The Assads are going down, though not nearly as quickly as one might have hoped. The opposition has now put both Damascus and Aleppo in play, testing the Syrian military's control of the country's two major cities. The Assads' already small circle of key advisors has been reduced as a result of the July 18 bombing in Damascus that killed four top security officials. A grave sense of vulnerability and pervasive suspicions over whom to trust will continue to take its toll on the rest of the family's circle. The regime's counter-crackdown, meanwhile, is only deepening the rebels' determination to resist and enlarging its pool of recruits. Meanwhile, the Syrian army continues to become fatigued and demoralized by endless guerrilla warfare against an enemy that appears to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
This process will not be quick or painless. But nobody has made a compelling case that half-measures -- more arms for the opposition, no-fly zones, safe havens -- will bring the Assads down. To give these ideas the old college try because we feel compelled to "do something" isn't a strategy; it's a wing and a prayer. And after Iraq and Afghanistan, it's just not good enough to pass the threshold for putting American lives, money, and credibility on the line.
Keep your powder dry.
A real coalition of the willing will indeed be required to mend Syria's wounds -- but only after the main battle to defeat the Assads has concluded. An international monitoring and stabilization force could preempt civil war and create the basis for a political transition. International donors conferences will have to be launched to raise the billions of dollars that will be required to get Syria moving economically and to deal with the broken bodies and minds left in the wake of the violence and terror. These are steps that the United States -- along with the rest of the international community -- can embark upon that will not force it to take sides or plunge ahead with half-baked intervention schemes. And it is this second struggle for Syria that is worth the multilateral effort.
America can't control the world.
International intervention still might come, driven by the pressure of events. It could be prompted by a large-scale massacre by the regime, in which thousands are killed in a single action, or by the prospect of Assad's loss of control of his chemical weapons stockpile. But for now, America's current approach will have to do, enhanced as necessary to accommodate the swelling refugee flows into Syria's neighbors.
It should come as no surprise to observers that Syria has come to this. There was no way the Assads were going down without a brutal, bloody fight and a messy, complex transition. And the odds that the post-Assad era will go as smoothly (relatively speaking) as those in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Yemen are slim to none.
But the idea that the United States -- currently in the grips of an economic crisis, already strained militarily by a decade of costly foreign wars, and in the middle of an election season -- would be able to make that transition substantially easier strains the bounds of credulity to the breaking point. After the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and billions of dollars expended, only a willfully delusional observer would argue that the American adventures in those countries were worth the price the United States paid. Nor should those countries' current conditions provide inspiration for additional military expeditions to fix yet another foreign land.
Retiring U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a very wise man whose career has been spent trying to make his government's unwise policies work, said it best in his exit interview with the New York Times. We should heed his three lessons: Remember the laws of unintended consequences; recognize the limits of U.S. capacity; and understand that a foreign power's exit from a conflict can be as dangerous for the country as the original conflict.
Syria today is a mess -- but it's a Syrian mess. Afghanistan and Iraq should teach us that America can't control the world. It's time the country focus primarily on fixing its own broken house, instead of chasing the illusion that it can always help repair somebody else's.