Should Obama Have Intervened in Syria?

Or would U.S. military involvement merely have made a disaster worse?

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.

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.

Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

Does Obama Have a Middle East Strategy?

If not, what should it be?

It won't surprise anyone that I think the Obama administration has done a pretty good job with the Middle East over the last four years. It got the United States out of Iraq, kept the military out of potential quagmires in Iran, Syria, and Libya, and helped to midwife transitions from four decrepit authoritarian regimes. Sure, it failed at the thankless and probably impossible job of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, made no progress on nuclear diplomacy with Iran, punted on Bahrain, and relied too much on drone strikes in Yemen … but it's not like anyone else has offered any better ideas on those fronts.

The critics are right about one thing, though: This administration has not done a good job at laying out and then executing a strategic vision for the Middle East. Avoiding the worst outcomes and effectively managing crises when they rise to the top of the agenda are underrated accomplishments. But they don't amount to a vision, and the president should aim higher in his second term. So what does Obama want the region to look like four years from now? And how will his policies help create that Middle East?

It's been some time since the president gave us hints of his thinking. The last major statement of the administration's vision for the Middle East came in Obama's May 19, 2011, speech at the State Department. That was a good speech, though immediately erased from memory by the stupidstorm over his wording of the conventional wisdom on the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinians. But a lot has changed since then. Syria has gone from peaceful protest into civil war. Egypt and Tunisia have gotten bogged down in political polarization, institutional failure, economic disaster, and rising Islamist power. Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity. Benghazi has gone from a symbol of hope to an absurdly politicized buzzword for some vaguely unspecified but surely nefarious scandal.

It's easy to dismiss the most vocal critics on the neoconservative right, who lament the supposed loss of American leadership and cry out for more forceful interventions across the region. Most Americans (and Arabs) have long since internalized the lessons of Iraq and want nothing to do with more U.S. military adventures in the Middle East. The neocons couldn't even convince Mitt Romney to back war with Iran or intervention in Syria -- why should anyone else take them seriously?

It's harder, but arguably more important, to push back against skeptics in the other direction who want either disengagement from the region or a return to business as usual. American disenchantment with an "Arab Spring" they see as producing mainly Muslim Brotherhood victories in Egypt and violence in Benghazi is palpable. Between April 2011 and October 2012, there was a 17-point drop in the percentage of Americans who believed that changes in the Arab world would improve the lives of the people there, and by October only 14 percent thought the changes would be good for the United States. But the seemingly practical idea of retreating to realpolitik accommodations with dictators is a mirage. The destabilizing forces behind the Arab uprisings will continue to unfold in the coming years, whether the United States likes it or not.

So what is the Obama administration's strategy -- and what should it be? It's worth rereading the president's speech from last May. That speech sought to place the United States on the side of a popular movement for universal freedoms while frankly acknowledging that change would take many years and would not come easily. He saw, where many in Washington did not, that the authoritarian status quo had become unsustainable. But he defied the American instinct to place itself at the center of events: "It's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -- it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it's the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome." He saw the urgency of engaging with those newly empowered people and that "failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense."

Those assertions have largely faded from view, lost in the relentless flurry of events and the inevitable hypocrisies and compromises that have dulled their edge. It's all too easy to see those tensions. Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain. Raising expectations on the Palestinian issue and then failing to deliver badly undermined his standing everywhere. Drone strikes degraded al Qaeda in Yemen but increased anti-Americanism, undermined local allies, and made a mockery of pious talk about the rule of law. Both his intervention in Libya and his nonintervention in Syria were the right calls, but baffled many in the region. Even Obama's unprecedented willingness to accept fair Islamist electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia (the Bush administration talked a good game on democracy but bailed out as soon as Hamas won Palestinian elections) only angered self-styled liberals who just wanted the United States to take their side.

But Obama should go back to that speech. It could be the foundation for the kind of strategic vision his next administration badly needs. This would mean structuring policy around a few key priorities: consolidating the move to a more appropriate military and political presence in the region, engaging more effectively with empowered publics, and encouraging the emergence of strong, democratic allies in Egypt, Libya, and other transitional states that can become the anchors of a new strategic architecture.

The first leg of this approach, as my FP colleague David Rothkopf has noted, is right-sizing the American presence in the region. For decades, the United States has been relentlessly increasing its direct role in the Middle East -- the first Gulf War, the occupation of Iraq, the containment of Iran, the custodianship over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Global War on Terror, the attempts to reshape Arab institutions and even culture. Obama wisely wants to scale that back. Thus, in his first term the president successfully extricated America from its Iraq quagmire, kept U.S. boots off the ground in Libya, and resisted pressure to launch an ill-advised bombing campaign against Iran or intervention in Syria.

Less obviously, Obama has also largely avoided the temptation to try to shape domestic Arab politics. His critics call this disengagement. But I suspect he wants to break the debilitating (and often costly) expectation on all sides that the United States will ultimately intervene and solve the region's problems. Right-sizing the U.S. role should force local politics to find their own equilibria without American oversight. After all, the United States couldn't convince Iraqi leaders to compromise when it had 140,000 troops on the ground, yet Iraq didn't fall apart when U.S. forces left. The administration understands better than most of its critics the limits of American influence over these domestic political battles, particularly in newly open, hotly contentious, and fiercely nationalistic transitional countries like Egypt.

But there should be limits to this "right-sizing." The second leg of the strategic vision should be the consolidation of stronger, more democratic allies in the region to serve as anchors for change. Many supporters of the invasion of Iraq had hoped that Baghdad might become such an anchor; perhaps someday it will overcome the legacy of that disastrous war and become so. Now, however, Egypt is obviously the linchpin of the region, though Libya and Tunisia also have an important role. The vision a few years out should be an Egypt that looks something like Turkey, where the United States has a broad strategic alliance with an influential, politically independent democratic partner despite disagreements on a wide range of specific issues. Such an Egypt would balance the regional power of the Gulf states, stabilize the center of the region, and encourage democratic changes in other regional allies.

The third leg of this strategic vision should be a revitalized commitment to engaging with these ever more empowered regional publics. Obama started strong in his first term with his Cairo speech and a commitment to rebuilding America's standing. Engagement with those publics started out as a "guiding principle" for the Obama administration. But over the last few years, public diplomacy by whatever name has largely withered on the vine even as the need for it has grown ever more urgent. The United States now seems to be invisible in key arenas such as Egypt, allowing others to define its positions, often in bizarre ways. Substantial numbers of Egyptians seem to seriously believe that the United States conspired to bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, for instance.

It's not just a shame that this hands-off approach has managed to antagonize many regimes and their opponents alike -- it's strategically dangerous. Empowered publics matter more than ever before and will become even more influential if more American allies do democratize. That doesn't mean going back to obsessing over Pew or Gallup surveys about America's favorability ratings or wasting money on irrelevant Arabic-language TV stations. And forget about finding much love or support among any sector of the Arab public anytime soon -- the wounds are too deep, the legacies too real, and the current policy contradictions too obvious. But far more could be done to simply explain U.S. policy as it is, engage frankly and respectfully, and listen to what Arabs are saying even if it's uncomfortable. That kind of engagement will be even harder in the aftermath of the absurd overreaction to Benghazi, of course, as rational bureaucrats will be wise to hide American diplomats behind blast walls rather than risk another congressional witch hunt. But it has to happen.

Right-sizing the American role in the Middle East doesn't mean disengagement from the region or capitulating leadership. It means recognizing and taking seriously the fundamental changes in the region's politics, which demand a new approach. There is no outcry for American intervention or leadership in the Middle East of the type too often imagined in Washington. But there's still a chance for Obama to use the next four years to help build the kind of Middle East its citizens deserve -- and America needs.