“Thanks, Obama”: Presidential Culpability for the Syrian Civil War?

February 11, 2014

After several months out of the limelight, relatively speaking, the Syria crisis has once again begun to rise on the agendas of the international community. The UN issued a call for action in December 2013, asking for $6.5 billion in donations; the largest sum requested for a single humanitarian emergency. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres lamented, “This goes beyond anything we have seen in many, many years, and makes the need for a political solution all the much greater.”

The situation is so bad that the UN announced this month that it could no longer count the casualties. More than 15,000 Syrians may have died since last September’s blunder into a Russian-brokered diplomatic agreement to halt the regime’s use of chemical weapons. While the regime has fallen behind on the timeline to begin moving stockpiles out of the country for destruction, there seem to have been no more chemical attacks to date. However, that has not halted the descent into the abyss. From the regime’s use of barrel bombs (55-gallon drums packed with explosives and scrap metal dropped from helicopters) to tear into residential neighborhoods to the “indiscriminate” torture on those imprisoned, the catastrophe continues to spiral. Rebel groups have shown a like propensity for atrocities, against the regime, against each other, and even against civilian children. The UN estimates that nearly 7 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The continuing catastrophe and the failed Geneva II talks have brought about a renewed round of commentary. All the usual suspects are beating their drums about the “responsibility to protect,” supporting rebels, and even taking solace in the fact that America is winning in Syria because Iran and Hezbollah are (supposedly) losing. With these stale arguments on loop, the rise of extremist jihadi groups aligned with al Qaeda are drawing more strident calls that America’s interests are now in play in the conflict. The most concerning of these groups, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), has begun to parlay its success in Syria into forays into Iraq and Lebanon, pushing these fragile states back toward civil war. Not only do these virulent jihadi groups threaten to destabilize Syria’s neighbors, but also the growing number of Europeans going to fight in Syria presents the risk of a jihadist blowback in Europe and even the United States.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently estimated that some 7,000 foreign fighters from 50 countries have been drawn into Syria, joining rebel forces numbering between 75,000 and 110,000. Of these, the U.S. intelligence community estimates 26,000 are “extremists.” The International Center for the Study of Radicalization puts the number of foreign fighters higher at 8,500 to 11,000. Within this figure, numbers of European and non-Arab fighters are rising quickly, according to the center’s research. Foreign fighters are flowing into the Syria fight more rapidly and in more volume than was the case in either Iraq post-2003 or Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Amid this worrying trend, some national security commentators have turned to the stock question of our day: whose fault is it? Of course—as I wrote earlier here—we tend to see our world through the lens of the unitary rational actor, so there must be one decision-maker at fault and one policy decision that caused all this mess. So, who could it be? Thanks, Obama!

Journalist and Syria-watcher Michael Weiss exhibits this logic in his recent Politico piece entitled, “The Unraveling: How Obama’s Syria Policy Fell Apart.” As critical as Weiss’ piece is of the Obama administration’s shortcomings, some commentators might find it too generous in implying that Obama had a Syria policy in the first place. Nonetheless, Weiss places the blame for the rise of the extremists squarely on Obama’s shoulders. In his dithering, Weiss argues, the president missed the opportunity to launch meaningful punitive strikes against the regime last fall. The administration likewise failed to provide the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with weapons as it once promised. As a result, in Weiss’ estimation, the moderate coalition was discredited as a U.S. puppet even as it was deprived of the support needed to defend itself against more radical factions.

Sniffing out Obama’s weakness, Weiss tells us, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri denounced the FSA on September 11, 2013, as U.S.-backed “enemies of Islam.” A day later, ISIS launched a brutal assault on the FSA, killing key commanders, cutting the group off from its supply lines, and routing it from key towns. Soon, defections of individuals from the FSA to ISIS became defections of entire units. The FSA was falling apart leaving ISIS ascendant.

Weiss’ reductionist version of events is easily understood and is resonant with the many observers from all points on the political spectrum who believe that Obama has failed to craft and execute a coherent foreign policy on any issue. Yet, the simple “Thanks, Obama” version is dangerously misleading. Weiss’ is only one voice in a chorus that would have Americans believe that if only an individual American leader had made a single different choice, we really could have created a favorable outcome in a complex, far-away society. The lesson they want us to take away is that these things are easy; American policy is the cause and solution of every ill that befalls the world, and that if only we were bolder and more engaged, we could right every wrong. Unfortunately, our world and the societies that inhabit them have consistently proven to be far too complex for the politically and bureaucratically blunted instruments of U.S. foreign policy to manipulate.

The belief that simple U.S. policy decisions could reshape a conflict as complex as the one in Syria belie both a misunderstanding of the roots of military power and an ideological inability to understand the draw of alternative viewpoints. To the first point, the table of equipment of a military formation has been long discredited as a sole determinant of victory. The FSA is better armed than most would give them credit for. In the past two years, it was able to wrest control of large portions of the country away from one of the better-armed militaries in the Middle East. Not only did it require considerable military capability to bring the conflict to this point, but its successes also gave it access to a considerable arsenal of weapons, both captured in battle and brought over by defectors. The trove of rebel videos shows successful FSA employment of everything from surface-to-air and anti-tank guided missiles to artillery and tanks.

It isn’t a lack of arms or support that brought the FSA to this point. No, it is the fact that the Syrian opposition has always been a fractious group with leaders that cannot create a whole out of its many parts. Nor can the various Syrian rebel leaders see their way past their own biases and self-importance to forge tactical alliances. Weiss admits this much in his article. But, instead of seeing this as a key failure of the Syrian opposition, he believes that somehow Barack Obama can make nice of Syrian politics by providing this schizophrenic umbrella group with weapons and largesse. The Washington Post’s David Ignatius also seems to believe that Obama would have better luck forging a unified Syrian opposition than he has had in bridging the gap in his own Congress.

You would think that people like Weiss and Ignatius, who make a living of observing the Middle East among other garden spots, would see a pattern here. Where has the moderate middle coalesced to create a democratic triumph in the last decade? Afghanistan? No. Iraq? No. Egypt? No. Libya? No. So why should Syria be any different?

Many of today’s most powerful, peaceful, and cohesive nation-states were cobbled together over centuries from fractious and disparate groups. It took great internal force, external threat, and storytelling to meld peoples together under the myth of a German, French, or Italian national identity. Countries like Syria have not had the time to meld under such heat and pressure. In their relatively short lives, they have been held together only by the often brutal magnetism of a despot’s personality, papered over with at most the beginnings of a national identity that plays second fiddle to a cult of personality. When the despot loses his magnetism on the inside, the nationalist gauze is easily torn on the outside. While the various fragments of society may all agree that change is desperately needed, the despot meticulously cauterized the bonds that might have held them together. Atomized, they fritter away their collective strength in internecine squabbles.

In contrast, the extremists have always been oriented on a different and more powerful center of gravity. Even as the despots of the Middle East outlaw groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and their more extreme counterparts, they made these groups more powerful and resilient. What is more, the flagrant corruption of regime beneficiaries—the women, alcohol, and riches conspicuously out of reach of the masses—make the ascetic ethos of the extremists that much more powerful. Finally, the brutality of these civil wars makes death seem a certainty, if not a gift, and drives people into the arms of the extremists. It isn’t a lack of arms that led the FSA to crumble. Likewise, it wasn’t foreign support that enabled the Islamist forces to enforce a blackout on their fighters’ communications for three weeks during a November-December 2013 assault on East Ghouta. Weiss observes that this “bespeaks a level of command and control that the FSA never came close to exhibiting.” Yet, he cannot connect the dots to see that no policy choice in Washington is going to change the cohesion, or lack thereof, within Syrian rebel formations thousands of miles away.

So, while partisans like Weiss may talk to a few seemingly “good guys” around the margins of the conflict in Syria and imagine that a better war was a few arms transfers away, I tend to side with Obama, who shared a very sober and compelling rationale with the New Yorker.

It is very difficult to imagine a scenario in which our involvement in Syria would have led to a better outcome, short of us being willing to undertake an effort in size and scope similar to what we did in Iraq. And when I hear people suggesting that somehow if we had just financed and armed the opposition earlier, that somehow Assad would be gone by now and we’d have a peaceful transition, it’s magical thinking.

It’s not as if we didn’t discuss this extensively down in the Situation Room. It’s not as if we did not solicit—and continue to solicit—opinions from a wide range of folks. Very early in this process, I actually asked the C.I.A. to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much. We have looked at this from every angle. And the truth is that the challenge there has been, and continues to be, that you have an authoritarian, brutal government who is willing to do anything to hang on to power, and you have an opposition that is disorganized, ill-equipped, ill-trained, and is self-divided.

If there was a missed opportunity, it came far earlier in the conflict, in 2012 when the opposition turned decisively to major armed conflict with the regime. Yet, at that time, the conventional wisdom was that Assad would fall under the weight of his own people. Obama speaks of asking for opinions early in the crisis. I don’t know what the CIA said, but I do know firsthand that within senior military planning circles the belief was that the regime would have collapsed before summer 2012. We waited, bags packed to deal with the aftermath, as weeks turned into months. Then even as journalistic commentators continued to opine that the Syrian Army and the Syrian regime were on the brink of collapse, we began to realize that Assad was more resilient than we had assumed. By that time, before the popular enthusiasm for another Libya or another Egypt had worn off, the professionals knew that it would take more than some token weapons transfers to change the balance. So, what would the idealists have done when their weapons transfers failed to change the trajectory we are seeing now?

Even had the transfers changed the balance and toppled the regime, the fundamental challenge of an amorphous atomized middle facing a cohesive and radicalized extreme would play itself out in Syria, just as it has elsewhere. I’m not of the opinion that a deal with the devil in Assad is better than facing the chaos of what comes next; however, I do believe that all of these societies will need to face, in one way or another, the incredible challenge of learning to create a cohesive and cooperative center that can bring the rest along. Unfortunately, this is something that neither Obama nor any foreign leader can facilitate. They’ll need to look into the abyss, and perhaps plumb its depths a few times, before the crucible forges them into some sort of whole. No, Obama couldn’t have changed the outcome in Syria with even a flood of arms. Short of invasion and a neo-mandatory occupation that no one wants, we have no magic wand, no matter how hard our ideologues try to believe it so. Some things just have to play themselves out.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.