The Failure of Impasse

From Vietnam to Syria, the appalling history of U.S. efforts to end wars by creating stalemate.


The last six weeks have left me convinced that the United States' Syria policy -- if "policy" is not too generous a term -- could hardly get any worse.

The last six weeks have left me convinced that the United States’ Syria policy — if "policy" is not too generous a term — could hardly get any worse.

Apparently, I was wrong, at least if the Washington Post is to be believed. The Post reported on Oct. 3 that, while the CIA is "expanding a clandestine effort to train opposition fighters in Syria," the goal of the program, "defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement," is to provide just "enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win." (My emphasis.)

If this is true, it’s beyond appalling.

According to the Post, the White House’s notion is that such willful half-measures will eventually help further a negotiated end to the conflict. After more than two years of military stalemate, Bashar al-Assad’s murderous government forces appear to have gained the upper hand, while al Qaeda-linked factions within the rebel movement are displacing the more secular opposition groups. This, of course, is bad: From a U.S. perspective, pretty much the only thing worse than the military triumph of Assad’s Iranian-supported regime would be the military triumph of extremist, Islamist rebels tied to al Qaeda. What to do?

Enter, presumably, some self-styled geniuses of realpolitik in the White House, suggesting an approach stunning in its cynicism: Let’s tip the balance ever so slightly back towards the moderate rebels, in hopes of fostering a renewed "stalemate among the warring factions."

Henry Kissinger would have been proud. But as a strategy for an administration ostensibly committed to human rights and atrocity prevention, this approach is both foolhardy and morally bankrupt. As General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently observed, the Syrian conflict could take "a decade" to play out. Meanwhile, the direct costs of a prolonged military stalemate will be borne not by the United States, but by the Syrian people.

The U.S. pursuit of "stalemate" in other people’s conflicts has a long and shameful history. To note just a couple of highlights, there was Kissinger’s misplaced conviction, in the early 1970s, that military stalemate would be just what was needed to bring about peace between Arabs and Israelis. "[A] prolonged stalemate," Kissinger believed, "would move the Arabs toward moderation."

That worked well.

Then there was the Iran-Iraq War. Even as the Untied States provided covert support to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — and the CIA turned a blind eye while Saddam used chemical weapons against Iranian troops — the general policy of the Reagan administration was, as former Army War College professor and CIA analyst Stephen Pelletiere put it, that there "should be no victor" in the conflict. The United States disliked both the Shiite Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran and Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and preferred that the war have "no winner in the sense of one side decisively defeating the other."

The predictable outcome of this approach was sustained regional instability, catastrophic losses, and still-festering resentment on both sides. As many as one million people were killed during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and in a very real sense, the conflict has never ended. Today in Syria, Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces are fighting with rebels belonging to al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

What goes around comes around.

The White House’s apparent support for an extended military stalemate in Syria may have been inspired in part by an Aug. 24 New York Times op-ed by Edward Luttwak. "A victory by either side would be equally undesirable for the United States," Luttwak argued. Thus, "[m]aintaining a stalemate should be America’s objective. And the only possible method for achieving this is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning."

It’s true that prolonged stalemates can sometimes push opposing sides toward a negotiated settlement. But this can happen only when all parties are rational actors — and when external factors weighing against compromise don’t trump incentives for meaningful negotiation. For stalemate to produce compromise, the costs of the former must also be borne by those with the power to end the conflict, rather than mainly by those who are its victims.

In Syria, none of these conditions exists. As a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) concluded earlier this summer, the notion that "military pressure would force the [Assad] regime to alter its calculus so that it would … negotiate its demise" rests on false assumptions. It ignores "the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees [and] the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assume[s] that the Assad regime has a ‘calculus’ susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last."

Against this backdrop, the ICG concludes that the "stalemate" approach, "in which [external] allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail," is no kind of solution at all: Rather than bringing about a negotiated settlement, such an approach would only "perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims."

Luttwak’s Aug. 24 op-ed argued that "the only possible alternative" to fostering stalemate in Syria is "a full-scale American invasion to defeat both Mr. Assad and the extremists fighting against his regime."

That’s wrong. While there are no "good" options in Syria, the United States doesn’t have to choose between full-scale military intervention — followed, Luttwak suggests, by a long-term U.S. occupation — and a policy of arming moderate Syrian rebels at a level that prevents them from either losing or winning. There are at least two other options.

The first option, of course, is to stay out the Syrian conflict altogether. This offers no guarantee of a good outcome, either from the perspective of U.S. regional interests or from the perspective of the Syrian people, but it would at least ensure that the United States doesn’t actively prolong the conflict at the expense of ordinary Syrians.

To be sure, such a "clean hands" approach is unsatisfying. But in the just war tradition, as in medical ethics, the guiding principle of action is primum non nocere: "First, do no harm." And refraining from military intervention — including indirect intervention, in the form of arming and training Syrian rebels — doesn’t require the United States to abandon non-military efforts to end the conflict. The United States could accelerate efforts to work both with Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s primary backers, to find a way to bring the Syrian conflict to an end.

Granted, this approach faces long odds of success. If staying out of the conflict seems unacceptable, there’s another option that lies in between doing nothing and massive military intervention: The United States should commit itself to helping Syria’s moderate rebels win.

This need not involve Iraq War-style "shock and awe" airstrikes, an extensive ground invasion, and a multi-year U.S. occupation, an approach that Luttwak and others are right to suspect would probably also do far more harm than good — and that is unlikely to garner much popular support at home. An alternate military approach might involve having U.S. Special Forces provide weapons and on-the-ground training to the Free Syrian Army — with a view not to creating a military stalemate, but to giving them genuine combat overmatch against both Assad’s forces and al Qaeda-linked rebels.

In his enthusiasm for drone strikes and high-profile raids involving Navy SEALs, President Obama seems to have largely overlooked the potential value of Army Special Forces, whose primary mission has always been unconventional warfare. Special Forces soldiers are trained to build the capacity of indigenous fighters while staying in the background themselves, letting local actors retain ownership of their own battles.

While no panacea, making more extensive use of Army Special Forces in Syria might offer the United States its best hope of decisively tipping the military balance in favor of moderate factions without embroiling itself in a full-scale war and occupation. Such an approach carries it own risks, of course — but if we truly care about the outcome of the Syrian conflict, we need to consider it more seriously.

I remain painfully torn between a belief that the United States should sit this one out entirely and a conviction that we should intervene decisively to try to end the conflict. But I do know one thing for sure: The military "stalemate" that existed for most of the last two years has already killed an estimated 110,000 Syrians.

If the United States pursues a policy premised on the belief that renewed stalemate is preferable to having "a clear victor," how many more Syrians are going to die?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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