powder keg” was invented for this place.

But if this story has left you confused as to what U.S. policy should be, let me try to untangle it for you.

The bad news and the good news about the war in Syria is that all the parties involved are guided by one iron rule: You don’t want to “own” this war. This is the ultimate rent-a-war. Each party wants to maximize its interests and minimize the influence of its rivals by putting as few of its own soldiers at risk and instead fighting for its goals through air power, mercenaries and local rebels.

They’ve all learned — Russia from Afghanistan, Iran from the Iran-Iraq war, Israel from south Lebanon, and the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan — that their publics will not tolerate fighting any ground war in the Middle East.

So in Syria today, the abiding rule is, “You own it, you fix it.” And because no one wants to own responsibility for fixing Syria — a gargantuan project — they all want to just rent their influence there.

There is something very 21st century about this war.

But this is distressing. It means none of the local parties has enough power, resources — or willingness to compromise — to stabilize Syria from the bottom up, and none of the external parties is ready to stabilize it from the top down.

The “good news,” sort of, is that because everyone is so “loss averse” in Syria, it’s less likely that any party will get too reckless. The Iranians and Hezbollah will most likely continue to prod and poke Israel, but not to such a degree that the Israelis do what they are capable of doing, which is to devastate every Hezbollah neighborhood in Lebanon and hit Iran’s homeland with rockets; Israel knows that its high-tech corridor along its coastal plain would be devastated by Iranian rockets coming back.

Maybe, eventually, the players will get tired and forge a power-sharing accord in Syria, as the Lebanese eventually did in 1989 to end their civil war. Alas, though, it took the Lebanese 14 years to come to their senses. So get ready for a lot more news from Syria.



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