War Stories

Is It Too Late to Help Syria?

The options were never good, but now they are far worse.

A Free Syrian Army fighter throws a homemade bomb towards forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad as fellow fighters watch in Deir al-Zor July 14, 2013.

A Free Syrian Army fighter throws a homemade bomb towards forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Photo by Stringer/Reuters

Is it too late for us to do something about Syria? It depends, in part, on how you define “something.”

In Foreign Policy last month, Marc Lynch, one of the smartest analysts of Middle Eastern politics, drew a crucial distinction in assessing U.S. policy toward the conflict. “Should Syria be viewed,” he asked, “as a front in a broad regional cold war against Iran and its allies or as a humanitarian catastrophe that must be resolved?” Alas, “both” is an untenable answer. Steps that bleed Iran are likely to prolong the bloodshed; steps that abate the suffering might require dealing with Iran—Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chief backer—and thus solidifying its position as a regional power.

In other words, the prelude to either making or assessing America’s policy toward the Syrian conflict requires answering Lynch’s question, and it’s not clear that the Obama administration—or its critics—have done so. This may be one reason the debate has been so muddled.

Clearly the first view—Syria as a front in the regional cold war—is the dominant one; if the country weren’t in the center of such an explosive, vital region, few would be paying attention to the violence. And yet partly because President Obama has made commitments to the Syrian people (wisely or not), and partly because the flood of refugees threatens to destabilize the neighboring countries (especially Jordan, where they are overloading the available resources), the second view—Syria as a humanitarian catastrophe—can’t be neglected.

So let’s look at each: Can we do anything about either element of the conflict?

Doing something about Syria as a cold-war front would involve, at the very least, arming the rebels—or some of them, anyway. This week, the British backed away from their commitment on this score, citing recent developments which suggest more arms would have little good effect. Should Obama back away as well?

The main recent developments that drove Britain away were the reports that the Syrian rebels were killing one another with more gusto than they were killing soldiers of the Syrian regime. That came on top of the growing awareness that Assad was gaining momentum and that arming the rebels (even if it were clear which rebels are worth arming and which aren’t) would have little impact on the balance of forces—unless a coalition of allies started not just sending in small arms but, say, rolling in tanks across the Turkish border, which nobody, not even the most fervent interventionists, have any desire to do.

This has been the question that many have posed to Obama’s critics all along, and that the critics—most notably Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham—have been unable to answer: Just what is it that you want the United States to do? Send in troops? No, no boots on the ground, they’ve replied. Impose a no-fly zone? They have endorsed that move on occasion, but when asked about the implications (the fact that this is tantamount to declaring war and that escalation is inevitable if, say, an American plane gets shot down), they again have nothing to say.

Had Obama armed the anti-Assad forces at the outset of their rebellion, it’s conceivable that it might have had some jolting effect. As is now well known, many of Obama’s senior advisers—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeus, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey—all endorsed a plan to do just that, but Obama didn’t agree.

Some of Obama’s reasons for resisting were good. He did not buy his advisers’ assurance that they could ferret out the moderate rebels from the radical jihadists (whose ranks were swelling even then, though not nearly to today’s levels). He feared that their plan carried too many risks of escalation. On a broader level, Obama was intent on proceeding with his strategic “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia. Finally (and this was one reason for the pivot), he had just finished pulling out the troops from one Middle East war, just started pulling them out from another, and wasn’t about to start putting them back into a third. He was personally disinclined to do that, and he understood—to a degree that his advisers and Republican critics clearly did not—that the American public had no appetite for getting involved in another conflict either.

But not all of the president’s reasons were valid. Obama and much of his White House staff had this notion (as spokesman Jay Carney expressed it at a press conference on May 30, 2012) that Assad and his backers were “on the wrong side of history.” This is the hoariest of clichés. History is not a force with preferences or personality, except in the minds of Hegelians. Yet some of Obama’s advisers (and more of George W. Bush’s) have had a tendency to indulge in these metaphysics. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon uttered the same sentiment about Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi a year earlier. In this view, a straight line seemed to connect Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to Qaddafi to Syria’s Bashar Assad. Middle East dictators were basically of the same stripe and they were all destined for the chopping block (literally or figuratively) in the great rupture of the Arab Spring.

In fact, not all those regimes proved of equal temperament. The central geography of Syria, the vital role that Assad’s regime plays in extending Iran’s regional reach (and in maintaining Russia’s regional presence), and its firm support among small but powerful segments of the local population—these factors pulled the Arab Spring into a different twist when it hit Syria. Assad’s power base turned out to be much more solid than many had foreseen. In retrospect, it’s doubtful that—if Obama had intervened earlier, as Clinton, Petraeus, and the others advised—it would have shaken Assad in his boots, forced him into exile, driven him to the negotiating tables, severed his ties to Iran and Russia, or compelled his generals to overthrow him.

Whatever the situation may have been a year ago, the conflict is now a civil war—not so much a clash between a dictator and rebels but rather a sectarian conflict (similar to those we’ve seen in the region this past decade, with the unraveling of the post–World War I settlement of imperial borders), intensified by the brutality of this dictator and the multiple rivalries among these rebels.

In this sense, another way to view Syria is a war between Hezbollah (whose militias came to the aid of Assad’s army) and al-Qaida (whose affiliates are playing a growing role in the rebellion). Seen that way, a president wouldn’t be out of line for asking, “And why should I get in the middle of this?” A particularly cynical subscriber to Realpolitik might even be keen to let the two sides fight it out.

But then there is the human factor—so horrific it cannot (or anyway should not) be pushed aside. The war has killed nearly 100,000 Syrians, displaced 2.5 million people internally, and forced another 1.7 million into exile (out of a pre-war population of 23 million).

Many of those exiles have crossed into Jordan. A refugee camp just across the border—which Secretary of State John Kerry visited on Thursday—holds 115,000 people. Most of them live in tents, some are constructing shacks; gang wars have broken out among the many young people. It’s a disaster that is exhausting the Jordanian government’s resources: financial, political, and otherwise.

The United States is funding quite a bit of this effort, but it could do much more, as could many other countries and the United Nations. That should be a top priority. If the Jordanian government were to crumble under the pressure, disasters of various sorts would cascade across the region. That would trigger a genuine national security crisis, and not just for us.

There is also a case for cross-border aid to rebel-controlled areas, to be administered in part by international agencies but more upfront by the Syrian opposition’s political institutions. Marc Lynch has made this case, arguing that—besides addressing the humanitarian crisis—it would also force the more moderate factions of the opposition to develop administrative skills and build political support.

There are two problems with this idea. First, the countries in the region are reluctant to send aid to these areas, except covertly. (The idea would involve such massive aid that it would have to be out in the open.) Then again, nobody has exactly been pressuring them to do so. If the United States took a leadership role, and (particularly important) if the rebel’s provisional government seemed in charge, the dynamic might change.

Second, and much more serious, providing security to this enclave might require setting up a no-fly zone, as the United States did in northern Iraq for the Kurds during the 12 years between the two wars against Saddam Hussein. This is precisely the risk of escalation that Obama tends to avoid—and wisely so. No-fly zones are also resisted, as a matter of course, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who sigh—correctly—that such operations are much more complicated than their advocates think. For one thing, they do constitute an act of war. So this may be a nonstarter (though it should be thoroughly explored before it’s casually dismissed).

The bottom line, though, is that there is little to gain, and much to risk or lose, in getting involved in this war militarily. President Bill Clinton last month urged Obama to intervene, saying that he’d look like a “wuss” if he didn’t, adding, “Sometimes it’s just best to be caught trying, as long as you don’t over-commit.” That was irresponsible and vapid. What did he mean by “over-commit”? Was he suggesting that Obama send just enough arms or troops to show that he was “trying,” just as long as it didn’t have much effect? Trying without trying too hard—and thus showing that your efforts are worthless—is often worse than not trying at all.