The State of War in Syria

I’m just now seeing Bridget Conley’s recent post on the state of war in Syria, which appeared on the World Peace Foundation’s Reinventing Peace blog several days ago. I agree wholly with her diagnosis:

Critics of either U.S. or Russian policy would prefer the rhetorical simplicity of merely pointing out flaws in the other’s position. What is really the problem is that both want war.

Russia now embraces war as a means to ensure that its client, the Assad regime, remains in power. But the U.S. also embraces war as a means to try to achieve regime change and, presumably, other regional and global ends as well. If the Obama administration were primarily concerned with fostering peace or stability and minimizing civilian casualties, it probably should have taken a softer line on President Assad’s status much earlier in this conflict. Instead, it has continued to insist that the conflict cannot end without his departure from power, and it has deepened its support for militias seeking to attain that goal by force.

As Bridget argues, “The most likely outcome of all these pro-war positions is continued conflict.” That’s what the scholarship on foreign intervention in civil wars tells us to expect, and that’s what we’ve seen in Syria for the past few years.

On the alternatives, though, I am less hopeful than Bridget seems to be. Instead of trying to win two consecutive wars—one to topple Assad, and then another to rule post-Assad Syria—Bridget proposes this:

If protection of civilian lives and carving a greater space for democratic practice is the desired outcome, then it’s time to seize the moment and negotiate, playing hardball for a political solution that provides institutional guarantees for democratizing processes.

But here is the conundrum: How can the U.S. “play hardball” in negotiations over Syria’s fate if it does not wield a credible threat to impose some costly punishment on parties that refuse to negotiate, or that negotiate but threaten to renege on any deal reached? And, given the current state of this conflict, how can it credibly threaten to punish defectors from any deal without fighting? What other threats are going to be so costly that the warring parties would prefer a certain outcome in which they mostly lose to the present uncertainty in which they might win and, in some cases, are profiting along the way?

Alternatively, the U.S. could simply pull back from the fight and leave it to the belligerents and their other patrons to sort out. In her post, though, Bridget alludes to one reason the U.S. has not committed to a hands-off approach: the U.S. is not acting alone, and its ostensible allies in this conflict would carry on without its participation. By keeping its hands in the war, the Obama administration apparently sustains its hope of managing that coalition, and of gaining leverage on other issues beyond Syria. As far as I can tell, the administration also seems to accept the claim that any diminution of U.S. involvement in Syria automatically and durably concedes power to its Russian and Iranian rivals.

Another option is escalation—fight harder. As Dan Drezner recently pointed out, though, escalation only makes sense if you believe that fighting harder will push the war onto a preferred path at an acceptable cost. Like Dan, I haven’t yet heard a convincing description of how that would occur. Even if you manage to win the war to topple Assad, you then have to win the post-war fight and contain the regional and global repercussions, and every recent iteration of this approach has ended poorly. With so many players committed to working at cross-purposes, I cannot imagine how this iteration would be different.

What we’re left with is foreign policy as a form of witchcraft. As the warring parties fight, various onlookers mumble incantations, wave herbs, and dole out potions. They have faith in the effectiveness of these traditional practices. When events fail to take the desired turn, evil spirits are to blame, and the answer is more mojo. If events ever do turn favorably, everyone swears it was his last spell that did it.

Personally, I remain unconvinced that a hands-off approach would be worse than the status quo. Instead of investing more in fighting and killing, why not invest in opening our doors wider to refugees from this war and helping them resettle here? I know the answer to that question: because U.S. domestic politics won’t allow it. It’s a fantasy. But then, so is the delusion of control that has us investing in the further destruction of Syria, and only one of those two fantasies involves the U.S. government spending its money and sending its people to kill other people.

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for your expert thoughts here, Jay, interesting read following Steve Croft’s grilling of the President on 60 minutes the other night on this topic. I can’t help but wonder how a President Sanders would handle this 15 months from now…I think I know how a President Clinton would

  2. Sadly, the quote by Bridget Conley at the beginning of your piece pretty much sums it up. Both countries want war. That group of war hawks within the Washington power structure has kept us in perpetual war for years and years. And I am personally getting tired of fighting all these wars that are not our wars anyway. There are many other things I would rather see our time a money used for.

  3. It is power politics in Syria for regional balance.Very good write-up.

  4. Rex Brynen

     /  October 13, 2015

    …and that’s just Syria. US policy in Syria is, since the rise of ISIS, also intimately linked to Iraq policy–in order to contain or weaken ISIS in Iraq (and more generally), it is necessary to strike them in Syria. However, striking ISIS makes it even harder for Washington to disengage from the Syrian opposition since doing so would appear to put the US on Asad’s side, with implications for relations with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others. Moreover, the most effective counter-ISIS force (the Kurdish YPG and its allies) are also participants in the Syrian civil war.

    Given all that, its far easier to cling fantasy solutions that emerge from “playing hardball” (or whatever other strategy a pundit might refer) than to engage with the actual wicked problem.

  5. Rex, you’re pretending the U.S. is against ISIS. That is fiction. It is more likely the U.S. is commanding it. Obama had plenty of opportunity to achieve his stated goals. At no point did he take them. Interestingly, I notice when the NYT commentariat don’t like something Obama’s doing in regards to foreign policy (like throwing munitions to AQ), they never mention his name. When they don’t like something GWB once did, they always chant his name as an incantation. Even when GWB fixed the problem they’re complaining about.

  6. BTW, Assad is always good in interviews. Can’t say the same thing for Obama, though Obama shows what he thinks implicitly. The entire part of the interview in which he gave his point on Ukraine and Syria show him to be an outright sadist; a happy destroyer of nations, gloating at the difficulties of those nations’ former rulers. “I’d love to do some more.” He’s intelligent; he shows this with his point on Russia intervening in Syria only due to the Syrian gov’t’s weakness. But he’s as evil as the devil himself, as he is imagined. At least Hitler was fighting for a cause.

    Also, regarding the witchcraft: Green Lantern Theory only ceased to be true regarding Iraq and Syria with the Russian intervention. Before that, the U.S. had full control over everything that went on in these countries.

  7. Colin Powell to George W Bush when weighing whether to fight Iraq: “If you break it, you buy it.” And we still are. We are too quick to think we can solve all the world’s problem with bullets and guns and drones. Even if the cause is just, killing people just makes more people angry. Not exactly the way to win hearts and minds.

  8. Jimmy Carter seems to agree that dumping weapons and fighters into Syria is making a bad situation worse, but he is more optimistic than I am about the possibility of negotiating an end to this war soon:

  9. Jim

     /  October 30, 2015

    Let’s look at the Middle East historically. The only people that I have ever studied in that area that did not seem to be warlike were the traders and craftsmen we know by what the Greeks called them, the Phoenicians. War is an old game in the Middle East.
    The United States brought a new round of wars with the 21st century. Bush II got away with wrecking Iraq with American troops. Obama and the warmongers could not use Americans troops and had to use surrogates to wreck Libya. They were entirely successful mainly because Libya had only 6 million people and no air support. When they tried it on Syria’s 22 million people and without air support for their surrogates, they fell into stalemate.
    That led to impending conventional ground invasions from Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey. That never happened, because Russia stepped in, under Syrian authorization and provided a brilliant air campaign.
    Russia did not want war. All you have to do is look at Putin’s meetings with Obama. That is not a man filled with glee with plans for war.

    But he could not change history in Syria with an ice cream truck.

    Saudi Arabia, which is not a democracy, may claim it is supporting some form of democracy in other countries, but it is at the point of a sword. Already it has begun to ship ISIS fighters from Syria to Yemen where the people of Yemen voted for the wrong man.
    What has prodded the Saudis to these wars? They feel that Iran is encircling them with allies in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iran alone has over 3 times as many men as the Saudis. In a place where many wars have been fought, all you have to do is add millions and millions in oil money, and even Allah may not be enough.

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