The Perplexing Problems of Solving Syria


What is there to say about Syria? That it is a tragedy? That only the horrors of the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s reign of terror, and Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution diminish its human toll? That the so-called international community strenuously condemns the murder of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of half of Syria’s population? These are, as so many have pointed out, merely words to salve the collective conscience of officials who have chosen to do the absolute minimum while a major Middle Eastern country burns. This tragedy was coming. It was obvious once Syrian President Bashar al-Assad militarized the uprising that began in the southern town of Deraa in March 2011. Policymakers in Washington and other capitals assured themselves — against all evidence — that it was only a matter of time before Assad fell. But anyone who knew anything about Syria understood that the Syrian leader would not succumb the way Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did. No, Assad’s ignominy is different, borne of the unfathomable amount of blood he has spilled. There was a time when this violence could have been minimized and American interests served through an intervention, but policymakers acquiesced to the arguments of those who said it was only a matter of time or, when Assad did not fall quickly, that it was too hard. Until it actually was. Now, the desperate images emerging from Aleppo have made it impossible to look away. It remains a matter of debate precisely what the Syrian air force and its Russian partners seek in Aleppo, thought it seems that they are seeking to wrest control of the eastern half of the city by flattening it from the air.

The barbarism of the Syrian regime and its allies in Moscow and Tehran has prompted a new debate in Washington about an intervention in Syria. The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal editorial boards have renewed their calls for an intervention. Prominent columnists such as Fred HiattBret StephensNicholas Kristof, and Anne Applebaum, as well as foreign policy heavyweights like Senator John McCain (R-AZ), Ambassador Dennis Ross, and former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski have also determined that it is time to use varying degrees of force in Syria. The Democratic Party’s presidential nominee and former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, recently reaffirmed her support for a no-fly zone in Syria and for arming Syrian Kurds. The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has also opined that an intervention may be necessary. The Obama administration seemed finally moved to some type of action, calling a principals meeting on October 6th and then a National Security Council meeting with the president eight days later to discuss the issue.

The debate has also produced a number of proposals that have sought to anchor these discussions in an actual strategy for any intervention, one of which have been published in this space by the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister. There is much to agree with in Lister’s description of the problem that Syria has become. He aptly describes the consequences of American inaction in a conflict that began as an uprising, but has evolved into a vortex of violence that now invites the intervention of old Cold War adversaries. Yet for all of Lister’s mastery of the details and his confidence in the persuasive power of American arms, his plan for Syria is based on a set of dubious assertions and logical inconsistencies.

The crux of Lister’s argument lies in the following statement:

So long as Assad remains in power in Damascus and as long as his armed forces and foreign backers continue to commit daily war crimes against his own people, terrorism will exist and grow for the foreseeable future across Syrian territory.

The logical inference of Lister’s diagnosis is that terrorism will not exist and will not grow across Syrian territory once the Assad regime is toppled. This seems extraordinarily unlikely. The mind-numbingly large numbers of armed Syrian groups with varying loyalties and worldviews, the remnants of the Assad regime, the Kurds seeking independence, the fighters loyal to the Islamic State, Hizballah, and the Iranians will have every incentive to continue the fight well after the Syrian leader and his immediate circle are ousted. Lister must have realized this while he was writing because he sets up an elaborate process called “surge, freeze, and enforce,” which he imagines will provide “space” for negotiations that will result in an orderly transfer of power.

Lister’s plan also depends on the judicious use of America’s awesome military firepower to convince Moscow, Tehran, and extremists alike that there is no longer use in resistance. In his mind, Russia’s intervention has been relatively cost-free, and the prospect of confronting a far superior military foe — the United States — will convince the Kremlin to negotiate in good faith. As for the Syrian opposition, the shock and awe of it all will force a sorting out of those who accept negotiations and constraining those who do not. For all that Lister quite obviously knows about Syria’s leaders, the Syrian opposition, extremist groups, the Russians, and the Iranians, he is confusing his conception of their interests, incentives, and constraints with how they actually may behave. Lister dismisses the possibility that the Russians might choose to escalate because they are the militarily weaker party. But having gone as far as he has in Syria, can Russian President Vladimir Putin back down at the first demonstration of American power? How does Lister know that Putin understands the extent of President Obama’s resolve when American cruise missiles merely destroy “non-critical Syrian military infrastructure”?

There is also no reason to believe that Assad would be willing to negotiate. He never demonstrated any flexibility on this issue, having successfully framed the conflict for his supporters at home and abroad as fundamentally a problem of terrorism. There is, after all, little to be gained from negotiating with terrorists. Lister believes, however that a demonstration of American force that scares the Russians and Iranians will also scare Assad to the table. That is entirely possible, but only if that demonstration of force was significant — and the military options Lister proposes is not. Well aware of the politics of a Syrian intervention and the American public’s reluctance to go to war again in the Middle East, Lister has offered what he believes is a cautious military strategy. The United States would find itself dependent on a variety of other actors including the United Nations, European governments, and parties to the conflict such as Iran to litigate cease-fire violations. He has also built in special precautions to de-conflict American and Russian forces, which is prudent, but not if you want to convince the Kremlin of the costs associated with supporting Assad. The plan also relies heavily on stand-off strikes that would keep U.S. military personnel away from the battlefield. What Lister suggests hardly seems to be a threat to the Assad regime.

When it comes to extremists, their best play may be to try to suck the United States into the conflict. And therein lies one of the weakest aspects of Lister’s proposal: If an American president committed herself to the plan and found that the actors in Syria do not behave in the way Lister anticipates, there will be extraordinary pressure to escalate to elicit those responses. The unintended consequence of Lister’s strategy for winding down the conflict in Syria may very well do the opposite— intensify the fighting — while drawing the United States into the center of it.

As Thanassis Cambanis wrote in this space last week, the devastation in Aleppo has increased the calls for American intervention in Syria.  The “failure of the hands-off approach” is abundantly clear, but even as the devastation continues, the policy community remains bereft of ideas to stop it.  This is not a failure of leadership or the result of misbegotten retrenchment, but rather the hard realities of devising a plan that simultaneously serves U.S. strategic interests, restores Washington’s moral standing, and relieves Syrian suffering without burdening Americans with another potentially decade-long fight in the Middle East. This is an extraordinarily difficult task made worse but the multilayered nature of the fight in Syria. Lister and others deserve credit for tackling this issue. They believe that there is a solution to the war in Syria. But if there is one, it is not the one Lister has put forward.


Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East, will be published by Oxford University Press in 2017.