The Post-Obama Syrian Playbook

The current president is right that America can’t win the war against Bashar al-Assad. Here’s how his successor can avoid defeat.


BEIRUT — U.S. President Barack Obama has tried his hardest to keep his distance from the Syrian war. Even as he has made the case that the conflict can be contained, the meltdown of the Syrian state has sent wave after wave of chaos into the wider world — spawning a new generation of terrorists and warlords and creating millions of refugees who have reshaped the politics of Lebanon, Turkey, and the European Union.

BEIRUT — U.S. President Barack Obama has tried his hardest to keep his distance from the Syrian war. Even as he has made the case that the conflict can be contained, the meltdown of the Syrian state has sent wave after wave of chaos into the wider world — spawning a new generation of terrorists and warlords and creating millions of refugees who have reshaped the politics of Lebanon, Turkey, and the European Union.

Syria has reached an inflection point, and Obama’s successor will have to shape a new response. The status quo hasn’t worked; quite to the contrary, it has destroyed an entire country, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process while producing a raft of problems — including worsened relationships with allies like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel and the threat of state meltdown and regional collapse — that will bedevil the United States and its allies in the Middle East for decades to come.

So how should the next president manage an escalation in Syria designed to enhance American influence and raise the chances of a political solution to Syria’s civil war while limiting the potential for catastrophic strategic fallout?

The “terrorism-first” alternative, entailing an American alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is morally repugnant and strategically pigheaded — such a choice would place Washington in league with rogue states and reward mass murder.

The other choice, though also problematic, requires the United States to escalate its existing military intervention in Syria. As I advocated in a recent report for the Century Foundation, Washington should shore up the motley crew of surviving rebels and make clear that it won’t allow the Syrian regime to win on the battlefield. If there is to be no military solution for Assad, Russia, and Iran, whose scorched-earth strategy is to bring down the region if Assad’s dictatorship falls, then — and only then — does the chance of a political settlement increase from nonexistent to slim or moderate. The next president will find that even if an escalation in Syria doesn’t produce such a settlement, it will reap plenty of other strategic benefits for the United States, which will gain new leverage over its allies and rivals as it proves willing to exercise its rightful superpower role.

Obama has been right that the United States can’t control the outcome of Syria’s long-running war. Rather than try to impose a solution, Washington has no choice but to use its power to try to force the war’s combatants — local and international — to reach a deal. Its strategy already includes a sizable military intervention, as well as a massive humanitarian contribution.

But this is where the administration’s approach starts to go wrong. Until now, the White House has kept too much distance from the conflict, especially after backing down from its “red line” over Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have stepped into the vacuum, carefully expanding their ambitions and the pace of their war crimes only when they saw there would be no pushback from Washington. Over the summer, Assad and his allies have wantonly violated a cessation of hostilities, encircling Aleppo and bombing hospitals all while Russia insisted it was working with Washington to resolve the conflict. The United States has let deadline after deadline lapse without consequence.

On every level, American inaction has worsened the crisis. As a result of the White House’s detachment, other arms of the U.S. government are trying to force other options onto the table. Some of these leaked suggestions are terrible, like the idea of an open alliance against Assad between the United States and al Qaeda, advocated by some Syrian rebels and entertained privately by some Machiavellian advisors to the U.S. government. Other proposals are well-intentioned though vague, like the “dissent channel” memo signed by 51 American diplomats arguing for robust military action against Assad and his allies. Some voices in the Obama administration — and in Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s orbit — have suggested teaming up with Russia against the Islamic State and al Qaeda, though such a move would be disastrous unless it were preceded by major concessions in Ukraine or Damascus, which Putin is unlikely to grant.

Washington’s existing approach has been to use military power and humanitarian aid to try to promote a political solution to the conflict. This idea is basically sound, and with some minor adjustments it could be far more effective. The United States can easily change the political calculations of the war’s combatants with greater military action — and that military action needn’t be nearly as drastic as an all-out invasion or even a full-fledged no-fly zone.

Targeted American retaliation against Syrian government targets would put Assad on notice that war crimes won’t go unpunished. The message from the U.S. government will be simple: There is a price to pay for barrel-bombing civilians and striking hospitals. Even if Assad and his allies continue on their maximalist and destructive course, they will meet formidable, perhaps decisive, resistance when facing armed opposition groups benefiting from full-fledged American support.

A more robust military campaign in Syria should build on both of the missions already underway: the CIA’s covert sponsorship of armed proxies and the Defense Department’s overt train-and-equip program for rebels.

U.S. military action would have specific goals: to weaken Syrian government forces and punish them in direct response to war crimes, sieges, and other atrocities. The aim of intervention would be to protect civilians and promote the slim possibility of a negotiated settlement to the war. It would not go so far as to help the rebels win — just far enough to maintain the stalemate so that Assad’s regime understands its only choice is to negotiate with the majority of its citizens who oppose his dictatorship.

The seesaw siege of Aleppo this summer is illustrative of how quickly momentum can shift in the conflict — and also of how difficult it is for either side to achieve an outright victory. As American attention drifted, Russia, Iran, and the Assad government cut off the last remaining road link to rebel-held Aleppo. Within a month, rebels had broken the siege and came close to surrounding the much more heavily populated government side. Neither side can win outright, and neither can be eliminated. Even with incredibly high levels of Russian and Iranian support, the Syrian government cannot capture Aleppo. With lukewarm, sporadic American support, the rebels have hung on for years.

Supporters of U.S. military intervention in Syria — including the intervention already underway — must be honest about the risks and limits. Washington’s allies in the Syrian armed opposition have a limited reach and are unreliable. Rights groups have documented abuses and atrocities by onetime poster children of the U.S. proxy war program, like the Noureddine al-Zinki brigade. Unfortunately, extremists and jihadis, like government forces, also have some legitimate popularity. An honest policy must acknowledge that there will be collateral benefits to parties that the United States does not want to strengthen — such as the dominant, recently renamed al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, which coordinates militarily with mainstream rebel groups — but can calibrate force so that benefits of the policy outweigh the costs.

Despite these evident challenges, a rejuvenated U.S. military campaign in Syria could help achieve America’s strategic aims. For starters, the United States could use air power to end regime starvation sieges, such as the ones currently underway in Daraya, Madaya, Moadhamiya, and Eastern Ghouta. For the sake of moral symbolism, intervention should also end starvation sieges by the Islamic State in Deir al-Zour and by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Foua and Kafraya. Air power, special operations forces, and proxies could expand and defend safe access to rebel-controlled Aleppo. Short of full safe havens and no-fly zones, the United States can offer partial protection to civilian areas in southern, central, and northern Syria — for instance, by sometimes, if not always, shooting down aircraft that attack civilian targets. Already there are considerable gatherings of civilians, for example, along the Jordanian and Turkish borders. These heavy concentrations of civilians are constantly at risk; U.S. protection — even if incomplete — could save many lives.

Meanwhile, the United States should pressure the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its preferred proxy, to stop attacking vetted FSA groups and to cooperate with them. The United States should withhold arms deliveries and airstrikes for the SDF any time they attack FSA groups. It should also provide airstrikes on behalf of FSA groups with equal speed and intensity as it does for both the SDF and the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Where it lacks the capacity to provide air cover to vetted FSA units, it should quickly address technical obstacles. It should introduce into the rebel side of the battlefield the capacity to shoot down planes, through whichever means the U.S. military finds most effective, whether that is special operations forces from the United States or allies like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates or tightly controlled deliveries of anti-aircraft missiles to vetted proxies.

The United States should make proportionate retaliatory airstrikes for any indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian government or the Russian military on civilians and infrastructure, especially hospitals, clinics, and civil defense. The U.S. military and its vetted proxies should employ enough force to protect displaced camps and civilian neighborhoods.

Islamic State and government forces will bear the brunt of such U.S. action, but airstrikes and special operations can continue to target anti-regime extremists, such as al Qaeda, when they threaten U.S. allies. It is not necessary to engage in total war against all the extremist parties in the conflict; limited, occasional strikes will make it harder for all parties to commit war crimes and will inject uncertainty into the calculations of militias.

The United States will want to take care not to tangle directly with the Russian air force, but the Syrian air force is another matter. Syrian fighter jets and helicopters wreak murderous havoc in the style of schoolyard bullies; they’re tough only because they’re not challenged. The United States can quickly change that by shooting down some Syrian government planes and helicopters. It’s time to end the long and disingenuous debate about whether to give rebels surface-to-air missiles by addressing the indiscriminate bombardment of civilians from the air head-on. Even occasional U.S.-orchestrated strikes against regime air assets — always over areas where U.S. forces have given prior notification to Russia, to be sure there are no accidental strikes against Russian pilots — will force the Assad government to shelve its approach of massive bombardment of rebel-held civilian areas.

America stands to reap strategic dividends from greater involvement in the Syrian war. Frustrated allies have long complained that the United States has abandoned its regional responsibilities and, as a result, have become difficult to work with on matters far beyond Syria. A committed United States will find it easier to get help on other issues from Turkey and Saudi Arabia than it does today. Even more crucially, the quicker the core meltdown in Syria is contained, the more quickly the entire world will reap the benefits of a reduced jihadi wave and flow of displaced people.

Being more involved in Syria is also the morally right thing to do. The United States created the state collapse in Iraq, sparking a war that has engulfed Iraq and Syria and promises to last at least a generation. It has a responsibility to try to manage the results of this meltdown and gains moral and political credibility by doing its best to protect civilians and promote state stability and good governance, even when those efforts only achieve partial results. A more robust intervention that achieves only one thing — fewer casualties from barrel bombs, airstrikes, and shelling and thus less displacement — would still count as a success.

It might be too late to save Syria, but that doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth it. An effective escalation could potentially eliminate the Islamic State and contain the spillover in Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. An intervention that halts Syria’s fragmentation at its current state — rather than giving it another decade to unravel — means the difference between bad and worse. If the crisis is allowed to fester, Syria risks becoming as ungovernable as Afghanistan or Somalia.

A more pointed objection is that the United States has been so bad at interventions, as evidenced with its mismanagement or outright incompetence in Iraq and Afghanistan, that it’s foolish to expect it to do a passable job in Syria.

But recent failures cannot justify abdicating conflict management across the globe. The United States did well in the Balkans after its initial missteps and proved in Libya that it can work with others and operate in the murky middle ground where the goal is to try to steer a collapsing state into the least malignant direction possible.

The United States cannot simply ignore the ongoing catastrophe in Syria. It’s better to make an attempt to manage the crisis, with the invariable mistakes along the way, rather than simply dealing with the fallout, which will be far worse and will still entail the same American mistakes.

Reasonable people can disagree, but we ought to have this argument on merits rather than demagoguery. I’m not advocating invasion and occupation, and I don’t paint all opponents of U.S. intervention as heartless apologists for murderous dictatorship. But it’s been clear for several years that the U.S. policy of limited intervention is not accomplishing its goals. Syria’s surviving institutions are nearing collapse, and the country is on the brink of further fragmentation, which will have destabilizing effects across the Middle East.

Much of the debate about what to do in Syria breaks along ideological lines and ignores inconvenient facts. Policymakers trying to figure out Syria, no matter which course of action they advocate, will do better if they embrace this ambiguous environment. There are no guarantees and no pat outcomes to be had, neither with the current policy nor with the more robust intervention that I have proposed. But I believe the United States can do better in Syria — for Syrians themselves, for regional stability, and for U.S. national security interests.

Aleppo Media Center

Thanassis Cambanis, author of Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story and A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel, is a fellow at the Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @tcambanis. Twitter: @tcambanis

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