Could We Have Stopped This Tragedy?

A realist grapples with his doubts on intervention in Syria.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Syrians check the rubble following an air strike by government forces on the eastern Shaar neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 17, 2015. Once Syria's economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by fighting since the rebels seized the east of the city in 2012, confining government forces to the west. AFP PHOTO / FADI AL-HALABI        (Photo credit should read Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrians check the rubble following an air strike by government forces on the eastern Shaar neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on September 17, 2015. Once Syria's economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by fighting since the rebels seized the east of the city in 2012, confining government forces to the west. AFP PHOTO / FADI AL-HALABI (Photo credit should read Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Unlike neoconservatives, who never admit error no matter how often they are wrong, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about whether my diagnoses of key world events have been off the mark. (For examples of this sort of “self-criticism,” see here, here, and here.) I’ll stand by the vast majority of what I’ve written in my scholarly work and my FP commentary, but I find it useful — indeed, necessary — to occasionally ponder whether I got something wrong and, if so, to try to figure out why.

Case in point: the increasingly awful situation in Syria. Ever since the initial protests broke out, I’ve believed this conflict was not of vital strategic interest to the United States and that overt U.S. intervention was likely to cause more harm than good. What has emerged since then is a relentless and gut-wrenching tragedy, but I’ve uncomfortably concluded that my original judgment was correct. And yet I continue to wonder.

To be sure, the Obama administration has not handled Syria well at all.

President Barack Obama erred when he jumped the gun in 2011 and insisted “Assad must go,” locking the United States into a maximalist position and foreclosing potential diplomatic solutions that might have saved thousands of lives. Second, Obama’s 2012 off-the-cuff remark about chemical weapons and “red lines” was a self-inflicted wound that didn’t help the situation and gave opponents a sound bite to use against him. The president wisely backed away from that position, however, and (with Russian help) eventually devised an arrangement that got rid of Assad’s chemical arsenal. This was no small achievement in itself, but the whole episode did not exactly inspire confidence. The administration eventually agreed to start a training program for anti-Assad forces, but did so with neither enthusiasm nor competence.

And consider what has happened since then. More than 200,000 people are now dead — that’s approaching 100 times as many victims as 9/11 — and numerous towns, cities, and villages have been badly damaged, if not destroyed. There are reportedly some 11 million displaced people either internally or out of the country, about half Syria’s original population. A flood of refugees and migrants has landed in Europe, provoking a new challenge to the European Union’s delicate political cohesion and raising the specter of a sharp increase in right-wing xenophobia. The carnage in Syria has also helped fuel the emergence and consolidation of the so-called Islamic State, intensified the Sunni-Shiite split within Islam, and put additional strain on Syria’s other neighbors.

Given all that, is it possible that those who called for swift U.S. intervention several years ago were right all along? If the United States, NATO, the Arab League, or some combination of the above had established a no-fly zone and stood ready to intervene with ground forces, might the Assad regime have fallen quickly and spared Syria and the world this bleak and open-ended disaster? Or might these steps have given outside powers greater leverage over the situation, put some serious teeth into the early diplomatic efforts, and made some sort of brokered political solution more likely?


We cannot replay the past to see where a different course of action would have led, but one cannot rule out a priori the possibility that a prompt, forceful, and committed international response would have produced a better outcome in Syria than what we observe today. If everything had gone just right, we might be viewing a pacified Syria as a big success story, much as proponents of humanitarian intervention now view NATO’s role in the Balkans in the 1990s.

But how likely was that rosy outcome? Having thought a lot about it, and having spoken with a number of knowledgeable friends who hold different views on this matter, I still believe intervening in Syria was not in the United States’ interest and was as likely to have made things worse as to have made them better. I take no pleasure in my conclusions; it would be more comforting to think that even seemingly intractable problems can be solved. But in this case, I base my unhappy verdict on the following arguments.

The Limits of Air Power. Proponents of “no-fly zones” typically exaggerate their impact and in so doing overstate the capacity of air power to determine political outcomes. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. naval air power can do a lot of impressive things, but air power remains a crude instrument and is not very good for controlling events on the ground. Remember that the United States operated “no-fly zones” over Iraq throughout the 1990s, and Saddam Hussein remained solidly in power until we invaded in 2003. Similarly, the United States has flown thousands of sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade or so (not to mention drone strikes), and these efforts didn’t allow Washington to dictate terms to those on the ground or shape their political futures in any predictable way.

To be sure, a no-fly zone would have limited some of the Assad regime’s worst excesses — such as its use of barrel bombs — and would probably have saved some lives. But grounding the Syrian air force would not have prevented Assad & Co. from using other means to a greater extent. And it would not have driven Assad from power quickly. As skeptics warned at the time, a “no-fly zone” was the first step onto a potentially slippery slope: If air power had failed to dislodge Assad, demands to do more would surely have increased, thereby putting the United States and others on course for a more costly and consequential involvement.

Assad’s “Gamble for Resurrection.” From the very start, a key problem in Syria was the lack of an attractive exit option for the entire Assad regime. As the titular leader of the Alawite minority that has dominated Syria since 1970, Assad and his followers saw relinquishing power as a mortal threat. (Needless to say, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s brutal murder at the hands of Libya’s rebels likely did little to reassure the Syrian president.) And it wasn’t just Assad and his immediate entourage that were in danger: Losing power could open the door to violent retribution against the entire Alawite minority. Thus, the Assad regime had little choice but to “gamble for resurrection” — to fight on no matter how bleak things appeared and to use any and all methods to ensure they were still standing at the end of the day or at least were in a position to bargain for survival.

Given these incentives, U.S. demands that “Assad must go” fell on deaf ears, and outside intervention (air power, no-fly zones, arms for rebels, etc.) weren’t likely to alter Assad’s calculations very much. The only possibility for ending the war quickly had to include leaving Assad in a defensible position, but the United States had ruled that (admittedly unappealing) option out from the start. Add to this the widespread tendency to assume early on that the Syrian government was on its last legs, and you can see why many believed a little nudge from the outside would have been enough to topple him completely and that serious and flexible diplomacy wasn’t necessary.

What About the Jihadis? Intervening to push Assad out faced another obvious objection: It might open the door for al Qaeda or other violent extremists. This concern also complicated proposals to arm anti-Assad forces like the Free Syrian Army. How could Washington ensure U.S. weapons didn’t end up in the wrong hands? To make matters worse, the most effective anti-Assad forces were precisely those groups the United States most feared. That’s the real lesson of Benghazi: Early U.S. intervention might have reproduced the Libyan disaster, reminding us that that only thing worse than a truly awful government is no government at all.

Why Can’t Uncle Sam Teach Anyone to Fight? In theory, early U.S. intervention might have been accompanied by a sustained effort to build up pro-Western or at least moderate Syrian forces, thereby creating the kernel of a new and more benign Syrian regime. And in theory, I have a chance to win a gold medal in the 2016 Olympics. The problem here is two-fold. It was impossible to find very many Syrians who fit this job description, and the Pentagon doesn’t seem to be very good at training foreign forces anymore.

Something seems to have gone badly wrong with U.S. military training efforts over the last 15 years. The Pentagon has poured tens of billions of dollars into training Afghans, Iraqis, and, more recently, a few friendly Syrians, but all we seem to get for it are foreign forces that lose battles, desert at a whim, and remain dependent on U.S. logistics, command advice, and other kinds of support. The groups our various proxies are fighting against — the Taliban, Hezbollah, al-Nusra Front, for example — don’t get any American training or advice, yet they consistently out-perform the recipients of American largesse. What gives? In any case, our recent track record at building reliable and competent foreign security forces cautions against believing that quicker and more vigorous U.S. involvement would have produced a successful outcome.

Face It: The United States Is Toxic. The ineffectiveness of U.S. training efforts and other forms of advice may be partly due to the negative opinion most people in the Middle East have of U.S. policy. America may be admired for its democracy, its achievements in science and technology, and the friendliness of its people, but U.S. Middle East policy is widely reviled. The United States was once regarded in positive terms — in particular, it wasn’t seen as a duplicitous imperial power like France or Britain — but that was 70 years ago. I won’t delve into the diverse sources of local anti-Americanism (some of them justified, others bogus), but there’s no sense in denying it at this point. Overt U.S. intervention can easily backfire by reinforcing prevailing narratives about “Western” interference and encouraging more people to conclude Osama bin Laden was right. In short, even if the United States and its allies had gone into Syria with the noblest of intentions, plenty of people in the region would have been suspicious, if not actively hostile. When mistakes occurred and civilians died — as they inevitably would, for such is the nature of war — Washington would have been blamed and fresh conspiracy theories would have proliferated.

Whose Interests Are Truly Engaged? There is a clear humanitarian interest in ending the Syrian civil war. But neither great nor minor powers typically run big risks or bear large costs for strictly humanitarian reasons. For most leaders, convincing their fellow citizens to make significant sacrifices usually requires a strategic justification as well. As noted above, for the United States, the strategic issues were complicated and do not point directly or unambiguously toward deeper involvement. After all, neither Democratic nor Republican administrations ever cared very much that a thuggish minority was running Syria before 2010, and the United States did business with Assad — père et fils — when it seemed useful. In this sense, U.S. strategic interests in Syria are limited (and all the more so now that Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal is gone).

By contrast, the interests of other states, including the Europeans, are much more deeply engaged. The problem, however, is that hardly anyone else has the capacity to exert a decisive impact on the war. Even Russian goals seem limited to preserving Assad for as long as possible and giving him an escape route if he needs one in extremis. Even as Russia increases its support for the Syrian regime, Moscow still hasn’t sent nearly enough arms or Russian forces to tip the balance in Assad’s favor. Perhaps the refugee crisis will convince the EU that it can no longer sit disarmed in its post-modern Garden of Eden and that it needs to rebuild a more serious military capability, but that task will take years and I wouldn’t bet on it happening anyway.

So as I wrestle with a counterfactual history and turn these problems over in my head, where do I come down? Should the United States have intervened to try to end Syria’s civil war or not? I conclude — with some genuine reluctance — that my non-interventionist instincts were correct in this case. Given what we’ve witnessed, I wish I could think up a clever strategy that would allow the United States and its allies to fix this problem, but I’ve drawn a blank. Nor has anyone else come up with a compelling solution, either.

It follows that the least bad option at this point would be a re-energized effort to end the fighting. The United States should stop insisting Assad must go, and listen carefully to the other powers with a stake in the outcome, including Russia. The good news is that the Obama administration is taking some tentative steps in that direction, but we don’t know yet if they will pay off or not. If ending the fighting and stopping the refugee exodus requires preserving a visible role for Assad, so be it. That outcome wouldn’t make me happy, but neither does a seemingly endless war. I don’t know if it will be possible to reconstitute a unified Syrian state; if not, then an organized and internationally supervised partition plan will have to be negotiated and implemented.

Politics, it is often said, is the art of the possible. This maxim is especially true in foreign policy and especially when dealing with the chaos of civil war. There are some problems for which there are no good solutions, only lesser evils. Back in 2011, I thought the most important tasks in Syria were caring for refugees and finding some way to end the bloodshed. I think I was right back then, and I think that’s the right course now. But am I 100 percent certain? No, and you shouldn’t be either.

Photo credit: Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.