What’s Really At Stake in the Syria Debate


The collapse of U.S.-Russian diplomacy and the escalating atrocities in Aleppo have once again opened the floodgates for ideas on how to intervene in Syria. These ideas are all familiar: typically some combination of no-fly zones, air strikes, and arming the opposition. The goals range from civilian protection, to evening the balance of power to facilitate diplomacy, to toppling the Assad regime by force. It may seem odd that these proposals have changed so little over the years despite having failed to persuade previously and despite the dramatic evolution of the Syrian conflict.

This is confusing only if evaluated from the starting point that the purpose of these ideas is primarily to end the Syrian war or to reduce human suffering.  For the most part, it is not.

The air of surreality and endless repetition around much of the Syria debate emanates from the mismatch between stated and actual goals. In fact, both advocates and critics of these interventionist ideas generally understand that the limited measures being proposed have virtually no chance of changing the strategic trajectory of the war.  The real argument is not over saving lives or even about removing the Assad regime, as laudable as such goals might be.  It is over the extent to which the United States should be involved in the war, regardless of whether or how the war ends

While some surely believe that intervention would reduce the immediate killing or force the Assad regime to engage in more serious negotiations, this is a far cry from ending the war. Limited intervention will run aground of the war’s basic strategic structure.  Since the peaceful uprising of 2011 gave way to an externally armed insurgency in early 2012, Syria’s war has been one between a central government drawing on the focused military support of Russia and Iran, and a fragmented, multipolar insurgency drawing on a diverse range of external sponsors.  Thousands of insurgent factions compete with each other for external support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Gulf religious networks, and the United States. Any advance by one side is quickly matched by external supporters of the other: Rebel advances invited Hezbollah’s, Iran’s, or Russia’s direct entry into the fray, while Assad’s advances invited increased flows of arms and aid to the various rebel groups.

The cost of this stalemate is an estimated half million dead and over 10 million refugees and displaced. But little has been achieved at this horrifying cost. The primary strategic change since 2012 has not been victory by one side or another, but the pace and nature of the moves up the escalatory ladder.  Russia’s current military onslaught is no different in its strategic effects from earlier external escalatory moves.  While the regime may or may not succeed in capturing Aleppo from the insurgency with Russia’s backing, this will not end the war. Russia is trapped by its escalation, unable to win and unable to leave even as it does irreparable harm along the way.  So is everybody else involved in this catastrophe.

This grim logic was obvious quite early on in the war.  Once it became clear that early optimism over Assad’s imminent fall had been misplaced and this strategic stalemate set in, diplomacy had to begin from the premise that neither side could win and neither side could lose.  Political science studies of civil wars tell us that wars of this type tend to last approximately a decade, and that the number and contradictory preferences of both internal and external actors in Syria make it an extreme version of this type of war.  Syria’s war has not been ripe for resolution, either military or diplomatic, and will not be for years to come.

The limited American intervention options on offer over the last few years could never have changed this logic. These proposals, such as no-fly zones or air strikes, would have done little more than move the war more quickly up the escalatory ladder. Earlier limited military action would likely have brought Russian or Iranian forces more quickly into the war, not forced Assad’s capitulation. Targeting Assad’s air force would stop the air campaign for a few weeks only to see the runways repaved and the aircraft replaced by Russian equivalents.  The much-discussed fall 2013 “red line” airstrikes, whatever their importance for credibility, would have had little strategic impact on the ground given their extremely limited size and scope. And the idea that a more militarily powerful opposition would convince Assad to negotiate from a position of relative weakness, rather than to escalate in order to himself be able to negotiate from a position of relative strength, flies in the face of all logic of strategic bargaining.

This basic strategic analysis is widely understood by most serious participants in the debate. That is why where pundits and politicians talk about moral obligation, policy analysts tend to write in terms of creating a more favorable balance of power on the ground and changing the marginal calculations behind specific military tactics. So why has the argument continued at such a pitch?

Faced with the horrors of the last few years and the recent signal atrocity in Aleppo, decent people naturally want something to be done and bridle at the suggestion that it cannot be. But ethical analysis cannot avoid rigorous analysis of consequences.  Only the most naive interventionists would argue for acting on moral grounds if the policy had no chance of succeeding. Policy proposals are typically put forward to demonstrate that some option exists to do something in the face of evil, even if the prospects of success are low.

Framing the argument about American intervention as one between morality and pragmatism is ultimately misleading. The real argument is not over the moral calculus of action.  What gives the Syria intervention argument such intensity and broad resonance is a deeper contention over the value placed on American involvement in the war for its own sake.  Advocates of intervention believe, for a variety of reasons, that the United States and the world would be better served were the American military involved more directly in Syria. Opponents do not.

Why would involvement in Syria’s war be valuable on its own terms, independently of the intervention’s effects?  For many U.S. politicians and pundits, forceful action in virtually any arena is its own reward. In Syria specifically, many interventionists have argued that the United States needs to be more deeply involved in the war because this will give it more diplomatic and military leverage.  Leadership and involvement, in this view, has value in its own right independently of outcomes on the battlefield. Russia would take U.S. diplomacy more seriously if it saw American political capital invested in the game. American allies, whether in the Gulf or among the Syrian opposition, would be more inclined to follow Washington’s lead if they saw its power more fully deployed.  American proxies would be stronger on the ground, or at least have more spoils of patronage to show for their alignment, and be better placed to push back jihadists within the ranks of the insurgency. By showing leadership and paying costs, the United States would gain diplomatic advantages and, perhaps, win the respect of Arab and Muslim publics.

Critics doubt many of these assumptions about the likely outcome of action. They look at the lessons of Iraq and see few benefits and enormous costs to deeper military involvement in such a war. The lessons of Iraq and Libya loom appropriately large. History suggests that few of the proposed benefits are likely to materialize, while the costs and unintended consequences of action typically far exceed predictions.  U.S. allies and adversaries would not simply step aside as Washington entered the fray. Allies would continue to push for more and more support, and to shape American policy choices, while adversaries would continue to move to check American advances and counter its moves.  Deeply divided Arab and Muslim publics deeply conditioned to question American policies would not likely welcome the U.S. military role, whatever they say today, and jihadists would certainly not stop fighting. Such reservations explain why the Obama administration has been so deeply wary of being dragged down the famous slippery slope from limited actions into direct military involvement.

But that, nonetheless, is where Syria policy seems to be headed. The next administration, whoever it might be, will likely follow the first path, of limited intervention in some form, whether de facto no-fly zones or declared safe areas. Given the failure of diplomacy and the magnitude of the horrors, even a slim chance of changing the game – with allies and adversaries, even if not in Syria’s reality – will seem preferable to continuing along a terrible path. Allies and pundits will declare themselves thrilled, and the new president will be able to proudly declare that America is back.  And then when the moves fail to resolve the war, and the conflict and suffering continue, the new president will face renewed pressure to do more to deliver on American promises.  When faced with the decision sometime next year to pull back and thus tacitly admit defeat or to escalate despite the grim prospects for success, history does suggest which course will be chosen.


Marc Lynch is professor of political science at The George Washington University, director of the Project on Middle East Political Science, and the author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East (Public Affairs).