The Costs of Losing Strategic Patience in Syria

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After three years of strategic ambivalence followed by three months of strategic shift, President Barack Obama may be considering another change in strategy for Syria. He's convening a team to assess the administration's current plans, CNN reported on Wednesday night. That team may consider accelerating and expanding U.S. assistance to Syrian opposition groups and targeting Assad regime forces. 

Consistently reassessing strategy is good policy, and the administration is right to take a hard look at its plans for Iraq and Syria. But immersing the United States deeper into Syria's civil war was a bad idea three years ago, it was a bad idea in August, and it's still a bad idea today. America has one vital interest in Syria: preventing the Islamic State from staging a terrorist attack against the United States or its allies. We have no national interest and we lack the political will as a nation to commit to ending the Syrian civil war. Without these elements, we shouldn't try.

Any effort the United States makes to try to build a Syrian opposition to defeat the regime of Bashar al Assad - or to provide support against regime forces ourselves - will be a half-measure. Intervention advocates know this - their plans range from the politically unviable to the strategically underwhelming. Some suggest training a few thousand Free Syrian Army rebels to fight against the Assad regime (and, we hope, against the Islamic State when it suits their interest). Others have larger plans and have suggested forming a 60,000-strong opposition army of moderate Syrians, with leaders handpicked by a Western coalition. All of the proposed strategies rest on dangerous assumptions about what the United States can actually accomplish. The United States may be the indispensable nation, but that doesn't make it omnipotent.

Foremost among the assumptions of interventionists is that an American intervention would hasten a conclusion to the war. Yet interventions don't end civil wars, they prolong them - and that's in situations when the intervening nations actually commit to winning the war. Don't take my word for it. Read George Washington University professor Marc Lynch, or the overwhelming body of academic research he cites on the subject. Or, if you have the clearance - I don't, but the New York Times knows someone who does - read the CIA's in-house report on U.S. support to insurgents. They concluded that it doesn't work and would probably be a bad idea, and their conclusions reportedly convinced President Obama. Until now.

Wan justifications for action

The small but vocal minority of analysts who have tried to justify broader intervention have struggled to make their case. Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who literally wrote the book on the history of guerilla warfare, could only come up with two instances of what he considered successful U.S. interventions in support of insurgents. He cited the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s and support for the Contras in Nicaragua as the best examples of when U.S. support for insurgents "worked." Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Reagan administration official who wrote a popular revisionist history of the Contra debacle, echoed this in a similar article. "War is full of surprises," Kagan wrote in an argument for intervention that boils down to Hey, you never know. Kagan concluded that "if [Obama] is genuinely trying to weigh his options, he ought to take another look at those past ‘failures,'" pointing to U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980s. "Such a ‘failure' in Syria would look pretty good right now."

If two decades of Taliban rule and an al-Qaeda safe haven - or, as in Nicaragua, another stalemated war of attrition - is what happens when Kagan and Boot's strategy for Syria works, what happens when it fails? No wonder the CIA's in-house historians decided it was a bad idea. 

And an intervention in Syria is likely to fail. Advocates for increased U.S. involvement discuss America's role as though Syria is under a bell jar, but any halfhearted intervention by the United States would almost certainly be met by escalation by the Assad regime's patrons. Russia has supported Assad for years, quietly supplying him with weapons despite international condemnation. Moscow is determined to maintain its access to the port at Tartus, and the overt U.S. training of several thousand Free Syrian Army fighters (rather than the covert training the United States has offered since perhaps as early as October 2012) is unlikely to discourage them. Iran is even more invested. Tehran sees Assad as a lynchpin of Iran's regional sphere of influence, and Iran has dedicated untold amounts of money, weapons, influence over Hezbollah, and Iranian lives to the war. Tehran is all in, and it knows that Washington is hedging its bets. And why wouldn't American policymakers do just that? President Obama knows he has a bad hand, with few credible partners in the conflict.

The atrocities committed by the Assad regime weigh on the consciences of Americans, but intervening and accelerating the bloodshed of a war it has no intention of winning is not a greater moral alternative. John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel and architect of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, has been noting lately St. Augustine's adage that the "purpose of war is to build a better peace." Aside from a handful of unreliable rebels and a government-in-exile with little credibility in Syria, the United States has few partners with which to build a better future for Syria. Suggesting the United States and its tenuous coalition can craft an opposition that adheres to its standards of moderation and will be able to sway the broader Syrian public is dangerously optimistic. Or worse, hubristic.

President Obama's strategy so far has been calibrated to America's interest in Syria, and given time to work, it could succeed. His greatest challenge will be to not go too far. Gen. Martin Dempsey told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that "Progress will be uneven at times...But with strategic patience, the trend lines favor the coalition over the long term." President Obama should hold to that patience, because if he allows the U.S. mission to creep and is drawn into Syria's civil war, he risks adopting a war of choice he does not want to fight, and might not be able to win. 

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