[Published in War on the Rocks.]
Ever since Russia reneged on an ill-conceived ceasefire plan for Syria in September and participated in a barbarous military campaign in Aleppo, the crescendo of American voices calling for some action in Syria has risen a notch, apparently reaching the White House this week.
Throughout the Syria crisis, the U.S. government bureaucracy and key power centers in the foreign policy elite have espoused Obama’s version of restraint and resignation, toeing a position along the lines of “Syria is a mess, but there’s little we can do.” Lately, though, an escalatory mindset has taken hold, with analysts and politicians floating proposals to defend Syrian civilians and confront an expansionist Russia.
“I advocate today a no-fly zone and safe zones,” Hillary Clinton said in the most recent debate, taking a position starkly more interventionist than the president she served as secretary of state. She continued: “We need some leverage with the Russians, because they are not going to come to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution, unless there is some leverage over them.”
Does this kind of talk represent a sea change in decision-making circles? After years of decrying missteps in the ill-begotten wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and debating America’s shrinking footprint, is there now a convergence to once again embrace interventionism among politicians, public opinion and the foreign policy elite that some in the White House derided as “the blob”?
I think there is, and those of us who have espoused a more vigorous intervention in Syria and a more activist response to the Arab uprisings need now to take extra care in the policies we propose. As the pendulum swings back toward a bolder, more assertive American foreign policy, we must eschew simplistic triumphalism and an unfounded assumption that America can determine world events. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistakes of America’s last, disastrous wave of moralism and interventionism after 9/11.
It’s important not to overstate the backlash to Obama’s calls for humility and restraint, and not too ignore the activist and moralistic strains that connect Obama’s foreign policy to that of his predecessors. With those caveats, it seems like we’re on the cusp of a return to a more activist foreign policy.
That doesn’t make us all interventionists yet, but it does expose the United States to renewed risk, making it all the more important to restore some honesty and clarity to the debate. Any discussion about America’s global footprint has to acknowledge that it’s still huge. America has not retrenched or turned its back on the world. Any discussion about Syria has to acknowledge from the get-go that America already is running a billion-dollar military intervention there. So when we talk about escalating or de-escalating, we need to be clear where we’re starting. The United States is heavily implicated in all the Arab world’s wars, with few of its strategic aims yet secured. This unrealized promise has fueled frustration about America’s role.
Even Trump’s isolationist calls to tank the international order and make America great by impoverishing the rest of the world echo, in part, a desire for strength and moral clarity. The likely next president, Hillary Clinton, has steadily stood in the American tradition of liberal internationalism which has been the dominant school of foreign policy thought since World War II. That history embraces an international order dominated by the United States and trending toward market economies, free trade, liberal rights, and a rhetorical commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights, which even in its inconsistent and opportunistic pursuit, has been considered anything from an irritant to a major threat to the world’s autocracies. This ideological package has underwritten America’s best foreign policy, like Cold War containment, and its worst, like the invasion of Iraq and the post-9/11 savaging of the rule of law.
Syria’s war has been the graveyard of the comforting, but vague, idea that America could lead from behind and serve as a global ballast while somehow keeping its paws to itself. Other destabilizing realities helped upend this dream, among them Europe’s financial crisis, the rise of the extreme right, the Arab uprisings, the collapse of the Arab state system and a new wave of wars, unprecedented refugee flows, and the expansionist moves of a belligerent, resurgent Russia.
Pointedly, however, Syria has embodied the failure of the hands-off approach. Its complexity also serves as a warning to anyone eager to oversimplify. Just as it was foolish to pretend that the meltdown of Iraq and Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State, were some kind of local, containable imbroglio, it is also foolish to pretend that a robust, interventionist America can resolve the world’s problems. Neither notion is true.
America is the preeminent world power. It can use its resources to manage conflicts like Syria’s in order to pursue its interests. Success flows from clearly defining those interests and intervening sagely, in a coordinated fashion across the globe. America has played a disproportionate role in designing the international institutions that created a new world order after World War II. For a a time after the end of the Cold War, it enjoyed being alone at the top of the global power pyramid. American influence swelled for many reasons, highest among them American wealth, comprehensible policy goals, and appealing values. But dominance is not the same thing as total control, and a newly assertive U.S. foreign policy still can achieve only limited aims.
The next president will have to recalibrate America’s approach to power projection – how to deter powerful bullies like Russia, how to manage toxic partnerships with allies like Saudi Arabia, how to contain the strategic fallout of wars and state failure in Iraq, Syria, and the world’s ungoverned zones. The most visible test right now is Syria. Syria is important – not least because of the 10 million displaced, the 5-plus million refugees, the half million dead. It is also important as the catalyst of widespread regional collapse in the Arab world, the source of an unprecedented refugee crisis, a hothouse for jihadi groups, and as a test of American resolve.
It’s harder and harder to find foreign policy experts willing, like Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson recently did inThe New York Times, to argue that any American effort to steer the course of Syria’s war will only make things worse. (British journalist Jonathan Steele made a similar argument this week in The Guardian that any Western effort to contain war crimes in Aleppo “threatens to engulf us all.”)
Figures from both major U.S. parties have increasingly shifted to arguing that the United States will have to experiment with some form of escalation, because the existing approach just hasn’t worked. Hillary Clinton’s team is apparently considering a range of options including no-fly zones or strikes on Syrian government targets. The ongoing shift is less the result of a revelation about Syria’s meltdown and more a reflection of American domestic politics and a consensus that it’s time to recalibrate America’s geostrategic great power projection.
As this debate gets underway in earnest, it is crucial to force all sides to draw on the same facts, and be honest about the elements of their policy proposals that are guesses. For example: It is a fact that Syria is in free fall and Iraq barely functions as a unitary state, with fragmenting civilian and military authority on all sides of the related conflicts. It is a guess that Russia has escalation dominance and is willing to pursue all options, including nuclear conflict, if the United States intervenes more forcefully in Syria. It is a fact that tensions between the United States and Russia are at a post-Cold War high. It is a guess that they will clash directly over Syria rather than Kaliningrad or Ukraine or some other matter. It is a fact that the rise of the Islamic State and the flow of millions of displaced Syrians has destabilized the entire Middle East and reshaped politics in Europe. It is a guess that if the United States shoots down some of Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters it will lead to more fruitful political negotiations among Syrian factions and their foreign sponsors.
Many of the competing poles of the American debate begin with assumptions that are shaky or downright false, and ignore the lion’s share of facts on the ground in Syria. Any honest assessment of the crisis demands humility. Any serious analyst taking a position on Syria has to acknowledge that there is no possibility of a neat solution, and no outcome that precludes civilian suffering, regional instability, and strategic blowback — whether one argues for increasing America’s intervention, as I have, or for further restraint, in keeping with President Obama’s position (or, for that matter, for an admission of rebel defeat and an acceptance of Bashar al-Assad’s enduring role).
Unfortunately, many interventionists ignore the low likelihood of success and the danger of escalating the war, while many restrainers downplay the major ongoing strategic risks posed by Syria’s meltdown. Marc Lynch, himself of the school of restraint, neatly dissected the incoherent underpinnings of the American debate in a recent War on the Rockspiece.
America cannot direct the course of events in Syria because the war is too complex and Russia too committed to Assad, Lynch argues. But with the regime’s war crimes accelerating, for political reasons America can no longer afford to be perceived as not trying harder, even if any extra effort is destined to fail. Lynch predicts that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency and pursue an escalation in Syria, which will fail for all the same reasons as America’s existing intervention. In a year’s time, Lynch argues, Syria will be worse off, and America will either back down or sink deeper into yet another doomed Middle Eastern war.
Sadly, Lynch might be right. But – and the tone of certainty in all the polemics and analysis makes it easy to forget – he might also be wrong. Happily, for the prospects of the debate over Syria, Lynch offers an example of striking the right tone. He is confident in his analysis but not sloppy with the facts. Now that escalation is more seriously on the table, we need a more honest debate.
While Lynch contributes a welcome measure of sobriety to the debate, even he sidesteps the initial fact that Obama’s policy has been to pursue a military intervention, leaving the implication that the status quo doesn’t somehow involve a major U.S. role in the Syrian war. That gets to the heart of the problem: Anti-interventionists won the internal debate in the Obama administration, swatting down proposals from cabinet members to expand the U.S. role, strike Assad when he used chemical weapons, and push harder for regime change. Instead, a Goldilocks notion of the “just-right” intervention governed U.S. policy in Syria since 2011 — enough to say we did something, not enough to be determinative. Yet this policy’s authors often present themselves as an embattled minority facing down the interventionist blob — a foreign policy establishment caricatured as prone to groupthink and which never met an intervention it didn’t like. The actual debate is between limited interventionists like Obama and expanded interventionists like Clinton. On the far ends are those who want a full withdrawal from the Levant and the mad hawks who’d like to see U.S. troops foment regime change in Damascus.
No serious position on Syria can ignore America’s existing, major and ongoing military intervention, or the frustrating reality that the United States and its allies tried and failed to steer the conflict in another direction. No serious position on Syria can ignore the war crimes, sectarianism, and intractability of Assad and his supporters. No serious position on Syria can ignore the very real risks of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia.
The big picture in Syria is daunting indeed. It encompasses a region in the grips of state failure. A coherent Syria policy cannot be divorced from the volatile region of which it is a lynchpin; nor can it be divorced from grand strategy and geopolitics. What happens in Syria affects American relations with much of the world.
America’s strategic depth and deterrent power are tangible assets that have taken a beating as a result of Washington’s contradictory, halting, and passive response to the Arab uprisings. The United States postponed a rethink of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, corroding the most productive aspects of the partnership while remaining wedded to the most toxic. America’s Saudi plight is most bitterly apparent in Washington’s almost casual, and fantastically wrong-headed, decision to support Saudi Arabia’s criminally executed war in Yemen — as if in apology for America’s pursuit of the Iran nuclear deal over Saudi objections.
British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson reflected the growing understanding that Western inaction has persisted long past the breaking point when he told a U.K. parliamentary committee yesterday that the siege of Aleppo had dramatically changed public opinion. “We cannot let this go on forever,” Johnson said. “We cannot just see Aleppo pulverized in this way. We have to do something.” Reportedly, British defense officials are considering how to enforce a no-fly zone without getting into a shooting war with Russia and are also considering attacks on the Syrian military.
It might be true, as analysts and former Obama administration officials keep pointing out, that the existing policy has been driven by good intentions and that any shifts or tweaks are unlikely to save Syria from ruination. It might be true that there are no pat solutions to the Syria crisis.
But that’s misleading, only part of the story. When America changes course, so will other players, including Russia, Iran, and the government of Syria. A different style of intervention from the one America is pursuing now could save some lives, which is no small accomplishment. And finally, while it’s not only about America, (or about Syria), an escalation in Syria that is designed to send messages to American rivals and contain the strategic fallout could, if well executed, produce yields in surprising places, as America’s deterrent stock rises and a renewed belief in American activism and engagement restores the U.S. role as global ballast.
We are not all interventionists yet, no matter how shrill the protests from the camp that has tried to defend every twist and turn of Obama’s Middle East policy and now finds itself suddenly on the losing side of the debate. But it is not foolish to hope that somewhere between the destructive overreach of George W. Bush’s militaristic foreign policy and Barack Obama’s pursuit of balance and restraint, there exists a happier medium where America’s never-ending engagement with the most troubled parts of the world yields better results.
[Published in The Atlantic.]
BEIRUT—For at least a year before the summer of 2016, civilians and fighters in rebel-held East Aleppo prepared for a siege they believed was both avoidable and inevitable. Correctly, it turns out, they calculated that the opposition’s bankrollers and arms suppliers—the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other “friends of Syria”—cared little for the well-being of civilians in rebel-held areas. Through the spring, contacts inside Aleppo prepared for the siege, expending minimal effort on appeals to the international community, which they assumed would be futile.
For all the world-weary resignation of the opposition fighters and other residents of rebel Aleppo, they have a well-earned pride in what they’ve done. They’ve maintained their hold on half of the jewel of Syria, and under withering assault, have cobbled together an alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. “From the beginning of the revolution, we held Aleppo as the role model of the liberated city, that holds free elections, has an elected city council, and elected local committees that truly represent the people,” Osama Taljo, a member of the rebel city council in East Aleppo, explained over the phone after the siege began in earnest. “We insisted to make out of Aleppo an exemplar of the free Syria that we aspire to.”
Unfortunately, Aleppo has become an exemplar of something else: Western indifference to human suffering and, perhaps more surprisingly, fecklessness in the face of a swelling strategic threat that transcends one catastrophic war.
The last few weeks have piled humiliation upon misfortune for Aleppo, one of the world’s great cities, and already a longtime hostage of Syria’s never-ending conflict. Aided by the Russian military and foreign sectarian mercenaries, Syrian forces encircled East Aleppo over the summer. Rebels briefly broke the siege, but Assad’s forces fully isolated them just as Russia and the United States put the finishing touches on a dead-on-arrival ceasefire agreement that, contrary to its stated purpose, ushered in one of the war’s most violent phases yet. Instead of a cessation of hostilities, Syria witnessed an acceleration of the war against civilians, with East Aleppo as the showcase of the worst war-criminal tactics Assad has refined through more than five years of war.
Sieges violate international law, as well as specific United Nations resolutions, that, on paper, guarantee access to humanitarian aid to all Syrians but which in practice the government has disregarded. Aleppo—the biggest prize yet for Assad—has also been subjected to his most destructive assault. Throughout East Aleppo, Syrian or Russian aircraft have ruthlessly bombed civilians, singling out all healthcare facilities and first-responder bases. Bombs have ravaged well-known hospitals supported by international aid groups, along with the facilities of the White Helmets, the civil defense volunteers famous for digging casualties from rubble.
As if to test the proposition that the international community has just as little concern for its own reputation as it does for the lives of Syrian civilians—nearly half of whom have been displaced from their homes nationwide—Russia apparently chose, on September 19, the seventh day of the ceasefire, to bomb the first aid convoy en route to rebel-held Aleppo. That decision will be remembered as a fateful one.
Russia and Syria were following a timeworn blueprint: Use force to kill and starve civilians, then lie brazenly to avoid responsibility. In this case, the evidence is too clear and the trespass too toxic to let pass. So far, we’ve seen a sharp turn in rhetoric from the UN and Washington. Sooner or later, whether in the twilight of the Obama administration or in the dawn of his successor’s, we will see a much harder “reset” in Western relations with Russia.
For years, voices from Syria have raised the alarm. After years of dithering, even some members of the international community had the decency to follow suit, like Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The country is already a gigantic, devastated graveyard,” al Hussein said this summer, warning Syria’s belligerents that sieges and intentional starvation campaigns amount to war crimes. “Even if they have become so brutalized [that] they do not care about the innocent women, children, and men whose lives are in their hands, they should bear in mind that one day there will be a reckoning for all these crimes.”
Belatedly, Western leaders are joining the chorus. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who avoided taking a stand during years of violence against humanitarian organizations by the Assad regime, now publicly accuses Syria and Russia of war crimes. On September 30, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s direct entry into the war, Gareth Bayley, Britain’s Special Representative to Syria, issued a broadside. “From Russia’s first airstrikes in Syria, it has hit civilian areas and increasingly used indiscriminate weapons, including cluster and incendiary munitions. Its campaign has dramatically increased violence and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians,” he said, blaming Russia for at least 2,700 civilian deaths. “Russia has proved to be either unwilling or unable to influence Assad and must bear its responsibility for the Assad regime’s atrocities.
America’s top diplomats, too, rail against Russia futilely. In a recently leaked recording of a meeting between a ham-handed but apparently sincere U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and members of the Syrian opposition, Kerry admitted that he lost the internal debate in the administration for greater intervention, more protection of civilians, and a stiffer stand against Russia’s triumphalist expansionism. But like a good soldier, he has continued to flog a bad policy, pushing perhaps much too hard on the small constituency of opposition Syrians who remain committed to a pluralistic, unified, democratic Syria.
Perhaps Russia has been searching for the West’s actual red lines all along, exploring how far it could go in Syria without provoking any push back from the United States and its allies. Maybe it finally found them after it bombed the UN aid convoy in September. Only time will tell if the recent pitched rhetoric translates into action.
One of the few consistent goals of U.S. policy in Syria over the last year was to shift the burden of responsibility for the crisis, or even guilt, to Russia. Throughout long negotiations, Washington has bent over backwards to act in good faith, trusting against all evidence that Russia was willing to act in concert to push Syria toward a political settlement. America’s leaders today appear shocked that Russia was acting as a spoiler, a fact clear to most observers long ago.
With the latest agreement in ashes—literally—and an ebullient Russia convinced it will encounter no blowback for its war crimes, America has a political chit in its hands. For now, Russia thinks it can achieve its strategic goals by relentlessly destabilizing the international order and lying as gleefully and willfully as the Assad regime. The United States helped underwrite that international order when the UN came into being in 1945, laying down moral markers on atrocities like genocide and war crimes, and crafting a web of interlocking institutions that increased global security and prosperity. As its primary enforcer, the United States also has been its primary beneficiary.
Now that Russia, determined to reestablish its status after the humiliating collapse of the Soviet Union, has pushed the United States into a humiliating corner and weakened that international order, it is raising the stakes. Either the United States will push back, or the disequilibrium will spread even further. In either case, many thousands more Syrians will perish. As Bassam Hajji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, one of the more effective, if violent, rebel militias influential around Aleppo, put it, “People have adapted to death, so scaring them with this siege is not going to work.” Those who remain in Aleppo echo this refrain again and again: The last holdouts have stayed out of conviction. It’s hard to imagine anything but death driving them out. “If Aleppo falls and the world stays silent, then that will be the end of the revolution,” Hajji Mustafa said.
In the end, Aleppo is not a story about the West; it is a cornerstone of Syria and an engine of wealth and culture for the entire Levant. Aleppo is the story of the willful destruction of a pivotal Arab state, a center of gravity in a tumultuous region in sore need of anchors. It’s a story of entirely avoidable human misery: the murder of babies, the destruction of homes, the dismantling of a powerful industrial and craft economy.
The institutions of global governance are under strain and international comity is frayed; as yet, however, none of the steps toward dissolution are irreversible. Such shifts take place over decades, not months. But the crisis in Syria presents the most acute test yet, and demands of the United States an active, robust, and strategic response that reinforces its commitment to the architecture of global governance—a system threatened by spoiler powers like Russia and ideological attacks from nativists, the right-wing fringe, and other domestic extremists in the West.
Ignoring its responsibilities in Syria—and opening the door for Russia to pound away at the foundations of the international order—hurts not only Syrians but the entire world. Perhaps, finally, Assad and his backers have gone far enough to provoke an American defense of that indispensable order that America helped construct.
Civilians inspected a burnt car after an airstrike in the rebel-controlled city of Idlib on Wednesday. Photo: AMMAR ABDULLAH/REUTERS
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
SYRIA HAS BROKEN down much worse than anyone expected. For more than five years, a wide and mostly unsavory cast of Syrians and foreigners has been going for broke fighting over the pivotal Levantine state — settling for massive amounts of human suffering and breakdown of order in the short term while gambling on total victory in the long term.
A quick inventory beggars the mind: hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, the rise of the nihilistic jihadi Islamic State, a refugee crisis that has fractured the European Union, violence and instability across most of the Middle East, a superpower standoff between Russia and the United States, and finally, the teetering of the entire Arab state system.
That’s just the major items on the list.
The Arab state system’s collapse today threatens basic order and livelihood in many areas, including war-torn Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It also has corroded the European Union, with an immigration crisis that has strained Turkey’s relations with the bloc and fueled a climate so toxic that it has spurred British voters to quit the European project.
The war’s consequences and scope appeared dramatically different from a few short years ago. Previously, Washington thought that Syria’s crisis would have limited consequences, no matter how terrible for the country’s citizens. President Obama staked his position on a well-intentioned read of recent history. After America’s failed Iraqi policy and ineffective regional intervention, the president reasoned that the United States could at least do less harm, for if Syria was going to be ripped apart, let others be to blame.
In the early years of Syria’s war, analysts and politicians who claimed the Levant was more important than the White House realized were dismissed as credulous rebel partisans or knee-jerk interventionists. Today the consequences of Syria’s meltdown have proven even more far-reaching than almost anyone predicted in 2011.
MILITARY ESCALATION IN Syria today is the best of a set of bad options. Even dissidents in the US Department of State have gone public with their desire for it. The United States is already deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and has declared its desire to use force and humanitarian aid to promote a political solution to the conflict. The idea is sound but requires a greater commitment — a final chance to do better, with some of Syria’s infrastructure and institutions still intact, Turkey undergoing a regional realignment, and with interventionists in Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah reassessing their own goals with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only intransigent parties, in fact, are Assad and the Islamic State — neither of whom is likely to be part of any political solution in Syria.
For the United States, the question is profoundly unsettling — how is it possible to do the right thing in a conflict this messy? Indeed, it might already be too late to save Syria. But if no one tries, more catastrophic outcomes are all but guaranteed: the full collapse of Iraq and Syria, the long-term enshrinement of the Islamic State, an acceleration of the regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a wave of state implosions around the entire Arab world that will resonate for generations.
In Washington, the debate has tended to break along two lines — extreme isolationists, who think the United States can only do harm by getting more involved, and extreme interventionists, who’d like to see the Pentagon invade. White House policy has actually straddled the divide, dedicating considerable resources to managing the conflict but claiming that it can’t do more. The United States has deemed Syria’s survival important but not so important as to be classified a core national interest.
The time has come, however, to admit that the policy hasn’t achieved its aims. At this stage, probably, no course correction will be able to restore Syria to its pre-war level of development and unity. But the fallout from Syria has proven that the integrity of the Arab state system, as flawed as it is, is a vital interest for the United States as well as for the denizens of the Middle East and their neighbors.
So, help Syria’s neighbors staunch the bleeding or intervene more actively in the conflict? It’s a painful question, especially in light of the historical destruction that the United States wrought with its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the cavalierly mismanaged military occupation.
Escalation appears to be plagued by a range of dangerous and risky options. (A study I recently conducted for The Century Foundation explores America’s choices in detail.) The United States has the power to end the Assad government’s indiscriminate use of air power to drop barrel bombs on civilians and make life impossible in rebel-held areas. With occasional retribution against government air assets and targets, it can raise the cost of tactics that are also war crimes. It can also use military assets to directly protect its vetted armed proxies, so they can more effectively fight the Syrian government and the Islamic State, and gain stature within the non-jihadi armed opposition.
After years of eyeing the United States, America’s rivals have assessed that Obama would stay out of Syria. They probably think the same today, given that the president has only a few more months in office. As a result, Syria has become a wild playground for the militaristic excesses of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the pivotal supporters of Assad’s government. These powers have opportunistically taken advantage of a void left by the United States, which has continued to intervene in the Syrian conflict but at a low ebb.
But a reinvigorated American role in the conflict would, paradoxically, make a political solution more likely once it became clear that Assad could never win outright. The greater chance of a political solution would not only save lives but also reestablish American stewardship of a world order that punishes war crimes, values civilians lives, and promotes rights, good governance, and open societies.
Unfortunately, a more robust American intervention would also bring the United States face to face with an expansionist Russia and Iran. Washington would have to use its military force with considerable skill and restraint in order to check these belligerent powers without being drawn into direct conflict. Fortunately, the US military has the technical capacity and experience to tilt the balance in Syria’s war without become a central party in the fight, and the last five years of conflict show that for all its bluster, the pro-Assad alliance has always carefully watched the United States and calibrated its war crimes and expansionist campaigns in line with its perception of what Washington will tolerate.
Left unchecked, Syria’s war will continue for another five to 10 years at least, with a full breakdown of the remaining national order. Syria will become a patchwork of villages ruled by competing warlords, without national institutions to govern and provide services. It will continue to export human suffering, refugees, and virulent ideologies like sectarianism and the Islamic State’s version of takfiri jihad.
The alternative — a US military intervention in Syria — is neither clean nor neat. With its local and regional partners, the United States would save some civilian lives and force some restraint onto the government side, perhaps reducing its worst war crimes. It would raise from zero to maybe 30 percent the chance of a negotiated settlement. It would also raise tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Perhaps most importantly, however, military intervention would show allies and rivals in the region that the United States still takes seriously its responsibilities as the single most dominant world power. By escalating in Syria, the United States would lay down a marker that Washington sees an interest in the Middle East and in a global order that stops rogue governments like Assad’s. Unless it wants to be seen as a force for entropy, state breakup, and fragmentation, Washington needs to put is muscle behind the goal of national coexistence, starting in Syria, where it should do what it can at this late stage to preserve a unitary state that grants equal rights to citizens of different sects and ethnicities.
President Obama tried to steer a middle course, backing away from direct intervention, despite initially drawing a red line if Assad used chemical weapons. While seemingly every country with a finger in the Middle East has funneled weapons, trainers, or fighters into Syria, the United States has spent billions of dollars on humanitarian aid and has provided just enough military assistance to the armed opposition to prevent it from being wiped out. But it has studiously avoided any action that would topple Assad.
Nearly a year ago, in September, Russia stepped into the void with a major military campaign to help Assad reclaim territory he had lost. Even Russia’s massive aid has failed to restore the regime’s position from a few years earlier, despite indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas and a systematic campaign to destroy hospitals, clinics, and other key infrastructure.
Furthermore, the United Nations has strained under the pressure of the Syria conflict, which officials describe as the greatest challenge in the UN’s history. UN officials have chosen to partner with Assad’s government, allowing it to block access to areas inhabited by rebel supporters. As a result, the supposedly impartial UN has become party to starvation and siege tactics employed by the government to force rebel communities to surrender.
Even with a history of failure and seemingly endless complications of future engagement, America can still positively shape the situation. It’s time for more action — humanitarian, military, and political — in order to reduce the catastrophic human toll, contain the strategic fallout, and reduce the chance of Syria becoming a fully failed state.
If we stay on the same course, Syria is guaranteed to collapse with even more of the toxic consequences we’re already suffering — the Islamic State, refugee flows, violence spreading into neighboring countries that are allies. It might already be too late to prevent a full meltdown, but if the United States doesn’t try to stave off the collapse, a vacuum is guaranteed.
The United States can do more to achieve a political settlement—invasion and containment aren’t the only options.
• In its sixth year of war, Syria has reached a breaking point. Soon its remaining institutions will collapse and Syria will be a failed state. The United States has pushed hard for a diplomatic solution and intervened militarily on the side of rebel groups, but stopped short of action that could shift the conflict’s momentum. Meanwhile, Russia has intervened decisively on the Syrian government’s side.
• The human toll of the war has been catastrophic. Nearly half a million people have been killed and half the country’s population displaced, including 5 million refugees. War crimes are endemic. Civilians routinely suffer starvation, sieges, torture, extrajudicial detention and indiscriminate bombardment.
• Preserving Syria is a vital national security interest for the United States. If it doesn’t do more now, America and its allies will suffer even more of the consequences of an imploded state in the heart of the Middle East: jihadi attacks from the Islamic State and its ilk, a global refugee crisis, and violent militancy seeping deeper into every country on Syria’s borders.
• A robust U.S. intervention would expand Washington’s existing approach, which integrates humanitarian aid, diplomacy and military force, but needs much more of each to succeed. Washington should use military force to protect vetted opposition groups and curtail war crimes committed by the government in Damascus.
• Now might present a final opportunity. Russia and the United States have a rare overlap of interests. Syria’s war won’t have any neat outcomes; this conflict can only be managed, not won. A robust intervention will not bring an immediate end to the war, but could set the stage for an eventual political settlement.
• A forceful U.S. escalation now can preserve American interests and credibility and curb the worst excesses of the current violence, giving Syria a fighting chance of emerging from its civil war with intact institutions and a government that can represent every major group.
[Orginally published at The Blog of the Century.]
Chemical weapons hold a special kind of horror. Ever since the widespread and horrifying use of chlorine and other poison gases in the trenches of the First World War, most nations have agreed not to use any of the increasingly sophisticated agents they have concocted.
It is because of this well documented taboo and the Chemical Weapons Convention that the United States government has said that it “will not tolerate” any deployment of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict.
But beyond moral revulsion, what will it mean not to tolerate the use of chemical weapons? What if clear and convincing evidence is presented that Bashar al-Assad has used nerve gas or some other chemical weapon against his citizens? What is the White House to do differently—and why, ultimately, should this particular method of mass murder rise to a new level than the workaday means (mortar shells, bullets, rockets, bombs) employed until now to kill upwards of 70,000 people in Syria?
There’s an argument to be made that chemical weapons are potentially so lethal, and so easy to spread, that states must establish a strong deterrent to their use. But that thinking doesn’t really hold up. Iraq used chemical weapons against its own citizens in the 1980s with support from the US government, which tried to blame Iran for the battlefield use of toxins. In that case, chemical weapons were just one atrocity among many in an eight-year conflict, and the world didn’t see a spate of nerve gas attacks by stateless militants.
In Syria today, the White House must decide whether to invest more resources in the conflict. Already, the US is arming and funding the rebel factions that it finds most palatable. It has held back from doing more because of the plethora of Islamist extremists in the opposition and because of the uncertainty of what would follow in the event of a state collapse in Syria. If in fact the Syrian regime is using chemical weapons, there would be more urgency to resolving the question of whether the US should do more.
But the basic calculus won’t change.
The US wants to see a stable Syria, which is unlikely to happen any time soon, and unlikely to happen at all so long as Bashar al-Assad is in power. So far, there is no clear alternative. On one side, a bankrupt family regime; on the other, a splintered opposition with no unified leadership, no clear plan for after Assad, an Islamist flavor and a major streak of jihadi extremism.
The US and the other foreign sponsors of the opposition have funneled money and weapons to their preferred groups, hoping that incremental and indirect intervention will mould the opposition into a more coherent structure. This might or might not happen, but until a viable leadership actually controls a sizeable portion of the rebels, outside powers—including the US—are unlikely to escalate their involvement. This constraint holds whether or not the regime is using chemical weapons (and whether or not, as many allege, some factions of the opposition are also committing war crimes).
Confirmed chemical weapons use will surely create a public outcry and intensify the moral case for intervention, and the ensuing pressure will surely affect the White House calculus. But it’s unlikely on its own to make the US go to war in Syria, or propel a coalition like the one that intervened in Libya. That kind of game-changing development will require a real shift in the structure of the opposition.
Greater crimes by the regime—be it use of chemical weapons, or ever more prolific massacres—could galvanize such changes. But misbehavior or crimes committed by some rebel factions could well cancel out any momentum to get involved.
The latest evidence is worrisome indeed. But it doesn’t yet open the way for an international intervention.
Syrian rebel fighters posed for a photo after several days of intense clashes with the Syrian army in Aleppo, Syria, in October. (AP: NARCISO CONTRERAS)
[Originally published in The Boston Globe Ideas.]
THE NEWS FROM SYRIA keeps getting worse. As it enters its third year, the civil war between the ruthless Assad regime and groups of mostly Sunni rebels has taken nearly 100,000 lives and settled into a violent, deadly stalemate. Beyond the humanitarian costs, it threatens to engulf the entire region: Syria’s rival militias have set up camp beyond the nation’s borders, destabilizing Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Refugees have made frontier areas of those countries ungovernable.
United Nations peace talks have never really gotten off the ground, and as the conflict gets worse, voices in Europe and America, from both the left and right, have begun to press urgently for some kind of intervention. So far the Obama administration has largely stayed out, trying to identify moderate rebels to back, and officially hoping for a negotiated settlement—a peace deal between Assad’s regime and its collection of enemies.
Given the importance of what’s happening in Syria, it might seem puzzling that the United States is still so much on the sidelines, waiting for a resolution that seems more and more elusive with each passing week. But it is also becoming clear that for America, there’s another way to look at what’s happening. A handful of voices in the Western foreign policy world are quietly starting to acknowledge that a long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.
If it’s true that the Syrian war serves American interests, that unsettling insight leads to an even more unsettling question: what to do with that knowledge. No matter how the rest of the world sees the United States, Americans like to think of themselves as moral actors, not the kind of nation that would stand by as another country destroys itself through civil war. Yet as time goes on, it’s starting to look—especially to outsiders—as if America is enabling a massacre that it could do considerably more to end.
For now, the public debate over intervention in America has a whiff of hand-wringing theatricality. We could intervene to staunch the suffering but for circumstances beyond our control: the financial crisis, worries about Assad’s successor, the lingering consequences of the Iraq war. These might explain why America doesn’t stage a costly outright invasion. But they don’t explain why it isn’t sending vastly more assistance to the rebels.
The more Machiavellian analysis of Syria’s war helps clarify the disturbing set of choices before us. It’s unlikely that America would alter the balance in Syria unless the situation worsens and protracted civil war begins to threaten, rather than quietly advance, core US interests. And if we don’t want to wait for things to get that bad, then it is time for America’s policy leaders to start talking more concretely—and more honestly—about when humanitarian concerns should trump our more naked state interests.
MANY AMERICAN observers were heartened when the Arab uprisings spread to Syria in the spring of 2011, starting with peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s police state. Given Assad’s long and murderous reign, a democratic revolution seemed to offer hope. But the regime immediately responded with maximum lethality, arresting protesters and torturing some to death.
Armed rebel groups began to surface around the country, harassing Assad’s military and claiming control over a belt of provincial cities. Assad has pursued a scorched earth strategy, raining shells, missiles, and bombs on any neighborhood that rises up. Rebel areas have suffered for the better part of a year under constant strafing and sniper fire, without access to water, health care, or electricity. Iran and Russia have kept the military pipeline open, and Assad has a major storehouse of chemical weapons. While some rebel groups have been accused of crimes, the regime is disproportionately responsible for the killing, which earlier this year passed the 70,000 mark by a United Nations estimate that close observers consider an undercount.
As the civil war has hardened into a bloody, damaging standoff, many have called for a military intervention, pressing for the United States to side with one of the moderate rebel factions and do whatever it takes to propel it to victory. Liberal humanitarians focus on the dead and the millions driven from their homes by the fighting, and have urged the United States to join the rebel campaign. The right wants intervention on different grounds, arguing that the regional security implications of a failed Syria are too dangerous to ignore; the country occupies a significant strategic location, and the strongest rebel coalition, the Nusra Front, is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Given all those concerns, both sides suggest that it’s only a question of when, not if, the United States gets drawn in.
“Syria’s current trajectory is toward total state failure and a humanitarian catastrophe that will overwhelm at least two of its neighbors, to say nothing of 22 million Syrians,” said Fred Hof, an ambassador who ran Obama’s Syria policy at the State Department until last year, when he quit the administration and became a leading advocate for intervention. His feelings are widely shared in the foreign policy establishment: Liberals like Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and conservatives like Fouad Ajami have made the interventionist case, as have State Department officials behind the scenes.
Intervention is always risky, and in Syria it’s riskier than elsewhere. The regime has a powerful military at its disposal and major foreign backers in Russia and Iran. An intervention could dramatically escalate the loss of life and inflame a proxy struggle into a regional conflagration.
And yet there’s a flip side to the risks: The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.
If that makes Syria an unattractive target for intervention, so too do the politics and position of the combatants. For now, jihadist groups have established themselves as the most effective rebel fighters—and their distaste for Washington approaches their rage against Assad. Egos have fractured the rebellion, with new leaders emerging and falling every week, leaving no unified government-in-waiting for outsiders to support. The violent regime, meanwhile, is no friend to the West.
“I’ll come out and say it,” wrote the American historian and polemicist Daniel Pipes, in an e-mail. “Western powers should guide the conflict to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing. The danger of evil forces lessens when they make war on each other.”
Pipes is a polarizing figure, best known for his broadsides against Islamists and his critique of US policy toward the Middle East, which he usually says is naive. But in this case he’s voicing a sentiment that several diplomats, policy makers, and foreign policy thinkers have expressed to me in private. Some are career diplomats who follow the Syrian war closely. None wants to see the carnage continue, but one said to me with resignation: “For now, the war is helping America, so there’s no incentive to change policy.”
Analysts who follow the conflict up close almost universally want more involvement because they are maddened by the human toll—but many of them see national interests clearly standing in the way. “Russia gets to feel like it’s standing up to America, and America watches its enemies suffer,” one complained. “They don’t care that the Syrian state is hollowing itself out in ways that will come back to haunt everyone.”
IS IT EVER ACCEPTABLE to encourage a war to continue? In the policy world it’s seen as the grittiest kind of realpolitik, a throwback to the imperial age when competing powers often encouraged distant wars to weaken rivals, or to keep colonized nations compliant. During the Cold War the United States fanned proxy wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Angola to Nicaragua but invoked the higher principle of stopping the spread of communism, rather than admitting it was simply trying to wear out the Soviet Union.
In Syria it’s impossible to pretend that the prolonging of the civil war is serving a higher goal, and nobody, even Pipes, wants the United States to occupy the position of abetting a human-rights catastrophe. But the tradeoffs illustrate why Syria has become such a murky problem to solve. Even in an intervention that is humanitarian rather than primarily self-interested, a country needs to weigh the costs and risks of trying to help against the benefit we might realistically expect to bring—and it’s a difficult decision to get involved when those potential costs include threats to our own political interests.
So just what would be bad enough to induce the United States to intervene? An especially egregious massacre—a present-day Srebenica or Rwanda—could fan such outrage that the White House changes its position. So too would a large-scale violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—signed by most states in the world, but not Syria. But far more likely is that the war simmers on, ever deadlier, until one side scores a military victory big enough to convince the outside powers to pick a winner. The White House hopes that with time, rebels more to its liking will gain influence and perhaps eclipse the alarming jihadists. That could take years. Many observers fear that Assad will fall and open the way to a five- or ten-year civil war between his successor and a well-armed coalition of Islamist militias, turning Syria into an Afghanistan on the Euphrates. The only thing that seems likely is that whatever comes next will be tragic for the people of Syria.
Because this chilly if practical logic is largely unspoken, the current hands-off policy continues to bewilder many American onlookers. It would be easier to navigate the conversation about intervention if the White House, and the policy community, admit what observers are starting to describe as the benefits of the war. Only then can we move forward to the real moral and political calculations at stake: for example, whether giving Iran a black eye is worth having a hand in the tally of Syria’s dead and displaced.
For those up close, it’s looking unhappily like a trip to a bygone era. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze warlord, spent much of the last two years trying fruitlessly to persuade Washington and Moscow to midwife a political solution. Now he’s given up. Atop the pile of books on his coffee table sits “The Great Game,” a tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia, heedless of the consequences for the region’s citizens. When he looks at Syria he sees a new incarnation of the same contest, where Russia and America both seek what they want at the expense of Syrians caught in the conflict.
“It’s cynical,” he said in a recent interview. “Now we are headed for a long civil war.”