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What Was Obama’s Syria Strategy?

[ 92 ] May 27, 2016 |
Kieseritzky Cubic Chess board.png

“Kieseritzky Cubic Chess board” by Ihardlythinkso – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons.

On support for the Assad regime:

Yeah, there’s this really disconcerting tendency to portray “people who belong to Assad’s religious sect” as “card-carrying members of Assad’s military apparatus”. The portion of the American foreign policy establishment who was dead set on marketing the idea of a definitively identifiable group of “moderate rebels” had a field day trying to spin Sunni rebel massacres of Alawite civilians as military engagement with Assad himself – if only to avoid admitting that the people they wanted to arm against Assad also wanted to wipe his entire tribe out of existence.

Even now, no one seems to be able to admit that “Assad is a complete monster” and “innocent people who belong to his tribe are being massacred by sectarian bigots” are not mutually exclusive.

Via Freddie.

The (very real) interventionist portion of the American foreign policy establishment notwithstanding, I believe that the concern described above (massacre of Christian and Alawite civilians) has dominated Obama administration thinking on Syria. The Obama administration has pursued, I think, a fairly consistent and coherent strategy that it has not been able to describe rhetorically; it has sought to force the Assad regime to a coalition government with “moderate” rebels (one that would involve the resignation of Assad himself), but has resisted taking any steps that would inevitably result in the collapse of that regime.

This has meant supporting the rebels (and looking the other way when the Gulf states support the rebels), but stopping short of steps that would ensure rebel military victory on the ground. It has meant keeping an open back-channel with the Assad regime (through coordination of activity against ISIS, and through Russia). It has meant resisting airstrikes targeted against the regime that would necessarily escalate into a campaign to destroy the regime.

And the reason for this is that, from the experience of Libya and Iraq, the administration well understands the potential for brutality and genocide in aftermath of a clear rebel military victory. In particular, I suspect that no one in the Obama administration wishes to preside over the potential extinction of the Syrian Orthodox Christian community. It also appreciates the inevitability of chaos as various rebel groups struggle to pick up the pieces of a shattered regime. And it understands that a collapse of the Syrian state is good for no one in the neighborhood; Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon would all suffer.

The administration has failed to describe this strategy for reasons that should be obvious.  It doesn’t want to describe allies in the rebel movement as potential (or real) butchers; it doesn’t want to admit publicly that the butchers in the Assad regime may be a practical necessity. It has looked like dithering, but the administration has held to a core idea of what it wants, and has used various means to get there.

And of course, this strategy has failed. We are as far as ever from a coalition government; while the Russians might eventually push Assad aside, any kind of reconciliation will happen on their terms, and it’s a struggle to see the remaining rebels accept any kind of restored sovereignty by the Damascus government. We barely have any idea of who or what could replace ISIS, beyond “some group that’s marginally less horrible than ISIS.” And the destruction and dislocation produced by the civil war has become nearly incalculable, and is destabilizing established political institutions as far away as the United Kingdom.

This doesn’t quite mean that the administration erred in pursuing this strategy, as whatever costs the people of the world are paying in the Syrian civil war, the US has paid very little.  And to be vulgar, that matters a great deal in political terms; Syria will barely register as a an issue in the 2016 election.  If the United States had helped sweep a rebel coalition to power in 2011, with attendant massacres of Assad supporters, throngs of refugees generated by disorder and bad governance, and fitful civil war leading to gruesome casualties on both sides, the issue would probably loom larger, especially if some group of American citizens found themselves on the wrong side of a fight. And of course it does no good to say that the alternative would have generated twice as many dead, and twice as many refugees (although at this point it’s surely possible that either US intervention or direct US support for Assad would have resulted in less destruction than what we’ve actually seen), because we don’t get to live in counter-factual worlds.

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  • I think a coalition government is probably the best that can be hoped for, but note that the enemy of your enemy is not your friend. He’s an enemy who has agreed to pause hostilities until a better advantage comes along.

    • DrDick

      Indeed. The Uberhawks want to repeat Reagan’s mistakes in Afghanistan, which gave us the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Actually it was Carter, not Reagan, specifically Zbigniew Brzezinski. And in helping topple the USSR it was a brilliant move, despite whatever unforeseeable blowback emerged 31 years later. Between the two–Al Qaeda or the USSR–only the USSR presented an existential threat.

        Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

        Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

        Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

        Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic [integrisme], having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

        Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

        • Latverian Diplomat

          I guess it depends on how “unforeseeable” you think the blowback was.

          ETA: Not to mention how essential to the eventual Soviet collapse you think Afghanistan was.

          Both of which are thoroughly debatable points, IMHO.

  • Bruce Vail

    As one of your older readers with no expertise in foreign affairs, I remember that Syria has been described as an enemy of the United States and our ally Israel going back to the 1960s. So, I often make the cynical assumption that we want Syria to be in a civil war and we want Syrians to kill one another, because then they won’t be killing (or harming) Americans or Israelis. Am I wrong?

    • Almost certainly you’re wrong. Remember, the Obama administration came into office seeking warmer relations with Syria. One of the Wikileaks cables was a letter from then-Senator Kerry reporting that he thought the Assad regime was almost ready for a peace deal with Israel. Then the Arab Spring and the civil war happened, and the administration had to abandon Plan A and react.

    • J. Otto Pohl

      The last serious direct armed conflict between Syria and Israel was in the 1980s in Lebanon. But, after the 1973 War, Syria has not been a threat to Israel itself. The main obstacle to a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty was the refusal of Israel to give back the Golan Heights and the fact that both Assads and the wider Baath Party perceived that conceding the territory permanently would seriously jepordize their internal legitimacy. If Israel had offered the Golan back the way they did the Sinai to Egypt then old man Assad might very well have signed a peace treaty.

      • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

        And Israel giving back the Golan is unforeseeable. Whatever its strategic value, Sinai was largely viewed as a worthless slab of hot sand and not that valuable. The Golan is fertile, beautiful (I’ve heard it described as the Napa Valley of Israel more than once) and widely seen as the best land in Israel. IIRC there are a lot more Israelis living on/ near the Golan than Sinai as well. Giving it back to Assad is a much bigger lift politically, basically political suicide.

    • Spiny

      Syria was an indifferent enemy of the US/Israel at best for decades. There’s a belief by some parts of the anti-war crowd that the US/CIA/Mossad/etc. wants to sow chaos in the Middle East, but it’s mostly bullshit. Contrast the behavior of the Syrian dictatorship, which sheltered Hamas officials but kept a firm hold on its borders, with the situation in sectarian-democratic Lebanon, where Hezbollah basically ran the frontier. It’s never been any secret which arrangement Israel preferred.

      • There’s a belief by some parts of the anti-war crowd that the US/CIA/Mossad/etc. wants to sow chaos in the Middle East, but it’s mostly bullshit.

        It’s insane. American policy towards the region has been all about the promotion of stability for decades. Were were trying to sow chaos by entering into major military alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

        The theory I’ve heard expressed is that we want chaos cuz oil. Who wants chaos at the gas station where they fill up?

        • rea

          American policy towards the region has been all about the promotion of stability for decades. Were were trying to sow chaos by entering into major military alliances with Egypt and Saudi Arabia?

          While you’ve accurately stated the policy, the execution of the policy was so badly bungled by the Bush/Cheney administration as to make the belief that we were deliberately sowing chaos not entirely unreasonable.

          • It is reasonable to think that Bush/Cheney were actively pursuing chaos, I agree. A pretty good argument could be made that they actually were, and that their policy represented a dramatic departure from those of their predecessors.

            It is not reasonable to look at the Bush/Cheney years, and then retroactively conclude that our policy prior to them was to sow chaos; or to look forward, and conclude that Obama’s policies were aimed at sowing chaos.

            • CP

              Actually, I think there are Arab leaders who do see Obama as sowing chaos – or at least enabling it. They saw his support (however rhetorical and inconsistent) for Arab Spring movements as part of that, and were shocked by what they saw as his abandoning a long term ally like Mubarak (never mind that Mubarak basically dug his own grave and that American support would, if anything, probably just have been the final nail in his coffin).

              I most emphatically don’t believe he’s aiming to sow chaos – nor was Bush for that matter (just a comprehensively incompetent idiot completely in over his head). But it’s perceived that way in some parts.

  • Dr. Waffle

    Holy fucking shit. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few months, it’s that “leftists” like Freddie and Adam Johnson are far more concerned with semantics than anything else. Would it have made that much of a difference if the headlines had said “government-held cities” instead of “Assad strongholds?” Does it matter?

    Also: I’d like the names of those in the foreign policy establishment who are painting all Alawites as members of Assad’s “military apparatus.” Spoiler alert: there are none (at least of any prominence).

  • Lasker

    I think the text to the left of the chessboards is supposed to say “Benghazi”.

  • There has been some really awful analysis of the Obama administration’s Syria policy by the far left and libertarian anti-interventionist types. It was very strange, back during the chemical weapons crisis, to see people insisting that the Obama administration was merely ginning up a opportunity to topple Assad. Then, when we began military action against what was then the most powerful force fighting the Assad regime, that too was supposedly just a pretext for strikes against the regime.

    I suppose, after Bush, it’s understandable that people would by cynical about unconventional weapons and Islamist terrorism as explanations for military action, but in the case of Syria, that cynicism lead people to some serous misunderstandings.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      The cynicism about US military action is baked into the cake, and has been for some time, regardless of which party the CiC belongs to. Remember the kerfuffle over Clinton’s missile strikes in Sudan, and the Rashomon-like debate (Hitchens v Chomsky!) over whether it targeted a chemical weapons plant or a vitally needed factory making infant formula. Or Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia.

    • slothrop1

      Obama has repeatedly said that the regime must go.

      • Expressing a desire is not the same thing as basing a policy around it. It’s useful to pay more attention to what a politician does than to what he says.

        What you’re doing with this comment is explaining the thought process that led you to a mistaken conclusion. Now we know why you thought the response to the chemical weapons crisis was a pretext to start a regime change war. Now we know why you thought the ISIL War was a similar pretext.

        There are lessons to draw here.

        • slothrop1

          Well, no. The attacks with chemical weapons occurred in 2013. As far as I know, Obama has insisted that Assad should go a good deal before 2013.

          As I understand you (btw, I wish you wrote less… tortuously), I assume that Obama has no good options. What do you think should be done?

          • Well, no. The attacks with chemical weapons occurred in 2013. As far as I know, Obama has insisted that Assad should go a good deal before 2013.

            How is this supposed to rebut what I wrote?

            Me: You mistakenly thought the Syrian chemical weapons crisis was a pretext because of Obama’s “Assad must go” statement.

            You: But he was saying that well before the crisis.

            Yes…and?

            • slothrop1

              Well, nothing I suppose.

              In any case, what do you think should be done? I ask this because I’m interested.

              • I don’t think there is a good answer. I don’t have a policy recommendation that can produce a good outcome, because most of what’s going on in Syria is out of our hands.

                Making sure the most moderate factions get a seat at the bargaining table seems like the best we can hope for.

    • Spiny

      There has been some really awful analysis of the Obama administration’s Syria policy by the far left and libertarian anti-interventionist types.

      Syria has proved pretty conclusively that these people did not actually learn anything from Iraq – Iraq was simply a confirmation of what they already thought they knew, and their only interest in it is as a rhetorical shield. So long as they have this shield, there can be no need to understand Syria or its intricacies.

    • slothrop1

      Also, HRC telegraphs complete lunacy – I’m terrified what president HRC will do in the Middle East. This is a good gauge of that lunacy (the cable is from 2012, by the way).

      • Her Middle Eastern policy is my very biggest worry about her presidency.

    • wengler

      If you want to start replacing regimes around the world, there are much better places to start than Syria.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Like Canada? ;-)

      • Spiny

        Almost half a million have been killed in the last 5 years, the vast majority by Assad’s regime. That’s 2% of the population. Millions more are displaced and may never go home. It is the worst humanitarian disaster in the world at this moment.

        So where exactly do you place this government in the global rankings? Or are you just being fucking glib?

    • SIS1

      Aren’t you a fine revisionist.

      Because a widespread air campaign against Assad’s military capabilities, including taking out his airforce, to punish him as you wanted would have done NOTHING to fundamentally alter the military balance of the conflict, even if the US didn’t specifically target regime higher ups…

      Yeah, that is how wars work…..

  • Rob in CT

    “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

    Imagine a 20th or 21st century US president saying that, flat-out (Obama has said things that are sort of like this, but not so starkly).

    But it’s true, even with us being a superpower and all, that we can’t just design some perfect policy and fix somebody else’s civil war (or tyrannical government, or theocracy, etc).

    Our options wrt Syria were never good. As usual with such situations, I’d rather stay the hell out of it. I recognize that’s not always a realistic option, but I do want it to be more of a default to be overcome, as opposed to what I think the default is now in the DC FP community (do something!). However, if the US government had done nothing wrt Syria, things would likely be just as bad, or worse (after all, had we done nothing at all, Assad probably keeps gassing people, no?).

    Speaking of counterfactuals… Gore wins the 2000 election and doesn’t pick a stupid fight in Iraq. Saddam remains in power. The drought still happens, the civil war in Syria still happens. What does Saddam do?

    • rea

      What does Saddam do?

      Die of old age?

      • Rob in CT

        Hah. It’s true he’d be 79 now. The Syria civil war started in 2011 and ramped up in 2012, right? So he’d have been in his mid-70s.

        Maybe, maybe not. Ok, what does the Sunni strongman leader of Iraq do?

        • Uday Hussein made his father look like Martin Luther King.

          • CP

            Woulda been Qusay. Uday was originally next in line for the throne, but IIRC his dad eventually sidelined him in favor of his brother, precisely because he was too unstable even by Saddam’s standards.

            • Brett

              That was Christopher Hitchens’ argument for invading Iraq IIRC – namely, that Saddam would die, his sons would rip the country apart fighting over it, and we’d end up invading anyways into the middle of a chaotic situation to prevent it from spreading elsewhere.

              • CP

                Christopher Hitchens is an imbecile.

                • The Temporary Name

                  Was!

                • CP

                  No, if there’s an afterlife, he’s still an imbecile. Out there, somewhere.

                  And I kind of hope that there is, just so he can have one more thing to be wrong about. (And to know he’s been wrong about).

                • He’s in atheist purgatory.

    • CP

      With or without an Iraq War, Iraq would probably have remained under the Anglo-American noose (embargo, no-fly zones, air strikes), so there would’ve been sharp limits to what he could do.

      Viewed through those constraints:

      Well, Saddam was a Sunni, and he resented the hell out of the Syrian regime for supporting Iran during his war with them in the eighties, and then supporting the coalition in the Gulf War. Those are all reasons to be supporting the insurgency.

      At the same time, the notion of an Islamic fundamentalist regime right on his doorstep might not have sounded all that great to him, even a Sunni one, since they hated him too. Those are reasons not to be supporting the insurgency.

      Not sure which would’ve won out.

      • Rob in CT

        This suggests enough support to make a mess w/o enough to topple Assad.

        Which sounds familiar…

    • witlesschum

      Are we sure Syria happens without the Iraq War? The refugees from the fighting and/or Sunni militant types who moved there were surely factors in the civil war happening, no?

      • CP

        Well, the Arab Spring would’ve happened one way or another (the neocons pathetically trying to salvage Bush’s reputation by claiming that it was Iraq that inspired democracy activists were and remain full of shit). It’s an open question whether, without factors like the AQI next door in Syria and the chaos caused by a decade of war, the troubles in Syria would’ve reached the point that they have.

        For me, the question is whether the modern polarization of the entire region along Sunni/Shi’a lines would’ve happened without the Iraq War. The removal of Iraq as a buffer between the two big Shi’a and Sunni powers (Iran and Saudi Arabia), the return to tribal/ethnic allegiances in Iraq after the complete dismantlement of the Iraqi state, and the subsequent ethnic/sectarian conflict that raged on throughout the 2000s, did a lot to polarize the region and set the stage for the 2010s conflicts. Without that, the Arab Spring still happens – but I wonder if it would’ve happened the same way.

        (Maybe yes. Maybe the Syrian civil war instead of the Iraqi one would’ve been the catalyst for that polarization, since you have a similar setup of a minority regime ruling a majority population, and lots of tensions stemming from that that would’ve erupted once the Arab Spring got to Syria).

        • Turkle

          Worth remembering that the return to tribal and ethnic allegiances was largely a part of the whole neocon design anyway. The PNAC types are all on the record as favoring a redrawing of political boundaries according to ethnic sorting as a post-war plan.

          • CP

            I didn’t know that. All the Bushie rhetoric seemed to indicate that they honestly expected an Iraq that would look like a modern Western nation.

          • Dallan

            Interesting. I suppose it makes sense but I hadn’t heard anything along those lines, especially given the line about creating a modern, democratic Iraq.

            It’s kind of ironic how much that lines up with the facile Sykes-Picot criticism and the rhetoric about “artificial states” in the Middle East that you get from the left.

    • Quite Likely

      The Syrian Civil War would be unrecognizable with a unified Iraq under Saddam.

      • And without an existing population of border-crossing Sunni insurgents hardened by years of battle.

        One of the dynamics of this civil was has been hostilities among the various rebel factions. Imagine if the Al Qaeda and ISIL factions didn’t have a big military advantage over the Arab Spring protesters right from the beginning.

        • The Temporary Name

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansar_al-Islam

          I seem to recall that Saddam was somewhat okay with Ansar al-Islam operating in the no-man’s-land between Iraq proper and Kurdistan, because the Islamists were nutty maniacs who really liked killing Kurds, but my memory could be off.

  • Jonny Scrum-half

    I don’t know anything about the situation in Syria, but I feel compelled to say what a pleasure it was to read such a serious and even-handed appraisal of what’s been going on. The fact that nothing like this will appear in any popular publication emphasizes how poorly we’re served by the media and our politicians.
    One more thing – this site regularly addresses issues in a manner that’s more sophisticated and just better than almost anywhere else I see.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      Hear hear. Among the 5-10 sites I read regularly (some Gawker/Hogan/Thiel sites, TNR, Atlantic, various policy blogs), this one makes me feel the smartest day in day out.

  • AMK

    At this point, the whole premise of the “coalition government” for “Syria” is a lot like “Iraqis will greet our troops as liberators with flowers in the streets.” It’s delusional. These people have spent the past five years ethnically cleansing each other–continuously shooting, bombing, stabbing, gassing, literally ripping each-other’s hearts out (check the Youtube video)–with the enthusiastic support of outside actors who love the proxy sandbox. But sure, because the Kennedy School graduates and cocktail party grandees in Foggy Bottom want them to form a “coalition government” in Damascus, it makes perfect sense!

    The continuing fealty for meaningless 100-year old lines in the sand that nobody respects is just baffling. There is no more “Syria” than there is a “Yugoslavia,” and there won’t be in anyone’s lifetime. I think most of this country’s idiocy in the Middle East can be explained by the pernicious influence of oil money and Likudnik money, but even here the explanation falls short: there isn’t enough oil in Syria to justify duct-taping it together for the sake of Exxon Mobil, and Israel is much better off with a divided Syria of weak statelets than a united Syria as Iran’s ally. I just don’t get it.

    • Ronan

      There is a syria, in that there’s a meaningful syrian national identity and not just a loose collection of ethnic and religious groups. You shouldn’t put so much causal weight in 100 year old political compromises (which weren’t implemented as drawn up, and matched quite closely historically meaningful divisions )
      The cause is primarily decades of intervention, authoritarianism and ethnic extremism , not Sykes picot

      • Spiny

        There is a syria, in that there’s a meaningful syrian national identity and not just a loose collection of ethnic and religious groups.

        Yes, a lot of people fail to grasp that things happen after those meaningless borders are drawn up. Assad Sr. and Jr. spent a lot of time and effort building Syrian national identity precisely because they understood the historical divisions. It’s not a settled thing, but it exists.

    • Doesn’t your observation that the war is being promoted and kept going by outside powers who view it as a proxy war suggest that you may not be right about the possibility of a deal among the Syrian factions?

    • The continuing fealty for meaningless 100-year old lines in the sand that nobody respects is just baffling. There is no more “Syria” than there is a “Yugoslavia,” and there won’t be in anyone’s lifetime.

      The dissolution of Yugoslavia resulted in some pretty horrendous stuff. 40,000+ died and
      ≈4,000,000 were displaced during the Yugloslav wars. And there was risk of more (hence US intervention; regardless of whether you think it made it better or worse, there was a not irrational concern).

      Now, during WWII and immediately after Yugoslavia was pretty murderous, I’m given to understand (not sure about this source…Otto?!).

      None of this implies that one should impose such states now, but that when they exist the transition to a “more natural” set of states can be quite difficult and dangerous.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Rummel is pretty unreliable. He likes to inflate numbers by just averaging all estimates regardless of reliability. This article is a pretty good critique of Rummel regarding Yugoslavia.

        https://www.academia.edu/566475/Titos_Slaughterhouse_A_Critical_Analysis_of_Rummels_Work_on_Democide

        • Thanks! Do you have any source for people killed by the Yugoslav government from say 1980-1990?

          • J. Otto Pohl

            Before Yugoslavia fell apart? The number of people killed by the Yugoslav government in the 1980s was quite small. Those were quite peaceful, stable, and prosperous years for Yugoslavia. Your best source for those years is probably Amnesty International.

            • Yes! Thanks! That was my impression.

              So, there you go, AMK. One reason to keep the stitched together things together is that things can get much worse when the fall apart. (Obviously, the best end game is either an organic unity emerging or a peaceful dissolution.)

      • AMK

        The mass killing and displacement stage has already happened. On the ground, there’s already an Alawite state (Assads), a Sunni theocracy (ISIS), a Kurdistan, and dozens of other little fiefdoms where militias with varying ethno-religious-political affiliations exercise their own monopolies of force and pursue their own agendas (not all of which are completely barbaric; some of the Kurdish groups seem very progressive). My point is that it does us no good to pretend this has not happened.

        The other point is that the Beltway types who most insist on doing the pretending are the kind of people whose idea of an enemy is the colleague who takes the last spot in the bikram yoga class they wanted…they won’t speak to that person for a month. Yet they expect people who have seen their children killed in front of them to just abandon their only semblance of safety and sit down with the killers to form a peaceful “coalition” for the sake of a now-pretend country.

        • Ronan

          There is no alternative here, though. Sorting by ethnicity, or religion, or whatever, has its own problems. National identities exist in the region, and are (in most cases) the primary identity of most people. States have been institutionalised, political and administrative structures are built on nation state lines.
          The “international community” has strongly supported the maintenance of national borders since the end of world war 2, it’s a strong norm in conflict resolution and is specifically adopted to undermine irredentism. Some new madcap plan to reorder the middle east is not feasible. What you will probably get is some sort of bottom up ethnic sorting domestically , some groups (like the Kurds) possibly getting a state, but mostly we’ll see divided and weakened central governments, federated (implicitly or explicitly) states built, more or less, on the borders we have today, and eventually the need for compromise or reconciliation.
          Your cynicism about the denizens of Georgetown cocktail parties and their ability to understand the world outside Washington might be well grounded, but you’re not offering any alternative

    • witlesschum

      Sure, but people who hate each other do sometimes make peace, too. And what’s the alternative to trying to influence them towards doing so while trying to avoid any blowback onto the U.S. and keep the killing and heart ripping out as confined as possible?

      • Hogan

        “We only make peace with our enemies, my lord. That’s why it’s called ‘making peace.'”

  • Ronan

    Was the Obama admin not quite divided, at least initially, on intervention ? With Clinton and a few of the more interventionist members pushing for military action ? If this is the case, who in the admin specifically settled on this policy ? Was it driven by Obama himself ?

    • Hogan

      More like everyone’s second choice, maybe.

  • Steve LaBonne

    I understand the appeal of trying for the only marginally acceptable outcome, despite its great unlikelihood, amongst an array of far more probable unacceptable outcomes. And it’s surely better than large-scale military intervention. But this analysis only even gets started if you assume that we are still the world’s policeman and this was somehow our problem to try to solve. But isn’t that an assumption that’s long overdue for questioning?

    • Rob in CT

      Yes, although…

      Depending on just how much you think the Syria civil war was influenced by the destruction of Iraq – which is on us (at least mostly) – you can make a case that even if we’re not the world’s policeman we have some responsibility here.

      Which is another reason I want less interventionism. It begets more.

      • Steve LaBonne

        I can and would make the case that we played an important role in causing this. Thing is, the bull in the china shop doesn’t have the ability to un-break the crockery- he just needs to go away.

    • Spiny

      But this analysis only even gets started if you assume that we are still the world’s policeman and this was somehow our problem to try to solve. But isn’t that an assumption that’s long overdue for questioning?

      I look at it differently. We are not the world’s policeman, we’re just a really powerful world celebrity. Many people do actually expect the US to have an opinion about world events, and sometimes expect us to act on it. Not everyone and not always, but generally.

      Syrians I know/read are divided on what should be done, but it’s not an uncommon feeling that those who have power in the international community have a moral obligation to do something about the death and destruction. Whether they like US foreign policy or not takes a backseat to the urgency of the horror. We can say we’re not going to interfere, but I think it’s inhuman to make “not our problem” kind of arguments.

      Yes, Iraq played a huge role in Syria’s destruction. I don’t believe that Syria or the Arab World would have gone on fine without it – the spark from Tunisia raged too quickly and too far for me to take that idea seriously. I agree with you that we should be having a more serious conversation about what the US should be willing to do in a post-Iraq world. Unfortunately the left is too deep into an isolationist phase to be leading that conversation.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Accepting a large number of refugees, and giving them generous resettlement aid, would actually lead to a meaningful reduction of suffering. Bombing, to put it mildly, doesn’t. And yes I know that seems to be a politically unattainable option- which says bad things about us as a people.

        • Spiny

          Reflexively equating “intervening” with “bombing” is part of the uncritical isolationism I’m talking about.

          I couldn’t agree more about accepting refugees. I also believe in expanding aid drops to beseiged cities and establishing safe zones in Syria for civilians by force.

          • Steve LaBonne

            All of which are ways of actually helping people instead of trying to impose a preferred political outcome by force of one kind or another. Not adding to the existing level of violence != isolationism, and frankly it’s an abuse of language to pretend otherwise.

            • Spiny

              The things I mentioned are forms of intervention, involving use of military force and carrying a potential for violent conflict with the Assad regime, and it’s naive to pretend otherwise. Isolationist leftists can and will say they should not be done because of this, just as they said it with a no-fly zone.

        • Excuse me, Mr. ISIL, would it be ok if we resettled those refugees you’ve surrounded ll Mt. Sinjar?

          No? Oh, well. I’m going to do the humane thing and just let you work it out, then.

          • Steve LaBonne

            Pretty rich considering IS wouldn’t exist without George and Dick’s Excellent Adventure. There’s a word for doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

            • Because of the Iraq War, we should have let ISIL conduct genocide.

              There’s a word for doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

              So, opening a corridor for the evacuation of the Kurds and invading Iraq to overthrow Saddam are “the same thing.” I see.

              The belief that government action is exactly alike in all aspects, differentiated only by amount, is more typically found among libertarians than self-proclaimed progressives.

              Except when it comes to military action. There, you see left-wingers fall into that trap all the time. Both intellectual shortcomings stem from the same source: they have an ideological objection to the sphere of action (environmental regulation, military operations) in theory, and never bother to engage with the specifics when rendering judgement about individual cases.

              Imagine someone opposing HUD grants for pedestrianization plans on the grounds that Urban Renewal was a bad idea. That is the equivalent of your argument. And, in fact, I saw many people make precisely that argument, right down to the “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” line, during my days at the Reason blog.

              I managed to be both against the Iraq War and in favor of preventing that genocide. It wasn’t that hard.

        • Rob in CT

          I agree that this would be a more productive thing than many of our military adventures. Fear of allowing in terrorists (which, at a sufficiently large # of refugees is at some point a certainty) would have to be overcome. As in: yes, sometimes people who come here end up doing bad things, and we accept that. There are risks and downsides to any policy. I do think it’s likely that consistently applying this approach (we’ll take in the people fleeing, come join us in our city on a hill, etc) instead of military intervention would, over time, actually produce better results. But there’s no way to prove that, or even make a strong argument in favor. It’s just an feeling, really.

          As Joe noted, rather caustically, that only helps people who can get out. Which I’m ok with, but that’s not the most liberal of positions (this is where I get kind of paleoconservative).

          • Steve LaBonne

            As in a natural disaster, you help the people you can actually help. We’re pretending to try to help the people we can’t while largely ignoring the people we could. I don’t see anything humanitarian about that.

            • In point of fact, we are not “ignoring the people we could,” but rather, spending billions of dollars on refugee resettlement and aid.

      • so-in-so

        They wouldn’t have “got on fine” because they weren’t fine.

        The list of horribles from the Saddam years in Iraq, before and after Kuwait/Gulf War 1, is very long. Not too long ago Assad Sr. solved a rebellion in one area of his country by shelling a major city with heavy artillery, as Qaddafi planned with Benghazi.

        Of course that’s not why we invaded Iraq, and the effect has been to multiply the slaughter instead of reduce it. It doesn’t mean that everything would have been just great without Iraq. We can also blame al-Qaeda and ISIL in part on the effort to remove the USSR from Afghanistan.

        • Spiny

          Right. The point I was trying to make is that the Arab Spring and Syria’s destruction couldn’t have played out exactly the way it has without the Iraq War. But the other forces at work still matter, and would likely also have lead to death and disintegration without the War.

    • Hmm.

      There’s *some* impetus to avert or mitigate great harm if one has the capacity. Rwanda is a failure, right?

      The challenge is not to make things worse.

      • If you accept as an unalterable truth that it is impossible to mitigate harm, an awful lot of difficult thinking can be avoided.

  • John F

    Our options wrt Syria were never good.

    That’s been my sense- I don’t “like” Obama’s Syria strategy, but I’ve haven’t seen anything better being seriously put forward.

    In the letter section of the recent Atlantic a bunch of foreign policy types responded to a recent article regarding Obama’s foreign policy- and the responses were uniformly depressing- these are folks who have been studying the middle east for decades and have somehow managed to not learn a damn thing in all that time. Almost all critics can point out mistakes we’ve made*, things that haven’t gone well, but then when they suggest something that we should have done instead, it’s literally always something that would have made the situation worse- if you ask what we should do now, ditto…

    *Ok some are very talented at pointing out where we didn’t make a mistake and insisting that we did- and vice versa, usually these guys are described as “neo-cons”

  • rea

    I see, by the way, that Freddie has changed his name, possibly to reflect his identity as un chien andalusia.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Syria is the world’s most intense current tragedy, and it underscores yet again why we need a UN with authority. Which means the U.S. has to take it seriously and stop sending clowns like John Bolton there.

  • wengler

    I think the whole US response to Syria showed that many people in the administration were and are much more interested in toppling Assad than destroying ISIS. Some of the actual good policies pursued, including helping the Kurds in Syria will undoubtedly end as soon as their offensive in Raqqa is concluded. The absolute clusterfuck of supporting all sides and no sides is apparent in Syria. A part of me wonders in five years time whether the US will be supporting al Qaeda and promoting it as a ‘moderate’ group.

  • RonC

    I’d suggest that the American strategy in Syria is exactly the same one Graham Greene described us pursuing in “The Quiet American” in Vietnam.