What’s happening in Syria is a tragedy – but nobody has ever been willing to do what’s necessary to stop it.
- By Emile SimpsonEmile Simpson is a research fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. He was formerly a British Army officer.
Political leaders across the West piously lined up last week to identify the fall of Aleppo as a stain on our collective conscience. The West, they have said, should have done more to stop the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
At a purely humanitarian level, this is obviously true. States can always do more to deliver humanitarian aid to people on the ground. But in a military sense, the notion that the West should have “done more” is fantastical and learns exactly the wrong lesson from this carnival of carnage.
If there is a lesson for the West from the post-Cold War era of liberal interventionism, it is this: Either intervene decisively and be invested for the long term — or stay out.
It’s true that in 2011 the West had a military opportunity to topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime by backing a rebellion not yet contaminated by radical Islamists. What is more dubious is that such a military victory would have put Syria on a path to democracy, stability, or peace. If only things were that easy.
In reality, in the absence of Western ground forces to keep the peace, a 2011 rebel victory in Syria would likely have turned out like the botched intervention in Libya the same year. After the initial euphoria, the country would have become fragmented, as various militias sprang up and took control of their local areas.
This would have opened the door to radical Islamists, as it did in Libya. The West would then have had to accept chaos and increasing Islamist influence in another failed state.
Conversely, if the West had hypothetically deployed its own forces on the ground in Syria in 2011, it is likely that our forces would have soon faced an Islamist insurgency, if Afghanistan and Iraq are anything to go by. And this would have been a long haul: Look no further than Afghanistan, where Western forces still haven’t left, or Iraq, where they had to return to avert state collapse.
All the commentators grandstanding over the fall of Aleppo to castigate the West for not having “done more” militarily are welcome to explain how they would have rallied U.S. public support in 2011 for another major counterinsurgency effort in Syria. By 2011, after thousands of soldiers had died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the multitrillion-dollar cost of those campaigns, which was piled on the back of the 2008 financial crisis, the idea that there would have been U.S. public support for such an endeavor is fantasy.
As then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself told an audience of West Point cadets in 2011, anyone who advised a president to put another big American force into the Middle East at that moment “should have his head examined.”
Indeed, those who say the West should have “done more” tend to agree that a large Western ground force was unrealistic but that we could have intervened at a lower level. The problem with this fallback argument is that the United States and its Persian Gulf allies did exactly that, by arming rebels.
But by 2012, the rebellion had already become infected by radical Islamists, which is why the pressure to “do more” ultimately translated into U.S. military aid for a handful of vetted rebel groups while the rebellion as a whole took on an increasingly Islamist character.
This led Western strategy into a dead end, ever vacillating between arming rebels and resisting an actual rebel victory that would open the door to an Islamist takeover of Syria.
But what if Barack Obama’s administration had enforced its “red line” over chemical weapons and bombed Assad in 2013 or set up a no-fly zone: Could the United States then have pressured Assad into a negotiated peace with the rebels?
I think both of these hypotheticals are plausible. Superpowers have to enforce their red lines or lose credibility. And it is reasonable to assume that a credible U.S. threat in the form of bombing Assad’s forces could have encouraged the dictator to negotiate in 2013.
However, I don’t see how a negotiated settlement (and it’s clear that many hard-line rebel groups would not have taken part in a deal anyway) would have led to anything other than a Libya-like outcome in rebel areas, with Islamist militants rapidly taking over governance. Unless, again, the West had put its own troops on the ground.
This seems to me to be the crucial point, to which all roads lead. Despite the complexity and anguish of the situation in Syria, the bottom line is whether or not the West is prepared to put its own troops on the ground to win the war and secure the peace.
That could have worked in 2011 when the rebels were ascendant, and it might have worked in 2013 to back up a bombing campaign after the red-line violation. Moreover, putting Western boots on the ground has worked relatively effectively in Iraq and northeastern Syria, where Western forces partner with the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting against the Islamic State.
But I predict that if Western forces don’t stay in northeastern Syria to keep the peace after the Islamic State is cleared out, in conjunction with a clear political plan to secure an autonomous region of Syria for the Kurds, there will be chaos, infighting among the various factions of the SDF, and the risk that either Assad or Turkey attacks the area to secure their own interests.
Where does this leave us? Whether or not the West should have done more militarily, the only way it could have done more without causing more problems for Syrians and Westerners alike, it seems to me, would have been to put our own troops on the ground and strap in for a multiyear counterinsurgency campaign. However, those who make that argument must show that there would have been U.S. public support for such a move either in 2011 or 2013 — and it seems to me that there was not.
Of course, there are the zealots among the liberal interventionists who go beyond strategic arguments and see the world in binary and absolute moral terms. They think that the West bears moral guilt for the omission of not stopping other people’s atrocities. I think this is nonsense. Assad, Moscow, and Tehran are squarely responsible for the humanitarian atrocities in Syria, not the United States or the West. Furthermore, the West does not bear moral responsibility for fixing the broken, corrupt, and dysfunctional politics of those Middle Eastern states whose leaders invited rebellion against them in 2011 — but once you’ve toppled a regime for humanitarian reasons, that’s the thankless job you’re stuck with.
The basic truth is that despite technological innovation, war today is still won, and the follow-on peace is still determined, by infantry on the ground. There is a real limit to what proxy rebel forces can do, especially when they are fragmented and infected by Islamists. It follows that if the West is serious about a given intervention in the Middle East, it needs to send its own forces and prepare for the long haul.
Pious advocacy, and public support, for humanitarian military intervention dissolves very quickly when Western soldiers — actual 19-year-olds with real families — start getting ripped to shreds by daisy-chain IEDs in endless efforts to fix other countries’ dysfunctional politics.
I am far from being against intervention in general. I just think the future of Western military intervention lies in supporting the governments of fragile states, not toppling them. In this respect, the successful French intervention in Mali in 2013 is a good template: in support of a government, rather than a regime change; against a clear military target; and with good knowledge of local politics (i.e., an ability to distinguish Tuareg rebels from al Qaeda, as opposed to bluntly grouping all as “terrorists”).
But not every situation is like Mali. And not all problems have military solutions, unless you are prepared to go all in.
Although the West is not responsible for the atrocities in Aleppo, we are morally responsible for giving false hope to the rebels since 2011, when we offered them rhetorical and, later, material support but did not have the will to back them with our own troops.
Act decisively. Or stay out.
Photo credit: BARAA AL-HALABI/AFP/Getty Images