Is It Too Late to Help Syria?

Military analysis.
July 19 2013 6:28 PM

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.

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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.

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