There is no shortage of causes for Syria’s erasure as a state. The brutality with which the Assad regime has pursued its own survival looms largest but it by no means stands alone. The Islamic State, aided and abetted by the Assad regime, has absorbed large pieces of Syrian territory into its so-called Caliphate. Syria’s fractious opposition, dependent on its regional patrons and captive to the personal ambitions of its leaders, is certainly complicit in the destruction of its homeland. So too are the neglect and incoherence of the “Friends of Syria” group established in 2011 to coordinate international support to the opposition under the leadership of the U.S. and its Western allies. Despite President Obama’s declaration in August 2011 that it was time for Assad to step aside, the administration’s calculus of interests, constraints and costs quickly led it to view Syria and Syrians as expendable.
Was Syria’s collapse inevitable once the Assad regime moved to crush a national protest movement, setting in motion a downward spiral of escalating violence? Was there anything the United States, in particular, could have done to mitigate the conflict, shift the trajectory of the uprising and help bring about a meaningful political transition along the lines set out in the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012? If such options were available, as former senior figures in the Obama administration have acknowledged publicly after leaving office, why did the United States not pursue them?
What has been most evident in the administration’s approach to Syria is a deep cognitive bias against risk. For the president and his advisers, the possibility that U.S. actions might have negative consequences has consistently loomed larger than the actual and visibly negative effects of inaction. Even as Syria’s conflict escalated and the costs of inaction have mounted, the administration’s risk calculus has remained static. White House staff have consistently viewed the payoffs from action as uncertain, the potential benefits as low and the likely costs as unacceptably high. Senior officials, including Obama, regularly justify their approach on the grounds that engagement would inevitably lead to mission creep, drawing the United States into an Afghan-style quagmire — a view reinforced by administration concerns about the difficulty of controlling the cascade effects that often follow what begin as limited interventions.
Given its intense risk aversion, the administration has pursued a minimalist approach in dealing with the Syrian conflict. Apart from its air campaign against the Islamic State, it has directed most of its efforts and a majority of its resources to mitigating the war’s humanitarian effects. It has done far less to address its principle cause — the behavior of the Assad regime. Instead, its aim has been to contain the Syrian conflict and keep violence within Syria’s borders.
The conflict, however, has not cooperated. Violence has metastasized, spilling millions of desperate refugees outward. Regional actors and radicalized fighters have flowed inward, transforming a local insurgency into a “mini world war.”
In rejecting engagement, the legacies of failed interventions weigh heavily on the Obama administration. Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the experience of Libya, where the removal of Moammar Gaddafi and the subsequent collapse of the Libyan state happened under Obama’s watch, stand as object lessons for the administration in the limits of military power and the disastrous consequences that U.S. interventions can unleash.
The administration’s reliance on “lessons learned” from past interventions, moreover, is not simply an ad hoc justification for avoiding engagement in Syria’s messy conflict. Historical analogies have played a major role in defining the principles that guide his approach to Syria. As expressed in his final State of the Union address, these include setting a high bar for determining when U.S. interests are at stake, restraint in the use of military force, burden sharing, the need for local actors to lead in solving local problems and skepticism about the capacity of the U.S. to build nations.
An intellectually honest critique of Obama’s Syria policy has to acknowledge the legitimacy of his skepticism and the validity of the lessons he has drawn from the experiences of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Too often, U.S. interventions have not been effective. In many cases they have done more harm than good. The United States does regime change badly. Why should Syria be different?
Certainly, Syria bears some resemblance to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the differences are significant, as well. Unlike Syria, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan experienced a national uprising that sought a peaceful process of political transition. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States achieved regime change through direct military interventions. In Syria, “boots on the ground” in the sense of a large-scale U.S. military presence has never been a serious option. American intervention has never been sought by the Syrian opposition or recommended by credible voices in the United States. Syrian opposition activists have requested U.S. support, not participation in combat operations.
Advocates of a more assertive U.S. policy in Syria have sought to empower local moderates, shift the military balance of power on the ground and facilitate a negotiated political transition that would preserve state institutions, leave in place elements of the Assad regime that did not have blood on their hands, and guarantee the security of minorities, including the Alawi community.
Did such moderates exist? Did the United States know enough about them to justify providing support? Would U.S. support for the armed opposition have made a difference? On these critical issues administration claims have been stunningly inconsistent and — as former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford acknowledged after resigning his post — at odds with the empirical evidence.
At different times, the White House has claimed to know too little about the opposition and too much. It has characterized opposition fighters as untrained do-gooders and ruthless fanatics. Yet for at least the first phase of the uprising, as the White House was well aware, a majority of the armed opposition consisted of a highly dispersed and decentralized network of local civil defense “battalions” that operated alongside of and at times in coordination with larger, more mobile franchise battalions made up largely of defectors from the Syrian army. Foreign fighters were barely present. Extremist ideologies were held by a small minority of opposition fighters — at most.
While the opposition’s lack of coherence has made it harder to deal with, the fighters succeeded in pushing the combined might of the Assad regime to the point of regime collapse, not once but three times: in mid-2012, again in mid-2013 and in the summer of 2015. Each time, external intervention from the regime’s backers, unmatched by comparable support to the opposition, tipped the military balance back in the regime’s favor, forestalling conditions that might have forced the regime into negotiations.
Even after large-scale Iranian intervention in 2013 to prevent the regime’s fall, the armed opposition continued to gain ground. By mid-2015, opposition gains had pushed the Assad regime into such a precarious position that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his military to intervene. It was only well into the uprising, and in response to the failure of the United States and its allies to respond to appeals for assistance, that the armed opposition underwent a process of radicalization. Even then, as late as January 2014, moderate battalions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army defeated and pushed the Islamic State units out of positions they had seized across opposition-held areas of northern and eastern Syria, contradicting narratives about the unchecked extremism of the opposition.
Because it misread processes of radicalization, the White House missed low-risk opportunities to check the growth of extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State. It viewed rising extremism as revealing something essential and intrinsic about opposition fighters, seeing their affiliation with extremist groups as an expression of the fighters’ ideological commitment to jihadist worldviews. Instead, as numerous interviews with fighters make clear, radicalization was instrumental rather than ideological. The absence of support from the West created incentives for Syrian fighters to auction their support to the most extreme bidders, regardless of their worldviews.
Syrian fighters followed resources, not beliefs. Affiliation did not always signal loyalty. Compliance did not always imply commitment. In such cases, more robust U.S. support for moderate armed groups might well have stemmed processes of radicalization that were principally instrumental and not ideological. Even now this option, which has never been seriously tested by the administration — its “train and equip” program was a Rube Goldberg contraption designed to fail — could make a difference in shoring up the moderate opposition.
What about sectarianism? Did Syria’s sectarian make-up doom it to follow Iraq down the path of sectarian polarization, extremism and territorial fragmentation? Did demographics and history determine Syria’s fate? Only if we accept that these conditions are the causes of violence — a product of the “ancient hatreds” and not its effects. In the Syrian case, however, the evidence points in the opposite direction: polarization, extremism and fragmentation are the effects of escalating violence, not its causes. Participants in the uprising, as well as forthcoming research by Princeton political scientist Kevin Mazur, highlight the regime’s instrumental use of violence to exacerbate sectarian tensions. Recent survey data reflect the impact of sectarian polarization in Syria after years of conflict, but also the extent to which Syrians continue to express tolerance and a desire for cross-sectarian compromises in the name of peace.
Despite deep flaws in the assumptions underlying the administration’s policy, advocates of engagement inevitably run up against the ultimate defense of inaction: Syria just isn’t worth it. Supporters of the administration’s approach regularly fall back on the claim that the Syrian conflict is simply not central to U.S. strategic interests. Politically, they note, Syria has always been an adversary to the United States. Economically, its ties to the United States are trivial. However wrenching the conflict might be, the United States has little at stake in its outcome.
The only basis on which such a claim can stand, however, is to adopt an anachronistic, rigid conception of state interest — a conception the administration knows is inadequate in an era of hyper-globalization and increasingly porous state borders. Does the United States have an interest in preventing atrocities and supporting international mechanisms, such as Responsibility to Protect? Is it a matter of interest to the United States whether Iran consolidates its position as regional hegemon in the Arab east? Should the stability of Syria’s neighbors matter to the United States? Is the stability of the European Union in America’s interest? Does the United States have an interest in preserving a liberal international order that constrains authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran, including by raising the costs of aggression, whether in Syria or the Ukraine? As freedom of movement within the E.U. erodes, a global network of authoritarian regimes emerges to weaken liberal norms and institutions globally, and while the Arab state order unravels, it is increasingly clear that what is at stake for the United States in Syria was never simply about U.S.-Syrian relations. It is sadly ironic that the president’s commitment to inaction has undermined his vision of an international system in which military restraint and a smaller U.S. footprint would produce a more stable and peaceful international order.
What, then, are some of the preliminary lessons learned from the Syrian conflict? In the short term it is not too late for the incoming president to engage the United States more assertively in efforts to move the Syrian conflict toward a negotiated transition, on terms that increase the likelihood of a durable settlement that will not force Syrians to return to the brutal dictatorship of the Assad regime, or expose them to the equally brutal predations of the Islamic State.
What this will require is not direct military intervention but a willingness to apply American resources more forcefully toward a diplomatic outcome that meets the minimum requirements of all relevant actors — including security for all civilians regardless of sect. Without a willingness on the part of the United States to match Russian resolve and support the demands of the Higher Negotiations Committee, this round of the Geneva talks is unlikely to fare better than the last, missing what may be one of the final chances to preserve Syria as an integral state.
In the long term, the futility of containment and costs of inaction certainly rank high among the lessons learned from the administration’s failure in Syria. Effective strategy requires flexibility and a willingness to adapt as conditions change. Getting historical analogies right and not over-learning the lessons of the past are important. So too is the imperative of taking on board and weighing appropriately the potential “multiplier effects” of regional conflicts on the stability of the international system. It is imperative to establish criteria to determine when U.S. interests are sufficiently at stake to justify the use of force, either direct or indirect. Strengthening the institutions and mechanisms that expand the range of tools, both diplomatic and military, that are available to the United States to forestall humanitarian catastrophes like Syria and prevent governments from engaging in slow-motion genocide should be a paramount priority for the next U.S. president.
Steven Heydemann is the Janet W. Ketcham 1953 Chair in Middle East Studies at Smith College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.