As ‘loss-averse’ par­ties fight, Syria just keeps on los­ing

The Palm Beach Post - - OPINION: THE DEBATE STARTS HERE - Thomas L. Fried­man He writes for the New York Times.

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 proSaudi 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-awar. 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.

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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