A few months ago, the worst-case scenario in Syria was a protracted stalemate along the lines of the Lebanese civil war. Now, the worst case is that Bashar al-Assad wins with the full backing of Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, Russia and Iran. Future worst cases — involving loose chemical weapons, regional sectarian war, the fall of friendly governments — don’t require much imagination.
At some point, the word “worst” — already a superlative — ceases to be sufficient. Syria’s downward spiral demands grammatical innovation. Most worst? Worstest?
The outcome is a massive humanitarian catastrophe, with more than 80,000 dead and millions displaced. But the cause is not insufficient humanitarian concern. It is a failure of realpolitik — a tragically misplayed great game.
Syria has become a global proxy war, in which every other participant is more invested than the United States. Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia — along with Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and now the Muslim Brotherhood — aid the forces that seem to serve their interests. U.S. support for the moderate opposition that began the Syrian revolution, in contrast, has been hesitant, late and restricted.
It is not that the Obama administration is doing nothing. Nonlethal aid has been dramatically increased. The United States is more active in ensuring that military aid from Turkey and Qatar doesn’t go to the most unsavory rebel groups, and the United States itself may even (according to some reports) be providing some covert military assistance.
The administration has come a long way — to arrive at the policy it should have had in early 2012. Other powers, meanwhile, have doubled and tripled down. In Syria, the United States has taken the placebo of incremental action — a rising trajectory of commitment on a much lower slope than have our opponents.
Action can have unintended consequences. U.S. arms provided to rebel groups could make their way into the wrong hands. But during a crisis, a refusal to commit can also ricochet at odd angles. American hesitance has not prevented Sunni radicals, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, from getting plenty of arms from other sources. It has only succeeded in weakening the moderates in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are their rivals.
It is common to talk about a negotiated settlement as the only hope for Syria. This is true, as far as it goes. But a regime negotiates the sharing of power only when it feels that its ultimate hold on power is threatened. Assad’s thugocracy would turn on its leader to salvage some position or avoid the gallows. Right now the Assad regime, with Russia providing its arms and Hezbollah fighting its battles, believes it is winning — because it is. There can be no negotiated settlement in the absence of a two-sided conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s Russian outreach has only complicated the situation. A return to the Geneva process is marginalizing the people we most want to help. After receiving inadequate support from the United States and taking a beating on the ground, the FSA is being told to shape up and negotiate with Assad and his Russian allies, who are actively providing the means to destroy the rebellion. If the FSA acquiesced, it would be discredited. More Syrians — who generally have no interest in the return of the caliphate — would choose to fight under the jihadist black flag. It is a predicable calculation: better a radical than a lackey.
But the opposite might also be true. If the responsible Syrian opposition was more obviously effective — adequately armed and trained, in control of territory and the air above it, providing public services, building legitimacy — more Syrians might end their marriages of convenience with the jihadists. Syrian nationalism could find more responsible expression.
The problem is that, with the FSA’s prospects and morale in decline, an outside intervention now would need to be decisive to make a difference. And all the options — from providing sophisticated antiaircraft and antitank weapons to taking out Syrian planes on their runways, to destroying Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure — are risky.
It is increasingly argued that the United States needs to fish or cut bait in Syria — which assumes that bait-cutting is even an option. Disengagement would shift the worst case once again: further spreading cross-border radicalization, refugee flows and uncontainable Shiite-Sunni warfare across the Middle East. Iran would see a United States unable or unwilling to accomplish its goals in the region and draw the obvious conclusions.
The United States is already engaged in Syria, for unavoidable reasons. Just not enough to turn the tide.