It didn’t have to be like this.
The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Syrian opposition forces backed by the CIA and the Pentagon are now fighting each other. (Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio actually wrote this story more than a month ago, with the simple but true headline: “America Is In A Proxy War With Itself In Syria.”) The Syrian conflagration has entered the phase where pretty much everyone shoots at everyone else: “Any faction that attacks us,” an officer from the one of the CIA-supported groups told the LA Times, “regardless from where it gets its support, we will fight it.”
Well, of course they will. Every group in Syria is now in a Hobbesian free-for-all. The death toll is now climbing toward the half-million mark. No one has any incentive to do anything but kill or be killed.
There will be no settlement. The recent “cease-fire” is the Russian variant of that term—used the same way by the Russians in Ukraine these days—meaning “a period of combat in which the Russians help the Americans pretend that no one is fighting.” The Russians, of course, claim they’ve left Syria, when they mean they’ve flexed enough muscle and killed enough of Bashar Assad’s enemies that they can now leave a smaller force in place. Assad remains in power, and likely will stay there.
It’s easy to read about this situation—best described by a compound noun that includes the word “cluster”—and reach the conclusion that the U.S. intelligence and military establishments have no idea what they’re doing. The problem, however, is not with American tactical and operational excellence: we have that in abundance. Rather, Syria represents a failure of U.S. strategy and a lack of presidential leadership.
Failing to Act Is to Act
Of course, this kind of story fuels the critics who believe President Obama made the right decision to stay out of the Syrian conflict. This, however, represents a fundamental error of logic. The situation in Syria today is not a vindication of President Obama’s decision, it is the result of that decision.
Or, more accurately, it is the result of the president’s lack of a decision. Remember, Syria looks as it does in 2016 because the Obama administration’s response to the use of chemical weapons was to outsource U.S. security management to Vladimir Putin. We will never know if Assad could have been toppled, or by whom; the Russians rendered those questions moot when they intervened.
They continue to do so at will, and Assad will now exterminate every rebel of any stripe. (Killing anyone involved in ISIS is just a coincidence at this point, at least for Assad and the Russians.)
Meanwhile, in the absence of a clear strategy, U.S. national security institutions are doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing. What we’re seeing in Syria is what happens when large organizations, lacking direction from a strategic center, continue with their organizational priorities. They will do what they’re good at, whether it makes strategic sense or not. Without coordination and an imposed strategy, they will default to trying to keep alive the people they know and to protect the assets they have in place.
This is what happens in a strategic vacuum: operations take the place of strategy.
We’ll Allow a Disaster, Then Use It to Justify Our Inaction
Critics of any proposed intervention ask: “Well, what would you do now,” always posing the question as if the previous three years didn’t happen. As I note regularly, this is like driving a car off a cliff and then handing the steering wheel to your screaming passenger and saying: “Fine, you drive.”
It’s too late for a coherent strategy of intervention, but it is the zenith of hypocrisy to allow a situation to deteriorate into utter disaster and then to point to that same disaster as the justification for never intervening. It is not only circular logic, it is dishonest and intentionally so.
A wiser policy three or four years ago might have averted this mess. I count how I and so many others called for a better U.S. policy not in months or years, but in deaths. By that measure, I was arguing for a more active approach to Syria more than 450,000 deaths ago. Among the measures that should have been taken: creating safe havens, no-fly zones, and destroying Syrian air assets and airfields.
Had these actions been taken with strategic clarity—that is, with the clear intention of destroying the Assad regime’s ability to commit mass murder and averting the opening for a Russian intervention—I do not believe a ground invasion would have been necessary (or wise).
But we’ll never know. Syria is a charnel house now, and Russia is ascendant in the Middle East (as John Schindler and I predicted three years ago), precisely because the White House refused to make any substantive decision at all. Mostly, our policy in Syria seems aimed at protecting the president’s legacy: perhaps his future library will have a display of the Syrian catastrophe with a plaque assuring visitors that Barack Obama, for eight years, held firm to a course of “not being George Bush,” or “not doing stupid shit” or some of the other deep thoughts that have emanated from the Obama foreign policy shop.
Now It’s Too Late to Do Much of Anything
These quips might be good guidance for the team worried about the president’s standing on the bookshelves of academic historians, but they aren’t much help for soldiers and intelligence operatives trying to keep people alive in a country undergoing a savage meltdown.
Speaking of books, the administration’s United Nations ambassador, Samantha Power, wrote an entire volume—an excellent one that I assign in my classes at Harvard—about crises like this one. It had lots of helpful advice about how to see such catastrophes coming and how to respond to them.
Apparently, no one listens to her, including the president. She did try, apparently, to raise such issues with Obama. The president’s response, according to Jeffrey Goldberg? “Samantha, enough. I’ve read your book.”
So, without a strategy, Power does what UN ambassadors do. She goes to New York and makes speeches. The rest of the government, likewise set on autopilot, does whatever it can do. The various groups of the Syrian opposition, facing annihilation, do whatever they can do.
Things might have been different had a more engaged chief executive been in charge of an actual policy. But that time has passed. Worse, there is no hope for the next president, almost certain to be Hillary Clinton at this point, to rescue any of this, no matter what she says on the trail. No campaign can or should promise to fix Syria: that time was hundreds of thousands of deaths and a million refugees ago.
We can all disagree on what to do next. Whatever it is, it won’t be enough; this is foreign policy as triage, not elective surgery. But we should never let the blame shift away from where it belongs, from a president and a national security team who refused to create a strategy, and left everyone else—in Washington and in Syria—with no option but to improvise in a situation that should never have been allowed to get this bad.