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.
This morning, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey are once again testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Often these meetings are political posturing but sometimes the questions are pertinent and the answers are revealing. As so often in the past, the Senators are probing into our strategies in Iraq and Syria, and what comes across strongly is that, in both cases, we are following what we hope is the least bad of very unpalatable alternatives. But, like it is said of second marriages, these strategies are the triumph of hope over experience.
“Take Syria – please!”, as Rodney Dangerfield might say. We want Assad to go, but we don’t want either a descent into chaos or a replacement regime that is just as bad or even worse. It isn’t surprising that we really don’t have a strategy to accomplish this, as Obama has repeatedly admitted. We have two recent examples of what can happen when a dictator is overthrown in the Middle East. We helped topple Gaddafi in Libya, and the result gives even chaos a good name. In Egypt, Mubarak was removed with our encouragement and connivance only to be replaced by an autocratic military dictatorship. And in each of these cases the countries involved were fairly stable before their revolutions, at least by Middle East standards. By contrast Syria is a boiling cauldron of conflict that is already producing one of the greatest human catastrophes of recent times.
So let us suppose for an insane moment that Assad voluntarily leaves without taking down the instrumentalities of government. What then? As Ash Carter relates, we want “some reasonable Syrian opposition” to take charge, commit to a pluralistic government, and execute a forceful and successful campaign to purge Syria of ISIS and the al-Nusra front. This fanciful dream is what passes for our strategy.
I am reminded, as I am so often with the international policies of the Obama administration, of an oft-quoted paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do.”
This brings me to my point. Take the premise which began this exercise in futility. Precisely why do we want Assad to go? No doubt he is a murderous thug, but at least he was maintaining some semblance of stability, and he had reached a partial accommodation with our ally Israel that avoided outright confrontation. Given a realistic assessment, might he not indeed be the least bad of unpalatable alternatives? The results of attempting his overthrow so far, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, include 7.6 million internally displaced persons and 12.2 millions desperately needing humanitarian assistance. This is not the direct consequence of our actions alone, but we do bear some responsibility. And there is no light at the end of this tunnel.