Debating Syria


I'm in Riyadh for the week (where I've been hearing a lot of support for arming the Syrian opposition and an intensely sectarian Sunni-Shi'ia framing of the conflict -- but more on all that next week). But the FP column I filed before I left on intervention in Syria came out yesterday and I wanted to just quickly make a few comments on it and some of the responses I've received here. 

The column looks back at the failure to achieve a negotiated political solution to the crisis, and some of the flawed assumptions (including my own) which might have contributed to that failure. It is not a happy column -- how could it be amidst Syria's devastation? The failure of Annan's diplomacy does not mean that it should not have been tried, though, for reasons I outline in the column.  But some of the people discussing the column slightly missed the point when they suggested that I'm still supporting the Annan/Brahimi approach.   Actually, what I tried to argue was that the conditions which made it worth attempting last year have mostly disappeared.   It's too late to avoid the militarization of the conflict  or to prevent the sidelining of non-armed groups.  There's no diplomatic process or international consensus to save.  It's hard to imagine the "soft landing" for which that political track so desperately -- and correctly --  strove.  There's no going back.

The last year should be a lesson to those who called for arming the rebels, too. The shift to armed insurgency in the face of Assad's brutality and refusal of genuine political change has produced catastrophic results.  The poorly coordinated funneling of weapons and money to armed groups by various external players has produced greater bloodshed, the eclipsing of non-violent protest leaders, fragmentation into competing emergent warlords, the creation of an attractive open field for jihadist groups to exploit, the retreat of the uncertain middle ground into hardened camps, and the greater likelihood of post-Assad chaos. The problem is not that the U.S. or other outside powers didn't provide enough weapons, it is intrinsic to the nature and logic of such an armed insurgency.  

More broadly, if political negotiation backers too easily assumed that levers could be found to push Assad from power, intervention advocates too easily assume that a military intervention would have made Syria today look substantially better.  They refuse to consider the very plausible possibility that such a Syria would be just as violent and militarized, that al-Qaeda affiliated Islamists would be just as active, and that Assad would be just as entrenched and with far more robust domestic, regional and foreign backing.  And they rarely consider one of the major risks identified by most of those opposed to limited intervention, that the United States would now be deeply enmeshed in an inescapable and escalating quagmire.

The last year have to impose greater analytical humility on everyone, myself very much included.  There may have been a solid logic behind the political track which I supported, but it didn't work and massive suffering has followed.  I've heard enough confident predictions of Assad's impending demise to last a lifetime, and wish that we as an analytical and policy community could have done better in supporting that political process and finding the levers to force a political transition.  

A lot of people are trying hard to come up with good ideas.  Along with my piece, I'd recommend having a look at a number of strong proposals for more direct intervention this week, by Andrew Tabler, Fred Hof, and Salman al-Shaikh and Michael Doran.  Their pieces offer up a range of ways to speed up Assad's fall short of direct military intervention, with a range of ideas from arming the opposition, trying to organize the opposition, disabling the regime's air power, and more.  I see serious problems with a number of these proposals and find some intriguing, but given the horrifying conditions of Syria today and the absence of real diplomatic options, it's worth giving them all careful thought. I hope you'll read my piece, read theirs, and contribute to a serious debate about what realistically can be done. 

AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

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