Why Syria’s Rebels Can’t Have It All

Don't listen to pundits who want to drag America into another Middle East quagmire. The Obama administration's strategy in Syria is already working.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Here we go again.

Here we go again.

That strange coalition of neocons and liberal interventionists is clamoring once more for a more muscular U.S. approach to Syria. And unsurprisingly, they’re searching for culprits in the endless debate of "who lost Syria?"

Don’t believe any of it. The time for guilting the United States into expensive and ill-thought-out military interventions has passed. Indeed, the reasons to intervene in Syria — the hope of defusing a bloody religious and political conflict and dealing the Iranian mullahs a mortal blow — are just not compelling enough to offset the risks and the unknowns.

The "we need to do more" chorus has intensified in light of the dramatic and tragic events in Aleppo, where the Syrian army once again appears to be laying waste to a great city in the hope of rooting out its opponents. Last week, the Washington Post called yet again for a series of steps — arming the opposition and contingency planning for no-fly zones — without any analysis of whether such measures would appreciably affect the situation on the ground, let alone any consideration of what the costs might be if they didn’t work.

The death dance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime has been a long, complex affair, and it’s likely to go on for a while longer. It might even involve Assad retreating to an Alawite enclave along Syria’s northwest coast, where he could hold out against his opponents for some time. In the meantime, the conflict between a murderous regime and an opposition that won’t quit — but can’t yet win — goes on.

The reality is that Syria is in the middle of a complex internal struggle with a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There’s no single force on the ground — or constellation of outside powers — that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less. Sure, U.S. President Barack Obama could take down the Assads by force — but he would do an enormous amount of damage in the process and end up being forced to rebuild the country. Remember the Pottery Barn rule? That’s the last thing America needs.

Still, some seem determined already to lay the blame for the Syrian mess at America’s doorstep. The Syrian crisis would never have come to this had the United States not been so passive, the Wall Street Journal opined last week. In not leading a coalition of the willing, the country has produced a mess that will be harder to clean up.

The arrogance of the argument is as breathtaking as it is reckless. The notion that the United States could ever have fixed Syria is the same twisted logic that produced the Iraq debacle. It also flies in the face of the spirit of self-reliance that has made the popular revolts in the Arab world so genuine and authentic. If the so-called Arab Spring does in fact produce better governance, it will be precisely because the United States kept its distance and citizens took responsibility for their political future. It is a cruel irony that the one country where America intervened heavily — Iraq — is the one in which an Arab strongman still acts in arbitrary and heavy-handed fashion.

As for assembling a coalition of the willing, the bloom is off the rose on that idea. Some still believe that a coalition can be assembled to save the day by supplying weapons and air cover to any opposition group that would sign a kind of good-behavior agreement. Who all would be in this bunch, and what precisely would they be willing to do? What we’ve witnessed in the past half-year is a coalition of the unwilling, the opposed, and the vacillating. No amount of American leadership would have pushed the Europeans to consider risky military options, particularly after the NATO-led Libya operation demonstrated how stretched their resources were. And forget Russian help — the Kremlin seems willing to defend Assad to the last drop of Syrian blood.

As for Turkey, on which the pro-intervention crowd is banking much of its hopes, there is a reason Ankara has been all bark but no bite. Turkey will use military force if it sees Kurdish militants using the power vacuum in Syria to carve out a base, but it hasn’t pushed aggressively for a "safe zone" in Syrian territory because of its own public’s wariness of war and complications with Iran and Russia. Remember Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s "zero problems" policy? He wants to be loved by everybody.

Being cautious on Syria is still the best approach for the Obama administration, and here’s why.

It’s working.

The Assads are going down, though not nearly as quickly as one might have hoped. The opposition has now put both Damascus and Aleppo in play, testing the Syrian military’s control of the country’s two major cities. The Assads’ already small circle of key advisors has been reduced as a result of the July 18 bombing in Damascus that killed four top security officials. A grave sense of vulnerability and pervasive suspicions over whom to trust will continue to take its toll on the rest of the family’s circle. The regime’s counter-crackdown, meanwhile, is only deepening the rebels’ determination to resist and enlarging its pool of recruits. Meanwhile, the Syrian army continues to become fatigued and demoralized by endless guerrilla warfare against an enemy that appears to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

This process will not be quick or painless. But nobody has made a compelling case that half-measures — more arms for the opposition, no-fly zones, safe havens — will bring the Assads down. To give these ideas the old college try because we feel compelled to "do something" isn’t a strategy; it’s a wing and a prayer. And after Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s just not good enough to pass the threshold for putting American lives, money, and credibility on the line.

Keep your powder dry.

A real coalition of the willing will indeed be required to mend Syria’s wounds — but only after the main battle to defeat the Assads has concluded. An international monitoring and stabilization force could preempt civil war and create the basis for a political transition. International donors conferences will have to be launched to raise the billions of dollars that will be required to get Syria moving economically and to deal with the broken bodies and minds left in the wake of the violence and terror. These are steps that the United States — along with the rest of the international community — can embark upon that will not force it to take sides or plunge ahead with half-baked intervention schemes. And it is this second struggle for Syria that is worth the multilateral effort.

America can’t control the world.

International intervention still might come, driven by the pressure of events. It could be prompted by a large-scale massacre by the regime, in which thousands are killed in a single action, or by the prospect of Assad’s loss of control of his chemical weapons stockpile. But for now, America’s current approach will have to do, enhanced as necessary to accommodate the swelling refugee flows into Syria’s neighbors.

It should come as no surprise to observers that Syria has come to this. There was no way the Assads were going down without a brutal, bloody fight and a messy, complex transition. And the odds that the post-Assad era will go as smoothly (relatively speaking) as those in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Yemen are slim to none.

But the idea that the United States — currently in the grips of an economic crisis, already strained militarily by a decade of costly foreign wars, and in the middle of an election season — would be able to make that transition substantially easier strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. After the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and billions of dollars expended, only a willfully delusional observer would argue that the American adventures in those countries were worth the price the United States paid. Nor should those countries’ current conditions provide inspiration for additional military expeditions to fix yet another foreign land.

Retiring U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a very wise man whose career has been spent trying to make his government’s unwise policies work, said it best in his exit interview with the New York Times. We should heed his three lessons: Remember the laws of unintended consequences; recognize the limits of U.S. capacity; and understand that a foreign power’s exit from a conflict can be as dangerous for the country as the original conflict.

Syria today is a mess — but it’s a Syrian mess. Afghanistan and Iraq should teach us that America can’t control the world. It’s time the country focus primarily on fixing its own broken house, instead of chasing the illusion that it can always help repair somebody else’s.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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