Perhaps you have wondered why we don’t just clean up the mess in Syria once and for all? If we can’t handle this, what does that say about our real power and our military might? From a humanitarian viewpoint its civil war is a growing tragedy, and the nasty consequences are spilling over into neighboring states and even our distant European allies. While we have no vital interest in Syria, its conflict destabilizes the entire Middle East. The current situation is definitely against our national interest.
One answer is that we really haven’t been trying very hard to impose our will. Doing so would be costly in every sense of the word, and we have the very discouraging example of our Iraqi adventures in mind. The Trump administration is characteristically confused about what to do. We want to crush ISIS, which maintains its shrinking caliphate in Syria, and there is widespread sentiment among our sometimes compassionate people that evil dictators like Bashar al-Assad are intolerable. The more hard-hearted and skeptical among us think that all of this is really none of our business and that we have more pressing problems at home.
But regardless of these mixed feelings, there is a purely practical consideration. This has been neatly encapsulated in the following diagram by Anastasia Beltyukova of CNN.
This illustrates the current free-for-all mess that would confound the most thoughtful and informed who might seek a way to resolve it. Look at the number of participants. The size of the circles roughly indicates their relative activity and effectiveness. But this is a snapshot in time. Some participants, in particular Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have significant capacity to increase their efforts, with unpredictable consequences. There are no clear-cut allies or even enemies, and the conflict has no boundaries in any conventional sense.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in this area, and I certainly have no prescription in mind for a happy conclusion. My gut instinct is that we should cut our losses and withdraw from direct participation. We can provide material and financial aid to allies who wish to continue productive efforts and we can also help ameliorate the consequences for displaced persons. But not even fighting ISIS in this morass is likely to be effective unless we are willing to fully unleash our power and unless we are willing to stomach the certain collateral damage.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this issue is that I see no achievable endgame that would satisfy our interests. If Assad goes, what then? And squashing ISIS in Syria will simply cause it to metastasize everywhere. This is already underway in Yemen, Libya, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Nigeria just to mention a few of the eighteen identified infections.