Syria has broken down much worse than anyone expected. For more than five years, a wide and mostly unsavory cast of Syrians and foreigners has been going for broke fighting over the pivotal Levantine state — settling for massive amounts of human suffering and breakdown of order in the short term while gambling on total victory in the long term.
A quick inventory beggars the mind: hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, the rise of the nihilistic jihadi Islamic State, a refugee crisis that has fractured the European Union, violence and instability across most of the Middle East, a superpower standoff between Russia and the United States, and finally, the teetering of the entire Arab state system.
That’s just the major items on the list.
The Arab state system’s collapse today threatens basic order and livelihood in many areas, including war-torn Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. It also has corroded the European Union, with an immigration crisis that has strained Turkey’s relations with the bloc and fueled a climate so toxic that it has spurred British voters to quit the European project.
The war’s consequences and scope appeared dramatically different from a few short years ago. Previously, Washington thought that Syria’s crisis would have limited consequences, no matter how terrible for the country’s citizens. President Obama staked his position on a well-intentioned read of recent history. After America’s failed Iraqi policy and ineffective regional intervention, the president reasoned that the United States could at least do less harm, for if Syria was going to be ripped apart, let others be to blame.
In the early years of Syria’s war, analysts and politicians who claimed the Levant was more important than the White House realized were dismissed as credulous rebel partisans or knee-jerk interventionists. Today the consequences of Syria’s meltdown have proven even more far-reaching than almost anyone predicted in 2011.
M ilitary escalation in Syria today is the best of a set of bad options. Even dissidents in the US Department of State have gone public with their desire for it. The United States is already deeply involved in the Syrian conflict and has declared its desire to use force and humanitarian aid to promote a political solution to the conflict. The idea is sound but requires a greater commitment — a final chance to do better, with some of Syria’s infrastructure and institutions still intact, Turkey undergoing a regional realignment, and with interventionists in Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah reassessing their own goals with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The only intransigent parties, in fact, are Assad and the Islamic State — neither of whom is likely to be part of any political solution in Syria.
For the United States, the question is profoundly unsettling — how is it possible to do the right thing in a conflict this messy? Indeed, it might already be too late to save Syria. But if no one tries, more catastrophic outcomes are all but guaranteed: the full collapse of Iraq and Syria, the long-term enshrinement of the Islamic State, an acceleration of the regional war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a wave of state implosions around the entire Arab world that will resonate for generations.
In Washington, the debate has tended to break along two lines — extreme isolationists, who think the United States can only do harm by getting more involved, and extreme interventionists, who’d like to see the Pentagon invade. White House policy has actually straddled the divide, dedicating considerable resources to managing the conflict but claiming that it can’t do more. The United States has deemed Syria’s survival important but not so important as to be classified a core national interest.
The time has come, however, to admit that the policy hasn’t achieved its aims. At this stage, probably, no course correction will be able to restore Syria to its pre-war level of development and unity. But the fallout from Syria has proven that the integrity of the Arab state system, as flawed as it is, is a vital interest for the United States as well as for the denizens of the Middle East and their neighbors.
So, help Syria’s neighbors staunch the bleeding or intervene more actively in the conflict? It’s a painful question, especially in light of the historical destruction that the United States wrought with its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the cavalierly mismanaged military occupation.
Escalation appears to be plagued by a range of dangerous and risky options. (A study I recently conducted for The Century Foundation explores America’s choices in detail.) The United States has the power to end the Assad government’s indiscriminate use of air power to drop barrel bombs on civilians and make life impossible in rebel-held areas. With occasional retribution against government air assets and targets, it can raise the cost of tactics that are also war crimes. It can also use military assets to directly protect its vetted armed proxies, so they can more effectively fight the Syrian government and the Islamic State, and gain stature within the non-jihadi armed opposition.
After years of eyeing the United States, America’s rivals have assessed that Obama would stay out of Syria. They probably think the same today, given that the president has only a few more months in office. As a result, Syria has become a wild playground for the militaristic excesses of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, the pivotal supporters of Assad’s government. These powers have opportunistically taken advantage of a void left by the United States, which has continued to intervene in the Syrian conflict but at a low ebb.
But a reinvigorated American role in the conflict would, paradoxically, make a political solution more likely once it became clear that Assad could never win outright. The greater chance of a political solution would not only save lives but also reestablish American stewardship of a world order that punishes war crimes, values civilians lives, and promotes rights, good governance, and open societies.
Unfortunately, a more robust American intervention would also bring the United States face to face with an expansionist Russia and Iran. Washington would have to use its military force with considerable skill and restraint in order to check these belligerent powers without being drawn into direct conflict. Fortunately, the US military has the technical capacity and experience to tilt the balance in Syria’s war without become a central party in the fight, and the last five years of conflict show that for all its bluster, the pro-Assad alliance has always carefully watched the United States and calibrated its war crimes and expansionist campaigns in line with its perception of what Washington will tolerate.
Left unchecked, Syria’s war will continue for another five to 10 years at least, with a full breakdown of the remaining national order. Syria will become a patchwork of villages ruled by competing warlords, without national institutions to govern and provide services. It will continue to export human suffering, refugees, and virulent ideologies like sectarianism and the Islamic State’s version of takfiri jihad.
The alternative — a US military intervention in Syria — is neither clean nor neat. With its local and regional partners, the United States would save some civilian lives and force some restraint onto the government side, perhaps reducing its worst war crimes. It would raise from zero to maybe 30 percent the chance of a negotiated settlement. It would also raise tensions between the United States and Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
Perhaps most importantly, however, military intervention would show allies and rivals in the region that the United States still takes seriously its responsibilities as the single most dominant world power. By escalating in Syria, the United States would lay down a marker that Washington sees an interest in the Middle East and in a global order that stops rogue governments like Assad’s. Unless it wants to be seen as a force for entropy, state breakup, and fragmentation, Washington needs to put is muscle behind the goal of national coexistence, starting in Syria, where it should do what it can at this late stage to preserve a unitary state that grants equal rights to citizens of different sects and ethnicities.
President Obama tried to steer a middle course, backing away from direct intervention, despite initially drawing a red line if Assad used chemical weapons. While seemingly every country with a finger in the Middle East has funneled weapons, trainers, or fighters into Syria, the United States has spent billions of dollars on humanitarian aid and has provided just enough military assistance to the armed opposition to prevent it from being wiped out. But it has studiously avoided any action that would topple Assad.
Nearly a year ago, in September, Russia stepped into the void with a major military campaign to help Assad reclaim territory he had lost. Even Russia’s massive aid has failed to restore the regime’s position from a few years earlier, despite indiscriminate bombing of civilians in rebel-held areas and a systematic campaign to destroy hospitals, clinics, and other key infrastructure.
Furthermore, the United Nations has strained under the pressure of the Syria conflict, which officials describe as the greatest challenge in the UN’s history. UN officials have chosen to partner with Assad’s government, allowing it to block access to areas inhabited by rebel supporters. As a result, the supposedly impartial UN has become party to starvation and siege tactics employed by the government to force rebel communities to surrender.
Even with a history of failure and seemingly endless complications of future engagement, America can still positively shape the situation. It’s time for more action — humanitarian, military, and political — in order to reduce the catastrophic human toll, contain the strategic fallout, and reduce the chance of Syria becoming a fully failed state.
If we stay on the same course, Syria is guaranteed to collapse with even more of the toxic consequences we’re already suffering — the Islamic State, refugee flows, violence spreading into neighboring countries that are allies. It might already be too late to prevent a full meltdown, but if the United States doesn’t try to stave off the collapse, a vacuum is guaranteed.
Thanassis Cambanis, a fellow at The Century Foundation, is the author of “Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story.” He is an Ideas columnist and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com.