Doing Nothing Is Now out of the Question

Obama may finally have changed his calculus on Syria -- but is his plan for the U.S. to train rebels two years too late?

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Mass atrocities do not intrinsically threaten world peace, much less Western interests. The genocide in Rwanda did not, nor did the mass murders in Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Darfur. The slaughter in the former Yugoslavia did, which is why the West intervened in Bosnia. Those of us who favor the doctrine known as "the responsibility to protect" wish it were otherwise, but with rare exceptions (Libya), it is not.

Syria has always been a special case. The collapse of a country in the middle of an explosive neighborhood automatically threatened American interests. But it wasn’t clear, at least at the outset, whether openly siding with the rebels was more likely to stabilize or destabilize that neighborhood. As Hillary Clinton writes in her memoirs, "The risks of both action and inaction were high." It’s probably fair to say that those who believed in the moral case for supporting the rebels found good reason to assert that inaction would harm American national interests rather than otherwise. Clinton and other senior officials made that case to President Barack Obama in 2012, and Obama turned them down. He thought inaction better served American interests.

Now, apparently, Obama has come around. Last week, he asked Congress to authorize $500 million to train and equip vetted rebel groups, as Clinton had wanted him to do in 2012.

What’s changed? The definitive collapse in January of peace talks with Russia and Syria proved beyond any doubt that diplomacy, by itself, was not going to solve the problem. And the stunning spread of the apocalyptic jihadi group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — and in recent days as just the Islamic State — has radically changed the balance of America’s national interest in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad’s war on his own people created a vacuum of authority that ISIS has filled, and ISIS now threatens the United States as Assad’s barrel bombs never did. Perhaps Obama has reflected that the advisors who thought that the risks of inaction outweighed the risks of action were right.

But is it the right course now? If Syria matters because it has become the frontier of the war on terror, is helping the rebels wrestle Assad to the negotiating table the right way to fight that war?

There’s a very serious argument that it’s not. If the country is an impossibly fragmented state, as Syria scholar Joshua Landis has argued in Foreign Policy, then helping the rebels is a formula not for regional stabilization but for "civil war and radicalization." Rather than helping the rebels against Assad, perhaps, as Leslie Gelb recently proposed, the White House should work directly with Assad, along with Iran and Russia, to crush the extremists.

Leaving aside the moral issue of openly siding with the author of unspeakable atrocities, or his entourage, the fact that until now Assad has more or less seen ISIS as an ally in his fight against the rebels suggests that he would not make for much of a partner in the war on terror. The regime has rarely taken on ISIS directly, and the extremists in turn have focused their efforts on fighting the insurgents for territory in the north. They have had a working entente. It’s the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who have gone toe-to-toe with the jihadists, driving them from Aleppo and parts of Idlib province. As Robert Ford, Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, said to me, "If this administration wants to contain the Islamic State on the ground, they’re going to help the FSA."

In other words, the national-interest question has shifted from whether actively helping the FSA will do more good than remaining on the sidelines, to whether it’s the regime or the rebels who are most likely to blunt the advance of ISIS. Standing on the sidelines has ceased to be an option, just as allowing al Qaeda to flourish on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the aftermath of 9/11 was not an option. And even if you refuse to acknowledge the categorical moral difference between a regime waging war on its citizens and the rebels (who include terrible people who have done terrible things) fighting to bring that regime down, it’s clear that the rebels view ISIS as their mortal enemy — and the regime does not.

Having said that, it’s hardly clear that the rebels have the capacity to do what the United States would like them to do. The moderate rebels, a vague phrase that may or may not encompass Salafist brigades that would fit many people’s definition of "extremist," have barely sustained a stalemate against the combination of Assad’s artillery and air attacks and ground forces led by Hezbollah and Iranian officers. And now, they are simultaneously locked in combat with the battle-hardened jihadists of ISIS, who have begun to stream back from Iraq armed with missiles and even American Humvees. The Iraqi army melted away before ISIS battalions, despite in many cases greatly outnumbering them.

The Syrian rebel command remains hopelessly fragmented, with the Supreme Military Council enduring a meltdown literally as Obama was announcing the new program last week. American military planners will thus have to work with individual commanders, as they have been doing on a very modest scale for the last few years. What’s more, since the White House program envisions the Defense Department taking over the vetting and preparation of fighters from the CIA (though a covert effort is likely to continue, and perhaps even grow), producing freshly trained units is likely to take a year or more. Will Pentagon trainers pull entire units out of combat? Perhaps instead they’ll train Syrian trainers. All this will make the process agonizingly slow, while Assad continues his murderous assaults.

Even the most ardent advocates I have spoken to acknowledged the magnitude of the obstacles. But they are not hopeless. As Robert Ford asserts, "If the administration is able to stand up in the coming months a program where elements of the Syrian opposition have steady access to cash, ammunition, food, medical supplies, and communications gear, we know just from the past month what the rebels are capable of doing."

The former ambassador may be far too optimistic; he too is guilty of believing in the moral imperative of action. But what’s the alternative, given that doing nothing is now out of the question? Arming the rebels is only one element of what must be a much wider strategy involving pressing for political change in Iraq, regaining control over the Iraqi side of the border with Syria, sealing off the border between Turkey and Syria that jihadists have poured through — and, yes, working with Iran and Russia, both of which fear Sunni extremism. In all likelihood, Obama will wind up authorizing limited airstrikes against ISIS forces in Iraq. At that point, logic would dictate that he do so in Syria as well. The president will find that he has to do far more today to stave off disaster in Syria than he would have needed to do in 2012.

Until now, Obama has shown that he fears the perils of action far more than those of inaction. It may be that the threat of ISIS has changed his calculus. He remains cautious: After the White House debated it for months, Obama is said to have planned to include the new training program in his West Point speech in late May, but then yanked it at the last minute for further tweaking.

Congress reconvenes next week, and the administration will begin its lobbying effort for the $500 million. Then, perhaps, the president will reveal just how much urgency he feels on the subject. It’s very, very late for the Syrian people. But it’s still better than never.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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