Should America let Syria fight on?
An unsettling new way to see the catastrophic civil war
The news from Syria keeps getting worse. As it enters its third year, the civil war between the ruthless Assad regime and groups of mostly Sunni rebels has taken nearly 100,000 lives and settled into a violent, deadly stalemate. Beyond the humanitarian costs, it threatens to engulf the entire region: Syria’s rival militias have set up camp beyond the nation’s borders, destabilizing Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Refugees have made frontier areas of those countries ungovernable.
United Nations peace talks have never really gotten off the ground, and as the conflict gets worse, voices in Europe and America, from both the left and right, have begun to press urgently for some kind of intervention. So far the Obama administration has largely stayed out, trying to identify moderate rebels to back, and officially hoping for a negotiated settlement—a peace deal between Assad’s regime and its collection of enemies.
Given the importance of what’s happening in Syria, it might seem puzzling that the United States is still so much on the sidelines, waiting for a resolution that seems more and more elusive with each passing week. But it is also becoming clear that for America, there’s another way to look at what’s happening. A handful of voices in the Western foreign policy world are quietly starting to acknowledge that a long, drawn-out conflict in Syria doesn’t threaten American interests; to put it coldly, it might even serve them. Assad might be a monster and a despot, they point out, but there is a good chance that whoever replaces him will be worse for the United States. And as long as the war continues, it has some clear benefits for America: It distracts Iran, Hezbollah, and Assad’s government, traditional American antagonists in the region. In the most purely pragmatic policy calculus, they point out, the best solution to Syria’s problems, as far as US interests go, might be no solution at all.
If it’s true that the Syrian war serves American interests, that unsettling insight leads to an even more unsettling question: what to do with that knowledge. No matter how the rest of the world sees the United States, Americans like to think of themselves as moral actors, not the kind of nation that would stand by as another country destroys itself through civil war. Yet as time goes on, it’s starting to look—especially to outsiders—as if America is enabling a massacre that it could do considerably more to end.
For now, the public debate over intervention in America has a whiff of hand-wringing theatricality. We could intervene to staunch the suffering but for circumstances beyond our control: the financial crisis, worries about Assad’s successor, the lingering consequences of the Iraq war. These might explain why America doesn’t stage a costly outright invasion. But they don’t explain why it isn’t sending vastly more assistance to the rebels.
The more Machiavellian analysis of Syria’s war helps clarify the disturbing set of choices before us. It’s unlikely that America would alter the balance in Syria unless the situation worsens and protracted civil war begins to threaten, rather than quietly advance, core US interests. And if we don’t want to wait for things to get that bad, then it is time for America’s policy leaders to start talking more concretely—and more honestly—about when humanitarian concerns should trump our more naked state interests.
Many America n observers were heartened when the Arab uprisings spread to Syria in the spring of 2011, starting with peaceful demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad’s police state. Given Assad’s long and murderous reign, a democratic revolution seemed to offer hope. But the regime immediately responded with maximum lethality, arresting protesters and torturing some to death.
Armed rebel groups began to surface around the country, harassing Assad’s military and claiming control over a belt of provincial cities. Assad has pursued a scorched earth strategy, raining shells, missiles, and bombs on any neighborhood that rises up. Rebel areas have suffered for the better part of a year under constant strafing and sniper fire, without access to water, health care, or electricity. Iran and Russia have kept the military pipeline open, and Assad has a major storehouse of chemical weapons. While some rebel groups have been accused of crimes, the regime is disproportionately responsible for the killing, which earlier this year passed the 70,000 mark by a United Nations estimate that close observers consider an undercount.
As the civil war has hardened into a bloody, damaging standoff, many have called for a military intervention, pressing for the United States to side with one of the moderate rebel factions and do whatever it takes to propel it to victory. Liberal humanitarians focus on the dead and the millions driven from their homes by the fighting, and have urged the United States to join the rebel campaign. The right wants intervention on different grounds, arguing that the regional security implications of a failed Syria are too dangerous to ignore; the country occupies a significant strategic location, and the strongest rebel coalition, the Nusra Front, is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Given all those concerns, both sides suggest that it’s only a question of when, not if, the United States gets drawn in.
“Syria’s current trajectory is toward total state failure and a humanitarian catastrophe that will overwhelm at least two of its neighbors, to say nothing of 22 million Syrians,” said Fred Hof, an ambassador who ran Obama’s Syria policy at the State Department until last year, when he quit the administration and became a leading advocate for intervention. His feelings are widely shared in the foreign policy establishment: Liberals like Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter and conservatives like Fouad Ajami have made the interventionist case, as have State Department officials behind the scenes.
Intervention is always risky, and in Syria it’s riskier than elsewhere. The regime has a powerful military at its disposal and major foreign backers in Russia and Iran. An intervention could dramatically escalate the loss of life and inflame a proxy struggle into a regional conflagration.
And yet there’s a flip side to the risks: The war is also becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world. Gulf monarchies, which tend to be troublesome American allies, have invested small fortunes on the rebel side, sending weapons and establishing exile political organizations. The more the Syrian war sucks up the attention and resources of its entire neighborhood, the greater America’s relative influence in the Middle East.
If that makes Syria an unattractive target for intervention, so too do the politics and position of the combatants. For now, jihadist groups have established themselves as the most effective rebel fighters—and their distaste for Washington approaches their rage against Assad. Egos have fractured the rebellion, with new leaders emerging and falling every week, leaving no unified government-in-waiting for outsiders to support. The violent regime, meanwhile, is no friend to the West.
“I’ll come out and say it,” wrote the American historian and polemicist Daniel Pipes, in an e-mail. “Western powers should guide the conflict to stalemate by helping whichever side is losing. The danger of evil forces lessens when they make war on each other.”
Pipes is a polarizing figure, best known for his broadsides against Islamists and his critique of US policy toward the Middle East, which he usually says is naive. But in this case he’s voicing a sentiment that several diplomats, policy makers, and foreign policy thinkers have expressed to me in private. Some are career diplomats who follow the Syrian war closely. None wants to see the carnage continue, but one said to me with resignation: “For now, the war is helping America, so there’s no incentive to change policy.”
Analysts who follow the conflict up close almost universally want more involvement because they are maddened by the human toll—but many of them see national interests clearly standing in the way. “Russia gets to feel like it’s standing up to America, and America watches its enemies suffer,” one complained. “They don’t care that the Syrian state is hollowing itself out in ways that will come back to haunt everyone.”
Is it ever acceptable to encourage a war to continue? In the policy world it’s seen as the grittiest kind of realpolitik, a throwback to the imperial age when competing powers often encouraged distant wars to weaken rivals, or to keep colonized nations compliant. During the Cold War the United States fanned proxy wars from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Angola to Nicaragua but invoked the higher principle of stopping the spread of communism, rather than admitting it was simply trying to wear out the Soviet Union.
In Syria it’s impossible to pretend that the prolonging of the civil war is serving a higher goal, and nobody, even Pipes, wants the United States to occupy the position of abetting a human-rights catastrophe. But the tradeoffs illustrate why Syria has become such a murky problem to solve. Even in an intervention that is humanitarian rather than primarily self-interested, a country needs to weigh the costs and risks of trying to help against the benefit we might realistically expect to bring—and it’s a difficult decision to get involved when those potential costs include threats to our own political interests.
So just what would be bad enough to induce the United States to intervene? An especially egregious massacre—a present-day Srebenica or Rwanda—could fan such outrage that the White House changes its position. So too would a large-scale violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention—signed by most states in the world, but not Syria. But far more likely is that the war simmers on, ever deadlier, until one side scores a military victory big enough to convince the outside powers to pick a winner. The White House hopes that with time, rebels more to its liking will gain influence and perhaps eclipse the alarming jihadists. That could take years. Many observers fear that Assad will fall and open the way to a five- or ten-year civil war between his successor and a well-armed coalition of Islamist militias, turning Syria into an Afghanistan on the Euphrates. The only thing that seems likely is that whatever comes next will be tragic for the people of Syria.
Because this chilly if practical logic is largely unspoken, the current hands-off policy continues to bewilder many American onlookers. It would be easier to navigate the conversation about intervention if the White House, and the policy community, admit what observers are starting to describe as the benefits of the war. Only then can we move forward to the real moral and political calculations at stake: for example, whether giving Iran a black eye is worth having a hand in the tally of Syria’s dead and displaced.
For those up close, it’s looking unhappily like a trip to a bygone era. Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze warlord, spent much of the last two years trying fruitlessly to persuade Washington and Moscow to midwife a political solution. Now he’s given up. Atop the pile of books on his coffee table sits “The Great Game,” a tale of how superpowers coldly schemed for centuries over Central Asia, heedless of the consequences for the region’s citizens. When he looks at Syria he sees a new incarnation of the same contest, where Russia and America both seek what they want at the expense of Syrians caught in the conflict.
“It’s cynical,” he said in a recent interview. “Now we are headed for a long civil war.”
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.