In the wake of the Islamic State’s takeover of parts of northern Iraq and Syria, several foreign policy hawks have blamed the Obama administration for failing to intervene in Syria’s civil war. They claim that had the U.S. provided more arms to the Syrian rebels or directly intervened on their behalf, Syria’s “moderate” opposition would have long triumphed over both the government and religious extremists.
Since the Syrian conflict began in 2011, much has changed: The rebels’ Supreme Military Council and its political analog have virtually imploded even as transnational extremists increasingly flood the area. At the same time, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has gained more ground. Almost as if these developments are irrelevant, the policy prescriptions of foreign policy hawks have remained astonishingly the same: The U.S. should provide better arms for the rebels or directly intervene on their behalf.
These critics argue that facing a more capable opposition with more credible foreign backing, the Syrian government will simply capitulate to the demands of Western powers and their regional allies. Meanwhile, better-armed “good” rebels will make inroads against groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State — and the Syrian people will embrace and entrust them to guide the country through a transition.
Many of these voices, including Sen. John McCain, Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican foreign policy adviser Elliott Abrams and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were also architects or champions of the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Libya — neither of which worked out as projected. Given the recent track record of foreign policy miscalculations, it is unclear why anyone would listen to them now.
Also consider that their calls to bomb Syria began shortly after declaring “victory” in Libya, long before the rise of the Islamic State. At the time, they downplayed the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates, claiming the Obama administration was overly concerned about the rise of jihadists. They insisted that the United States should send arms into Syria, or even depose the government because the U.S.-backed moderate opposition would be able to easily seize control in Damascus.
Until recently, the White House had made similar claims to justify its support for the rebels. But in June President Barack Obama characterized this narrative as a “fantasy:” No amount of arms would have allowed the moderates to overtake the government or stop the rise of extremists because there never was a coherent and credible opposition to begin with. Despite this admission, perhaps buckling under pressure to take some kind of action, even if ill-informed, to combat the Islamic State, the Obama administration has recently increased military aid to the rebels.
Obama’s critics, who previously dismissed the influence of al-Qaeda and exaggerated the capabilities of the Syrian opposition to justify U.S. intervention, are taking a different tack: They now claim that Islamic extremists dominate the theater and pose an imminent threat to the United States, and that the Syrian moderate opposition is hopelessly outmatched, lacking in credibility and influence. Disturbingly, this complete reversal of their previous claims does not acknowledge any errors or miscalculations along the way.
Their projections about the effect of increased military aid are similarly dubious and lack credible empirical evidence. So far, efforts to arm the Syrian opposition have had the net effects of prolonging, escalating and spreading the conflict. The aid has actually undermined the unity and legitimacy of the opposition while empowering the extremists.
Legacy of U.S. intervention
Ultimately, the real problem the rebels face is a lack not of resources, but of local support. Despite an overwhelming desire for substantial political reform, most Syrians simply do not agree with the armed insurrection. Moreover, most do not trust the United States, its allies and its proxies. This has been a major source of the rebels’ legitimacy crisis throughout, and it would not simply be erased by successes on the battlefield. In fact, the public may grow more apprehensive as American proxies gain strength given the history of previous U.S. interventions in Syria.
In order to chart a better path forward, the U.S. government and its allies should comply with the 2012 Geneva communique and negotiate directly with the Syrian government, and in good faith, to bring an end to the war.
During the Cold War, the U.S. in 1949 covertly overthrew a Syrian government under the pretext of “spreading democracy” (only a few years after Syria gained independence from France, no less). The proxy leader they installed served a mere two months in office before he was executed. Washington did not approve his successor, so they deposed him as well in another U.S.-led coup the same year. This process was repeated four more times, rendering Syria one of the least stable countries in a chronically volatile region. While most Americans have forgotten about this disastrous history, the Syrian people have not. For those who have to live with the consequences of regime change, there are far worse scenarios than Assad remaining in power.
Syria’s civil society was never robust. As a result of this protracted conflict, the population has been highly polarized and much of the country’s infrastructure has been destabilized or fully destroyed. As such, even if the Assad regime is forcibly overthrown, it is naive to assume that a viable, secular, unified and democratic state would emerge to replace it in the foreseeable future. Instead, deposing the regime may initiate a more grievous phase of the civil war. If there is one lesson to be learned from U.S. intervention in Iraq and Libya, it is this: The Syrian state must survive.
As an alternative to razing Assad’s Ba’athist regime, the White House has long touted a transition model similar to Yemen, whereby the government would be left largely intact but Assad would be forced to resign. This is also a bad idea. Assad has served, however inefficiently, as a reformer — or at least as a bulwark against the more aggressive elements of the “deep state,” such as the mukhabarat (intelligence services) and shabiha (pro-government civilian militias). Hence, if Assad was removed, while leaving much of his government in place, we could expect a similar outcome in Syria as in post-Mubarak Egypt: The worst elements of the regime would rise up to fill the vacuum, undermining any transitional government and erasing even the modest reforms instituted under the longstanding ruler. Today, Egyptian leader Abdel Fatah El Sisi is a more repressive despot than Mubarak ever was. Similarly, someone more tyrannical than Assad could as easily replace him from within the Ba’athist party apparatus.
This is because in both Egypt and Syria, the problem is not the face of the regime, but the structures that underlie it — the corruption and totalitarian tendencies run much deeper than any particular administration and cannot be stamped out with “light footprints” and symbolic gestures.
In the end, substantial reform of the Syrian state will be a long, fraught and painstaking process that cannot be realized in the absence of security and stability. A positive outcome will likely be achieved much more effectively and efficiently with Assad than without him. No amount of aid sent to the rebels will change these brute realities — it would only perpetuate the climate in which extremists and non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, can flourish.
In order to chart a better path forward, the U.S. government and its allies should comply with the commitments they made in the Geneva communique in June 2012 and negotiate directly with the Syrian government, and in good faith, to bring an end to the war — prioritizing security, reconstruction and reconciliation over regime change.