Who lost Syria? Comments of some U.S. senators, analysts and journalists, including the editorial board of this newspaper, suggest there is no doubt: Bashar al-Assad and his thugocracy are primarily responsible for the killings, but the tragedy of Syria is also a direct result of a terrible failure of leadership on the part of the international community, and of the United States in particular.
Syria, it is charged, is Barack Obama’s Rwanda.
Don’t believe it.
The idea that Syria was anyone’s to win or lose, or that the United States could significantly shape the outcome there, is typical of the arrogant paternalism and flawed analysis that have gotten this country into heaps of trouble in the Middle East over the years.
One of the virtues of the Arab Spring/Winter is that Arab people came to own their politics — for better or worse. This sense of ownership was often painful to watch — democracy isn’t always liberal — but it brought authority and legitimacy to the political turbulence roiling that region since late 2010. That made change real and home-grown. The United States and Israel were not central to the myths, tropes and narratives of these historic changes, nor should they be.
Some have argued for intervention by attempting to draw a parallel to Libya: We helped the rebels bring down Moammar Gaddafi, this thinking goes. Why not do the same in Syria?
Three interconnected realities provide the answer. First, there was an international consensus for action in Libya, specifically through the United Nations and NATO. Second, Libya was low-hanging fruit from a military perspective: It had a weak regime, no effective air defenses, no weapons of mass destruction and no allies. The Libyan rebels also held discrete territory, from which it was easy to organize.
Syria is fundamentally different. It combines the worst aspects of three volatile elements: civil war, sectarian violence and manipulation by external powers. The argument that the United States created this mess makes sense only if there really were good options to intercede earlier that might have averted this fate.
Yet that was never the case. Yes, we could have done more on the humanitarian side and perhaps taken a more active role far earlier in helping to organize a political opposition, even covertly.
But since this conflict began in early 2011, all of the military options for intervention have been heavily skewed toward risk rather than reward. Given the Assad regime’s firepower, its allies (Russia and China blocking actions in the U.N. Security Council; Iran supplying money and weapons), Assad’s determination to do whatever it took to survive and his success in keeping much of his Alawite military, security and intelligence forces intact, none of the suggested military options was consequential enough to bring down the regime or to give the rebels a victory.
To stop the regime’s assault, let alone to topple it, would have required direct military pressure, most likely a massive air and missile campaign and probably an intervention force. Those, quite rightly, were never under serious consideration. Half-measures such as arming the rebels and instituting a “no-fly” zone carried risks but no identifiable rewards. It was never clear how a limited military response would shape events. U.S. planners could not be certain that a military response wouldn’t have pushed Russia and Iran to up the ante with more weapons. And with Washington seeking Moscow’s support to keep pressure on Iran’s nuclear program, a major escalation over Syria wouldn’t have helped.
And who, exactly, would we have been arming? Once the United States backs a particular rebel group, Washington would be responsible for its actions. Neighbors such as the Saudis and Qataris may have a stake in arming Sunni fundamentalists in Syria, but the United States does not. As for the Turks, the Obama administration did not prevent Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan from acting militarily. Erdogan faced serious internal constraints: Neither the general public nor 15 million Turkish Alevis aligned ethnically with Syrian Alawites wanted war with Damascus.
The tragedy of Syria is that too much blood has flowed to imagine a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition — yet the horrors have not been enough to force a divided, preoccupied and self-interested international community to intervene.
We will never know about the “what ifs” had the United States intervened in a more aggressive way. But to blame the arc of this crisis on Washington or to suggest that the Obama administration made it worse fails to understand the cruel nature of the Syrian tragedy and the limits of U.S. power and our national priorities. The United States is coming out of the two longest wars in its history, in which the standard for victory was never “can we win?” but “when can we leave?”
As recent polling on the prospect of intervention in Syria shows, the American people understand this, even if those who call for more aggressive U.S. action do not. We should not be the world’s top cop or caseworker, charged with fixing every calamity. We don’t control history. And it’s time we attend to our own broken house instead of running around the world trying to repair everyone else’s.
Aaron David Miller is vice president for current initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and has advised Democratic and Republican secretaries of state on the Middle East. His books include the forthcoming Can America Have Another Great President?