Critics of the Obama administration's approach, such as Sen. John McCain, have taken to saying that all the things opponents of intervention warned of - militarization, tens of thousands of dead, inroads by al-Qaeda affiliates - have now come to pass. This is only partially true. The U.S. military is not bogged down in another Iraq-style quagmire, steadily slipping down the slope of intervention as each limited move fails to end the conflict. There is no Pottery Barn rule dictating that Americans must prepare for a thankless and violent occupation and reconstruction. It is of little comfort to Syrians, but for the American national interest this is not a small thing.
What about arming the opposition? There was a debate to be had there last year, but it's long since been overtaken by events. The United States wisely resisted sending arms into the fray based on concerns about cutting off its diplomatic options, empowering local warlords, and paving the path toward a longer and bloodier civil war. But others, particularly in the Gulf, were not so restrained, and persistent calls for more money and guns aside Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons. The worst effects of arming the opposition have now already taken place, and the United States throwing more guns onto the fire would now have at best a marginal impact. Analysts often fret that the United States has lost its leverage over Syrian rebel groups by virtue of not offering up guns, and that Jubhat al-Nusra and other radical Islamists have risen in influence due to America's absence. I just don't buy it. Al Qaeda affiliates are not in the habit of deferring to American policies, and would not have abandoned as attractive a front of jihad as a Syria consumed by civil war just because some groups were carrying U.S. arms. The shift into armed insurgency and civil war is what brought al Qaeda into the mix, not America's failure to deliver guns.
Most of the old arguments about Syria policy are now of only academic interest. Diplomacy? That was a live option a year ago, but the circumstances which made it worth pursuing have passed and even I don't see much point to the current diplomatic efforts. Arming the opposition? The rebels are being armed and the arena has been thoroughly militarized, regardless of American choices. Military intervention? There's a reason it's rarely even brought up anymore.
What to do, then? The reality is that there simply is not all that much which the outside world can do at this point beyond trying to mitigate the worst effects of the war, help support the political organization of the opposition, and prepare for the post-Assad troubles to come. Much of that work has already begun. The new National Coalition represents the best American and international effort to date to pull together a representative and effective opposition umbrella. There have been important recent efforts to try to create at least the impression of its political control over the armed groups, to rationalize the flow of weapons. Much serious work is being done to prepare Syrian technocrats and opposition institutions for the day after Assad falls. These are worthy efforts that need to be undertaken, but even those involved probably recognize that they aren't likely to survive contact with reality.
What could be added? Certainly not military intervention. There is a desperate need to help Syrian refugees, but that only treats the symptoms and not the disease. The currently hot idea of forming a transitional government to receive aid probably couldn't hurt at this point. Pushing for war crimes indictments against the Syrian regime leadership is long overdue. The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage, and do more to coordinate regional and international action to keep the outside players from working at cross purposes. Above all, serious plans should be put into place for assisting Syria and establishing order when Assad does fall. Because when he does, I expect that it will be sudden, violent, and leave a massive political and security vacuum that all of these armed groups will struggle to fill.
I'm not optimistic that any of these efforts, however necessary, will be able to accelerate the end of the war. It's hard to see any soft landing anymore, and nothing can bring back the tens of thousands of lost lives, devastated families, and shattered communities. If it continues on the current path, Syria is likely to be consumed by fighting for years to come, regardless of when and how Assad falls. But hard, smart work by the international community can improve the odds that the outcome will be a transition to a genuinely better Syria.