*This piece will later appear at the Global Intelligence Trust
The Syrian Civil War has now raged for over five and a half years, and over 500,000 people have been killed over the course of the conflict. Understandably, there has been much soul-searching in the United States over whether America’s unwillingness to intervene led to this unfolding tragedy. However, the debate has now shifted from one over America’s role in enabling the massacre of Syrian civilians to one over America’s responsibilities in Syria today. Many analysts, frustrated by years of inaction, are demanding a large-scale U.S. response. While understandable, this course of action would be deeply unwise. Perhaps the United States should have intervened earlier, but now it is too late. The U.S. simply cannot afford to get bogged down in another Middle Eastern conflict.
For an intervention to be effective, it requires clearly defined end-goals. The two wars under George W. Bush failed because there were no clearly defined objectives. Indeed, as Tom Ricks reveals in his book Fiasco, the Bush administration effectively had no plan for dealing with post-invasion Iraq (1). The result was predictably disastrous. The Obama administration made a similar mistake during Operation Odyssey Dawn, the air campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Britain and France were able to convince the Obama administration to lend American military support to their campaign against Gaddafi, as they feared that a large-scale civil war was on the verge of consuming Libya and would inundate Europe with refugees. However, none of the countries intervening had a coherent long-term plan for stabilizing Libya post-Gaddafi, and none of them allocated sufficient resources to assist Libya with nation-building. Instead of helping to liberate Libya from its oppressive and mercurial leader, the intervention arguably turned Libya into a failed state (2).
These same problems exist in Syria. No analyst can credibly explain how an intervention would successfully end the bloodshed and reestablish some semblance of political order without draining enormous amounts of American resources and risking the lives of tens of thousands of U.S. troops. Indeed, Vladimir Putin attempted a similar strategy to the one being proposed by certain voices in the U.S. foreign policy community and failed. Facing the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, Russia deployed air assets and Russian special forces to halt the rebel advance. While Putin was successful in propping up Assad, he is now trapped in Syria. Given Russia’s precarious economic position, Putin is unable to meaningfully escalate. However, he also cannot leave and risk the collapse of the Assad regime, his long-time ally in the region.
It is naïve to think that the United States would be any more successful than Russia. There simply isn’t sufficient political will in the United States for a large-scale invasion (3). This is a problem for those seeking to intervene, as only a large ground deployment would be able to meaningfully stabilize the situation. Air campaigns alone are simply inadequate. Furthermore, it is not clear how the United States would create an effective Syrian government because the Syrian state does not exist in any meaningful form. Syrian forces today are a bizarre and confusing amalgamation of highly autonomous militia groups that are only nominally subordinate to the Assad regime. The government bureaucracy that ran the country before 2011 is no more, and Syria’s economy is all but non-existent, with diminished wages and rampant inflation making even the purchase of basic goods prohibitively expensive (4). Were the U.S. to attempt to stabilize the country, it would effectively need to build a state from scratch, and that is an incredibly challenging thing to do.
The United States also faces a challenge regarding Russia. Despite possessing a far more capable military, the United States is at a disadvantage in Syria vis-à-vis Russia because Syria is far closer to Russia and of more value to the Russian state. Thus, were a conflict between the U.S. and Russia to break out in Syria, Russia would likely possess escalation dominance. In other words, because Russia has more at stake in Syria, it would be more willing to escalate than the United States. Therefore, U.S. threats would not be credible. Current strategies for intervention being floated by foreign policy analysts often involve the imposition of a “no-fly zone.” Indeed, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has made the “no-fly zone” one of her signature foreign policy positions during the 2016 U.S. election. However, a “no-fly zone” would greatly increase the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Russia, as Russian and Syrian bombers would almost certainly attempt to ostentatiously violate the “no-fly zone” so as to test the American response. Not responding would render the “no-fly zone” meaningless, but a shoot-down of a Russian aircraft could potentially lead to a serious diplomatic crisis or even war between Moscow and Washington (5). Perhaps if the United States had intervened in 2011 the situation would be different. But at this point, Russia already has an entrenched presence in Syria, and it has far more at stake in the region than the U.S. Intervening now would just be silly, as there isn’t much the U.S. could do to block Russian violence against civilians.
What, then, can the United States do to help alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people? In fact, there are many strategies short of full-scale intervention that would greatly reduce the number of civilians in harm’s way. First, the United States should immediately move to increase the number of refugees admitted to the United States. The U.S. has only accepted around 10,000 refugees since the start of the conflict. But, as a highly developed economy with a population of over 300 million, the United States can afford to accept hundreds of thousands more refugees with minimal risk to the country. The United States should also work with European partners to establish camps near the border of Turkey and Syria. This would help alleviate the strain on countries dealing with large numbers of refugees while also providing a secure and clean place for displaced Syrians to ride out the war. These camps could be funded by Western governments and defended by NATO peacekeepers. This would have the advantage of keeping American and allied soldiers out of areas experiencing high intensity conflict while also lowering the risk of American soldiers coming into conflict with Russian personnel. While this approach does not offer an immediate solution to the Syrian Civil War, it does mitigate the impact of the war on non-combatants and thus offers a meaningful improvement in conditions on the ground. By creating stable and secure places for refugees, the aforementioned proposal would create sanctuaries for people until the conflict burns itself out. If, however, the conflict rages on for years to come, these camps could serve as gateways to the West, offering a secure place for people to wait until their asylum requests are accepted by governments throughout the world. Obviously this approach is non-ideal. Quickly ending the war would be preferable. Unfortunately, significant amounts of academic research suggest that third-party intervention and support for proxy groups only prolong conflict (6). Thus, the best strategy at this point is to address the symptoms of the conflict and wait for the warring parties to exhaust themselves.
American foreign policy preferences tend to shift over time like a pendulum. After embracing interventionism, the American public demands a more reserved and cautious approach to foreign policy. Then, a tragedy strikes and voters demand a strong and aggressive response. Ultimately, this approach to foreign policy is based too much on emotions and often ignores the specific facts on the ground. The U.S. public has probably over-learned the lessons of Iraq. However, now it seems to be overcompensating by advocating for a reckless and misguided intervention back into the Middle East. As Thanassis Cambanis argues in a recent piece for War on the Rocks, “We are not all interventionists yet.” But, he argues, “it is not foolish to hope that somewhere between the destructive overreach of George W. Bush… and Barack Obama’s… restraint, there exists a happier medium where America’s never-ending engagement with the most troubled parts of the world yields better results” (7).
(1)- Ricks, Tom. Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 – 2005. New York: Penguin Press, 2006. Print.
(2)- Kuperman, Alan J. “Obama’s Libya Debacle.” Foreign Affairs. March/April 2015. Web. Accessed October 29, 2016.
(3)- DePetris, Daniel R. “A New Poll Shows America’s Reluctance for New Foreign Adventures.” The National Interests. October 27, 2016. Web. Accessed October 29, 2016.
(4)- Schneider, Tobias. “The Decay of the Syrian Regime is Much Worse Than You Think.” War on the Rocks. August 31, 2016. Web. Accessed October 29, 2016.
(5)- Benitez, Mike and Mike Pietrucha. “Political Airpower, Part 1: Say No to the No-Fly Zone.” War on the Rocks. October 21, 2016. Web. Accessed October 29, 2016.
(6)- Staniland, Paul. Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2014. Print.
(7)- Cambanis, Thanassis. “Are We All Interventionists Now?” War on the Rocks. October 14, 2016. Web. Accessed October 29, 2016.