Should Obama Have Intervened in Syria?
Or would U.S. military involvement merely have made a disaster worse?
With an estimated 60,000 dead and no end in sight, Syria is not only a humanitarian tragedy of mind-boggling, heart-rending proportions — it’s also the most difficult analytical issue I’ve ever grappled with, and the one the Obama administration has most struggled to get right. But it’s important to dig into where exactly it went wrong.
The real U.S. failure of leadership in Syria is not that it refused to intervene militarily. Nor is it that it failed to arm the opposition. Its failure was that it could not find a political solution to prevent the descent into armed proxy war — a descent we could all see coming. The spiraling catastrophe of the last six months confirms every warning about the dangers of an armed insurgency — extending the conflict, making it bloodier and more extreme, and devolving power to the men with guns rather than the peaceful activists.
This catastrophe all too powerfully demonstrates why Kofi Annan’s United Nations mission was worth supporting. His plan never had a great chance of success, but it was not hopeless. Annan and his supporters were right about a few big things: that the political process had to take precedence over the military track, that state institutions needed to be preserved in order to prevent a descent into anarchy, that Bashar al-Assad’s backers abroad needed to support the process, and that the center of gravity had to be the undecided Syrian middle ground. There were moments when it seemed like it might work, as when Russia flirted with the Geneva agreement on a transitional government (it ultimately didn’t go along), or when a meaningful Security Council seemed within grasp (it wasn’t).
But for all that, nobody can deny that Annan failed. What is more, the conditions that made his initiative worth trying have disappeared. Syria’s state institutions have largely collapsed, and the armed insurgency has largely overtaken the peaceful protest movement. Nobody dreams anymore about a unified Security Council. The middle ground has largely disappeared, as most Syrians who haven’t already fled have either chosen their side or retreated into sullen, scared apathy. Pity Annan’s successor Lakhdar Brahimi for continuing to play out this string.
The blame for this dire situation, to be clear, lies primarily with the Assad regime, which chose to kill its way through its crisis rather than seek a safe exit. Critics of the International Criminal Court have warned that the prospect of international justice makes leaders in Assad’s position more likely to fight to the death. War crimes prosecutions were kept off the table largely in order to keep an exit option open for Assad (I thought an indictment should have been pursued last year). But he chose to fight nonetheless. I (like many others) underestimated the regime’s ability and willingness to butcher its own people and hold onto power; I expected regime elements to dump Assad as a liability long ago, or the disgusted Syrian middle ground to defect en masse. I still think that he ultimately will lose, albeit at nigh unbelievable cost, but we all need to be honest about the poor track record of that prediction.
Were there missed opportunities to do better? Advocates of intervention frequently complain that the United States could have prevented this fiasco through earlier, more forceful action. This is easy to say, but almost certainly untrue. Last year, a wide range of serious analysts inside and outside the government, including me, looked carefully at a wide range of possible military steps: no-fly zones, safe areas, bombing campaigns, arming the opposition. None could in good faith conclude that these limited military measures would lead to a rapid end to the conflict. Far from avoiding today’s tragedy, U.S. military intervention would very likely have made things in Syria worse.
Critics of the Obama administration’s approach, such as Sen. John McCain, have taken to saying that all the things opponents of intervention warned of – militarization, tens of thousands of dead, inroads by al-Qaeda affiliates – have now come to pass. This is only partially true. The U.S. military is not bogged down in another Iraq-style quagmire, steadily slipping down the slope of intervention as each limited move fails to end the conflict. There is no Pottery Barn rule dictating that Americans must prepare for a thankless and violent occupation and reconstruction. It is of little comfort to Syrians, but for the American national interest this is not a small thing.
What about arming the opposition? There was a debate to be had there last year, but it’s long since been overtaken by events. The United States wisely resisted sending arms into the fray based on concerns about cutting off its diplomatic options, empowering local warlords, and paving the path toward a longer and bloodier civil war. But others, particularly in the Gulf, were not so restrained, and persistent calls for more money and guns aside Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons. The worst effects of arming the opposition have now already taken place, and the United States throwing more guns onto the fire would now have at best a marginal impact. Analysts often fret that the United States has lost its leverage over Syrian rebel groups by virtue of not offering up guns, and that Jubhat al-Nusra and other radical Islamists have risen in influence due to America’s absence. I just don’t buy it. Al Qaeda affiliates are not in the habit of deferring to American policies, and would not have abandoned as attractive a front of jihad as a Syria consumed by civil war just because some groups were carrying U.S. arms. The shift into armed insurgency and civil war is what brought al Qaeda into the mix, not America’s failure to deliver guns.
Most of the old arguments about Syria policy are now of only academic interest. Diplomacy? That was a live option a year ago, but the circumstances which made it worth pursuing have passed and even I don’t see much point to the current diplomatic efforts. Arming the opposition? The rebels are being armed and the arena has been thoroughly militarized, regardless of American choices. Military intervention? There’s a reason it’s rarely even brought up anymore.
What to do, then? The reality is that there simply is not all that much which the outside world can do at this point beyond trying to mitigate the worst effects of the war, help support the political organization of the opposition, and prepare for the post-Assad troubles to come. Much of that work has already begun. The new National Coalition represents the best American and international effort to date to pull together a representative and effective opposition umbrella. There have been important recent efforts to try to create at least the impression of its political control over the armed groups, to rationalize the flow of weapons. Much serious work is being done to prepare Syrian technocrats and opposition institutions for the day after Assad falls. These are worthy efforts that need to be undertaken, but even those involved probably recognize that they aren’t likely to survive contact with reality.
What could be added? Certainly not military intervention. There is a desperate need to help Syrian refugees, but that only treats the symptoms and not the disease. The currently hot idea of forming a transitional government to receive aid probably couldn’t hurt at this point. Pushing for war crimes indictments against the Syrian regime leadership is long overdue. The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage, and do more to coordinate regional and international action to keep the outside players from working at cross purposes. Above all, serious plans should be put into place for assisting Syria and establishing order when Assad does fall. Because when he does, I expect that it will be sudden, violent, and leave a massive political and security vacuum that all of these armed groups will struggle to fill.
I’m not optimistic that any of these efforts, however necessary, will be able to accelerate the end of the war. It’s hard to see any soft landing anymore, and nothing can bring back the tens of thousands of lost lives, devastated families, and shattered communities. If it continues on the current path, Syria is likely to be consumed by fighting for years to come, regardless of when and how Assad falls. But hard, smart work by the international community can improve the odds that the outcome will be a transition to a genuinely better Syria.