No Good Options: Why America Dithers in Syria

So long as all parties in Syria are determined to destroy each other, America has little reason to get involved.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Barack Obama
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Barack Obama of the United States meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 7, 2009 (White House/Samantha Appleton)

Haters do hate and many of President Barack Obama’s greatest haters despise what he’s done about Syria; or, more accurately, what he hasn’t done. Some of that criticism is fair but much of it is not, for Syria is not worth the blood, treasure or time of the United States when there are much bigger, nuclear-armed fish to fry elsewhere.

Here’s why.

With some cliff notes

  • Two events are highlighted again and again as notable Obama failures: not arming the “good” rebels in 2011-12 and not bombing Bashar Assad following his gas attack in August 2013 on rebel forces outside Damascus.
  • Such criticism implies that if Obama had just done something, Syria’s civil war wouldn’t be nearly as severe and the Islamic State might have been stopped.
  • But that’s a silver bullet used on a vampire because Syria’s civil war, once begun, was never going to end that cleanly or that simply.
  • That’s because Syria’s own human landscape is too readily fractured by those who seek to fracture it and there are plenty of powers that be that sought and still seek that.
  • And so long as that’s the case, Syria will remain beyond the interest of the United States.

So let’s go back to the original tweets and so-called “smackdowns.”

I really despise when social media says so-and-so provides a “smackdown” of so-and-so’s live tweets or whatever. Just call it a “refute that validates my original opinion” and get to the honesty here.

There are two moments Obama opponents like to focus on when it comes to “losing” Syria: the failure to arm the rebellion early on and the failure to bomb Syria following the August 2013 gas attack.

The first implies that the Americans could have armed moderate forces within Syria, controlled them using the leash of ammunition and pushed them into an Army of Democracy that would have at the very least prevented the rise of the Islamic State.

The second implies that an air attack on Assad could have given a fine boost to the moderate rebellion, given them important battlefield victories and perhaps pushing Assad to the negotiating table early enough to both prevent the entrance of Russia into the war and the rise of the Islamic State.

Both of these criticisms hinge on Syria being a simpler place than it actually is

The good guys versus bad guys narrative is inept and stupid (and you should use those exact terms if somebody claims there are any such things in foreign policy). This is not Star Wars; it’s Syriana and if you can’t follow the story maybe you shouldn’t be writing a review, let alone supporting a presidential candidate who believes he can “surround ISIS,” whatever that means.

Syria’s own human landscape is fractured by a long history of both being on the way to somewhere richer and being controlled by somewhere more powerful. The “on the way” quality made it a crossroads of trade which meant more than a few religions, philosophies and ideals mixed and matched and mutated within its current borders. Being dominated by outside powers meant that no central government ever really set about a process of cultural homogenization that stuck: imperial overlords tend to care little what their subjects believe so long as they toe the empire’s line.

While the Assad regime had begun to homogenize Syrians into secular Arabs, the regime had neither the time nor the cash to carry out the process completely before the Arab Spring. This meant Syrian society was still deeply divided along religious, ethnic and tribal lines when the protests began.

Here now is the doom of geopolitics: even if Assad had stepped aside peacefully in 2011, it’s very likely that Syrian society would have still produced some kind of civil war as its human landscape found itself unable to agree upon basic governing principles. The civil war didn’t have to be as brutal, nor give rise to such things as the Islamic State, but the odds of Syria ever making the transformation to democracy peacefully were very, very low.

This means that even under the most absolute of ideal of what ifs — of Assad leaving power on his own — you’d still have a Syria that would succumb to the pressures of too many factions refusing to compromise. It’s simply too complicated of a place to make such a shift without crushing someone underfoot.

This is essentially what each faction is now fighting for: to simplify Syria’s society by killing or cowing enemies. Islamic State’s plan is the most brazen as it seeks to annihilate whole cultures and religions, as well as Syrian tribalism as a whole, by brutally utilizing a caliphate to justify its wanton executions of anyone with loyalties anywhere besides the caliph. But each faction more or less wants the same thing; what remains of the Free Syrian Army wants to kill, imprison or exile the Assad regime and its supporters; the Islamists seek a less brutal version of the Islamic State; the Assad regime wants to cull just enough opponents to reestablish secular and Arab nationalist governance.

Which is why picking a winner in Syria has always been nigh impossible

America doesn’t want to pick a winner who will go on to slaughter their enemies; it’s found that strategy both too expensive and too likely to cause blowback. But since nobody is talking reconciliation, there are few forces the United States can choose to support. To wipe out one faction means to give power to the bloodlust of another: this is as true today as it was in August 2013 or the early stages of the rebellion in 2011-12.

Instead, America has been forced to adopt a strategy of containment. With the capture of Mosul by the Islamic State in 2014, America had to provide at least some firepower to local allies to prevent IS from capturing Iraq’s rich oilfields. But to thunder in with another invasion is folly in the extreme: the headcount of soldiers needed to conquer the Islamic State and prevent anything else from taking its place would be in the hundreds of thousands. Those soldiers are needed in Europe and Asia where they serve as checks on Russian and Chinese ambitions.

Moreover, Syria’s implosion suits the United States from a strictly power-politics standpoint. Syria and Iran were the last two great anti-American bastions in the region; both are weaker today than they’ve been in decades. Iran is now expending precious power propping up the tattered remnants of the Assad regime while America applies the lightest of touches to its air war against the Islamic State.

Best of all, the Russians have now rushed into the war, putting both their credibility and their own forces in harm’s way. If Russia fails to achieve anything less than total victory, it will find itself hobbled by its commitment to Syria, to America’s benefit.

So until Syria’s factions are too exhausted to fight on, America’s light touch makes the most sense for a superpower with limited abilities

The model to follow is Lebanon in the 1980s. Then, like Syria today, a myriad of factions, tribes and forces fought one another to a stalemate, with more than a few foreign forces intervening, before everyone realized the costs of controlling the whole of Lebanon weren’t worth the battles. This led to a fractured and pitiful state but a largely peaceful one; under the circumstances, it was the best anyone could do.

To solve Syria’s civil war will require every faction abandoning war as a means to an end; that will only happen in tandem with outside powers losing interest in the war itself. America gains little from controlling the outcome of the war beyond limiting the damage Islamist forces can do; it gains much more from allowing its enemies to make mistakes on Syria’s battlefields.

Until a major city changes hands to an anti-American force, that calculation isn’t likely to shift. Lebanon’s civil war lasted fifteen years before sense finally overcome hate; Syria, bigger and deadlier, may have a long way to go yet.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, October 12, 2015.