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.