The drumbeat to increase American involvement in the war in Syria continues, spurred on by that painful photograph of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh covered with blood and dirt. Steve Coll, a normally cautious New Yorker reporter, is the latest to join in. He writes,
“[U.S.] aid has helped to keep the rebels in the field but it has not been enough to defeat Assad, or to deter his forces from employing unconscionable tactics, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that this caution has enabled the apparent war crimes of Assad and his allies.”
Marc Lynch is one of the few experts who has over time been proven right about Syria, and his informed warnings must be taken seriously. Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University who also tweets as @abuaardvark, recently published The New Arab Wars, one of the best of the recent books about the Mideast. Lynch notes, in sorrow rather than pride, that he “was among the minority of analysts who vocally opposed the militarization of the [Syrian opposition], because I feared precisely the disaster which would soon unfold.”
Lynch is certainly no apologist for the Assad regime. He reminds us that the original 2011 uprising in Syria was nonviolent, and “involved almost unbelievably heroic popular participation in the face of extreme state violence.” But he is also realistic. He explains that, in contrast to Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the Syrian regime did not become totally isolated:
“Asad retained considerable support among wide sectors of the Syrian citizenry, including not only minority communities but also much of the urban Sunni elites who had benefitted from his rule and feared change.”
Once the Syrian civil war got started, you needed a flow chart to depict the extraordinary complexity of the violence. Here is a rough census of the protagonists: the Assad regime; the Syrian nonviolent opposition; the Syrian armed resistance, divided among jihadist forces, former Syrian military, ISIS; and Hezbollah militias, who crossed over from Lebanon. The outside actors include: the U.S.; Russia; Turkey; Iran; Saudi Arabia; Qatar — all of them supplying arms to one faction or another. By contrast, the warring Balkans in the years leading up to World War 1 were a model of simplicity. Lynch has followed the story closely, and he notes that “the complexities of this debate, mostly in Arabic, were often lost on a Western discourse framed around a simpler story of a united Syrian people against a reviled dictator.”
What’s more, Lynch reminds us that America is already stoking the many-sided conflict with weapons: “The United States remained publicly cautious about arming the insurgents, but rapidly developed a covert program to arm and support vetted rebel groups.” He explains that escalating the violence, especially in a conflict with so many armed actors, can never bring peace, but only promote what he calls “a dynamic stalemate.” He elaborates: “As rebel groups began to take up arms in response to the Asad regime’s brutality, they found ample sources of funds and weapons from abroad to support their insurgency. When they began to demonstrate too much success, Asad’s backers ramped up their own support to the regime.”
Lynch gives President Obama credit for digging in his heels against the more extreme interventionists, some of whom are in his own administration. That could change on January 20, 2017, if the more hawkish Hillary Clinton takes office.
So far, most U.S. interventionists have not called for American troops in large numbers. They insist, against the evidence of the past 5 years, Lynch states, that ratcheting up pressure with no-fly zones and other aggressive measures will force Assad and his patrons to back down. Lynch is (excessively) polite with the hawks, but he does note wryly, “It baffles me that the lesson most of Washington learned from the tribulations of the Libya intervention was that Obama should also have intervened in Syria.”
Among ordinary Americans, that awful photograph of 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh understandably prompted calls for action (although the failure of the West, including the United States, to do more for Syrian refugees is a big part of the problem). For those who ask, What should we do? Lynch’s answer is, First do no harm. American policymakers are supposed to be better informed. They should understand that promoting more violence, even with ostensibly humanitarian intentions, can make a bad situation even worse. After endless wars across the Mideast for what feels like an eternity, the foreign policy establishment should know better. But for many of them, auditioning for a ranking job in the Hillary Clinton administration must be more important.