With an estimated 60,000 dead and no end in sight, Syria is not only a humanitarian tragedy of mind-boggling, heart-rending proportions -- it's also the most difficult analytical issue I've ever grappled with, and the one the Obama administration has most struggled to get right. But it's important to dig into where exactly it went wrong.
The real U.S. failure of leadership in Syria is not that it refused to intervene militarily. Nor is it that it failed to arm the opposition. Its failure was that it could not find a political solution to prevent the descent into armed proxy war --- a descent we could all see coming. The spiraling catastrophe of the last six months confirms every warning about the dangers of an armed insurgency -- extending the conflict, making it bloodier and more extreme, and devolving power to the men with guns rather than the peaceful activists.
This catastrophe all too powerfully demonstrates why Kofi Annan's United Nations mission was worth supporting. His plan never had a great chance of success, but it was not hopeless. Annan and his supporters were right about a few big things: that the political process had to take precedence over the military track, that state institutions needed to be preserved in order to prevent a descent into anarchy, that Bashar al-Assad's backers abroad needed to support the process, and that the center of gravity had to be the undecided Syrian middle ground. There were moments when it seemed like it might work, as when Russia flirted with the Geneva agreement on a transitional government (it ultimately didn't go along), or when a meaningful Security Council seemed within grasp (it wasn't).
But for all that, nobody can deny that Annan failed. What is more, the conditions that made his initiative worth trying have disappeared. Syria's state institutions have largely collapsed, and the armed insurgency has largely overtaken the peaceful protest movement. Nobody dreams anymore about a unified Security Council. The middle ground has largely disappeared, as most Syrians who haven't already fled have either chosen their side or retreated into sullen, scared apathy. Pity Annan's successor Lakhdar Brahimi for continuing to play out this string.
The blame for this dire situation, to be clear, lies primarily with the Assad regime, which chose to kill its way through its crisis rather than seek a safe exit. Critics of the International Criminal Court have warned that the prospect of international justice makes leaders in Assad's position more likely to fight to the death. War crimes prosecutions were kept off the table largely in order to keep an exit option open for Assad (I thought an indictment should have been pursued last year). But he chose to fight nonetheless. I (like many others) underestimated the regime's ability and willingness to butcher its own people and hold onto power; I expected regime elements to dump Assad as a liability long ago, or the disgusted Syrian middle ground to defect en masse. I still think that he ultimately will lose, albeit at nigh unbelievable cost, but we all need to be honest about the poor track record of that prediction.
Were there missed opportunities to do better? Advocates of intervention frequently complain that the United States could have prevented this fiasco through earlier, more forceful action. This is easy to say, but almost certainly untrue. Last year, a wide range of serious analysts inside and outside the government, including me, looked carefully at a wide range of possible military steps: no-fly zones, safe areas, bombing campaigns, arming the opposition. None could in good faith conclude that these limited military measures would lead to a rapid end to the conflict. Far from avoiding today's tragedy, U.S. military intervention would very likely have made things in Syria worse.