In Search of an End-State for Syria, or Not

July 29, 2013

In a recent letter to Senator Carl Levin, General Martin Dempsey – the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – outlined a series of military options the U.S. and its partners could carry out in response to continuing violence in Syria.  This list of military options included: a mission to train, advise and assist Syrian rebels; limited stand-off strikes against Syrian government forces and targets; establishing a no-fly zone; establishing buffer zones to protect neighboring countries and Syrian civilians; and attempting to secure and control Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, which would require not only elements of the first four options but also possibly a significant ground presence.

This list may may accurately reflect the options available to the U.S. at this time.  Sadly, the letter and the debate surrounding it suggest the U.S. policymaking community is stuck in a conversation about ways and means, and not about their relationship to U.S. national interests and political objectives. Later in the week, Anthony Cordesman warned against the dangers of “not acting” – implying that if the U.S. did not take a proactive policy (premised on the military options of General Dempsey) that we would somehow “lose” Syria.

The question that needs to be asked is “What does the U.S. intend to accomplish in Syria?”  Only after that question is answered can this or any other list of military options be incorporated into a strategy.  Many arguments have been mobilized to shape American policy in Syria – following the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, upholding human rights norms, creating difficulties and costs for Iran or Hezbollah, supporting democracy, helping to shape the “Arab Spring,” maintaining American prestige, or even supporting Israel.  These are all excuses for intervention.  But they do not focus on the end state.  And in a civil war, which is what Syria has become, the desired end state is critical to shaping strategy.

At the risk of oversimplification, before we commit force we should consider, at a minimum, three distinct questions.  The first, as mentioned above, is: “What do we intend to achieve?”

The second question is: “What costs are we willing to pay?”  What is the value we place on the objective we seek to accomplish?  Those costs, most elegantly described by Carl von Clausewitz in terms of “magnitude and duration,” include not only economic expenses and military casualties (“blood and treasure”), but also political costs (domestic and international) and opportunity costs (what we have to forego in order to support the war).  If the costs we are willing to pay to achieve an objective are significantly lower than a reasonable assessment of the likely costs, we need to reconsider.

The third question is: “What are the consequences of using American military force to achieve this objective?”  Unintended negative consequences in recent wars have ballooned and occupied our military forces for the last decade.  Alternatively, some military interventions may have positive consequences on both domestic and international politics.  But considering the consequences ahead of time is critical to formulating effective policy and strategy.  Having at least considered these three questions, we can then decide what to do.

American objectives are, unfortunately, murky.  The public debate focuses on two key issues – toppling the Assad regime and alleviating the humanitarian costs of civil war.  Other interests and concerns have been subsumed by these core goals.  In practice, therefore, there are three major alternatives to choose from in Syria’s civil war.  Each has negative consequences for the United States, and relatively little certainty.  As such we are looking for the “least bad” option, as powers great and small often must, balancing between humanitarian concerns, punishing the Assad regime, and assuring regional stability.

Support the rebels to win.   This option dominates the public debate.  Supporting the rebels explicitly answers, in theory, the two objectives – removing the Assad regime from power, and ending the civil war. This support could encompass any or all of the measures General Dempsey recommended.  We would get diplomatic and perhaps even military assistance (within reason) from both European and Gulf allies.

One problem is that U.S. intervention would act as a magnet for regional disaffection (again), possibly reinforcing Al Qaeda and other elements in the country, and perhaps even dividing the rebels we seek to support.  Iran might escalate its involvement.  The Chinese and Russians would negate any effort for UN cover with veto threats, and Russia has already exhibited an episodic willingness to provide increased military and economic support to Assad.  Overt U.S. military intervention in the Middle East will resurrect the domestic and international debates of the last ten years, as well as international concern about U.S. support for Israel.

Moreover, if we choose a very limited military posture – reflecting concerns over a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan, and attempting to minimize international opposition – a “rebel win” may take years, with significant civilian deaths, collateral damage, and negative regional impact – in effect, ensuring the humanitarian crisis we seek to avert.  This will, over time, increase pressure in the U.S. to increase our commitment in an effort to win quickly.  On the other hand, the “quick win” options for rapidly overthrowing the Assad family all assume significant levels of US military participation.  This commitment could become much more open ended.  Even if the regime falls it is not clear who or what will succeed it in power, and (as in Iraq) we will have both an obligation and a strategic interest in ensuring some stable regime.  Given our lack of reliable intelligence on the rebel movement, we may not be able to count on political stability or even political coherence in Syria in the event of a rebel victory.

As a result, supporting the rebels could be both costly and problematic.  It may not be achievable without a significant U.S. military commitment.  Such a commitment will have very high economic and political costs and may not even be enough assure the collapse of the regime.  Even if it is successful, it is not clear what regime would succeed the Assads and whether that regime would be stable, friendly to the U.S., or a responsible regional actor.

Restore the Assad regime.  This distasteful option has to at least be considered, because in the short term it may have the strongest possibility of ending the humanitarian crisis.  Accepting this outcome would require backing down from previous policy pronouncements.  It would also tarnish our record regarding human rights violations and other cherished international norms and national values.  This outcome will go against the interests of the Saudis, other Gulf States, and our NATO ally Turkey.  It would be viewed as a “win” for Iran, annoy the Europeans, and cheapen some more recently established or asserted international norms including R2P.

Allowing Assad or his inner circle to survive and restore their rule (through some kind of negotiated settlement) could provide some level of political stability in Syrian territory – though his regime would be weakened, and might be vulnerable in the future. This goal might be achieved – in terms of military activity – either by standing down support to the rebels or by threatening a much more significant intervention to drag the Assad regime to the negotiating table.  It also may be that the rebels and their backers would simply continue the fight, and that we would be unable to secure Assad’s victory without a more significant diplomatic intervention on behalf of his regime – which would not only create great domestic unrest, but also constitute a significant breach with our allies in the Gulf and elsewhere.

Because allowing the Assad regime to win would have high political costs in both the domestic and international arenas, this is an unlikely approach.  It might, however, start to appear more attractive over time if there appears to be some potential for a compromise in Syria that leaves Assad in power, which was the U.S. focus early on in the Syrian crisis.  If our concern for immediate humanitarian relief and stability outweighs our revulsion with the Assad regime, this option may re-emerge as a possibility – and our military threats and actions would have to be tailored accordingly.

Allow an open-ended civil war in Syria.  This “outcome” – really a protracted continuation of the current conflict – should be considered in terms of both its strategic benefits and its costs.  It will turn Syria as a state into a non-player in Middle Eastern affairs for a generation due to economic and population disruption. It would also make Syria into the central playing field for Middle East power struggles. This outcome would force both Hezbollah and Iran to focus resources in Syria, which would limit their ability to make mischief elsewhere.  Extending the current conflict can be achieved either by simply avoiding direct or even covert involvement (letting the Gulf allies and Europeans sustain the rebels) or by calibrating our support to keep the fire burning without allowing it to get out of control.  Sadly, there is a historical precedent that long-term costs are lower in civil wars that are fought to the bitter end, as opposed to those that are halted prematurely by humanitarian intervention.

This option will have significant costs, however.  It will discredit R2P doctrine and other international norms.  Making a “non-choice” will engender domestic and international criticism of the United States.  Some will claim Iran will “win” through our non-action – although whether sustaining the Assad regime in a protracted civil war constitutes a “win” for a cash-strapped, sanctioned, pariah Iran is worth more consideration.  Our European allies will be upset.  It will fly in the face of U.S. opposition to authoritarianism and traditional commitments to liberty and democracy.  Our control over the outcome of the conflict will be modest, and the winner – if one eventually emerges – will probably despise us.  There are distinct costs – but this option carries the benefit of low U.S. commitment in a time of constrained resources, higher priorities in Asia, and divided domestic politics.

If we are reluctant to make the military commitment to overthrow Assad (which is understandable, particularly since it is not clear we could then control the outcome in any meaningful way), we need to carefully consider other options.  Negotiating some compromise with the regime – a preferred option earlier in the conflict – may be distasteful, costly, and difficult, but it may provide the most effective means of limiting civilian casualties, particularly as the war has appeared to take a turn back towards stalemate.

It may be, however, that we find idealism insufficient to justify the costs of overthrowing the regime, but too much of an obstacle to possible compromise and an unsatisfactory end to Syria’s revolution.  That makes continued conflict a “default” position – the non-choice that will be condemned by all sides as astrategic and reprehensible.  In fact, we should take a careful and thoughtful look at the third option and its possible consequences.  We may find that containing the conflict but not choosing sides has its own set of strategic advantages, particularly when weighed against the alternatives.  There are times, tragically, when “doing nothing” may be the most appropriate strategic choice.

Tim Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the US Naval War College. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of the Naval War College, the Department of Defense, or any other institution.