Syria: Is There a Solution?

The Syria Dilemma

edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel
Boston Review/MIT Press, 285 pp., $14.95
Hamid Khatib/Reuters
A Syrian rebel throwing a homemade bomb toward the Palace of Justice, which is controlled by forces loyal to President Assad, Aleppo, October 4, 2013
Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional—in part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.
—President Barack Obama, United Nations, September 24, 2013

A decade ago, during a few exciting weeks in the spring of 2003, United States soldiers and Marines “liberated” Iraq. Americans saw the great yellow and red nighttime explosions of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign and then the columns of tanks storming headlong to Baghdad. Iraqis, their views unconstrained by the imposed inhibitions of American television executives, saw enormous carnage. During the four weeks of the American advance, more than three thousand Iraqi civilians were killed.1 How to grasp this number? An equivalent proportion of the American population would give us 36,000 American civilians killed. (During the decade of the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 US soldiers and Marines died.) Today, a decade after the triumphant fanfare of the American invasion, and two years after the last US troops departed in quiet ignominy, the war rages on: Sunnis and Shias go on killing one another at the rate of nearly a thousand a month. The collective death toll of the war Americans launched likely falls somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Iraqis, and counting.

To many Americans, Iraq now seems little more than a bad dream, best left unmentioned. Still, as the debate in the United States has turned to “the Syria dilemma” next door—and, more recently, to the US’s obligation to “stand up…for the interests of all” by enforcing President Obama’s declared “red line” against the use of chemical weapons there—the shadow of Iraq falls darkly over the landscape. We see it most prominently in a reluctant American public that has shown itself distinctly unimpressed by the familiar evangelical exceptionalist rhetoric, even when President Obama tried to use it to justify what his secretary of state called an “unbelievably small” military strike on Syria. We see the shadow also in certain basic and ineluctable changes in the politics of the region.

Before the war, Iraq was void of an anti-American Islamic jihadist movement; today Iraq is filled with thousands of motivated Islamic guerrillas, many of them veterans of the Iraqi army the United States dissolved, who have taken up arms not only against the Shia government the US helped put in place but against the regime of Bashar al-Assad across Iraq’s western border. Before the war Iraq served as a rival and geostrategic counter to the Islamic Republic of Iran, for three decades the United States’ main adversary in the Middle East; today “liberated” Iraq is a staunch ally of Iran, the nation that, along with Russia, is now aiding most actively that same Assad government. Together, Iraq’s Shia government and Sunni opposition are fueling both sides of Syria’s civil war, and that civil war, in turn, through a perverse “boomerang effect,” is further destabilizing Iraq—all to the detriment of US interests.

The world may be “better off without Saddam Hussein,” as former officials of the Bush administration never tire of insisting, but it is a stark fact that the war to unseat him, which cost more than $1 trillion and nearly five thousand American lives, has left the United States dramatically worse off in its strategic position in the Middle East.

It is against this background of political and strategic weakness that one must view the surprising series of events that began on August 21 with a chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus. This led in early September to President Obama threatening a military strike on Syria to enforce his self-proclaimed “red line” against the use of these weapons, and ended with the adoption of a UN Security Council resolution, strongly supported by Assad’s Russian sponsors, to rid Syria of them.

Even if all Syria’s weapons and precursor chemicals are eventually removed and destroyed, this lesser strategic goal will have been achieved at the cost of abandoning the greater: removing Bashar al-Assad and his regime from power. Indeed, the agreement would seem to guarantee Assad’s survival, at least in the short-to-medium term. All this emerged from the ruins of the Iraq war: the hesitations and improvisations of a reluctant president who owed his improbable election in large part to his opposition to that war, and now the lingering suspicion and fatigue of the American public, embodied in Congress’s reluctance to grant him the resolution approving the use of force he’d requested.

“In my meetings with American policy makers,” the Israeli ambassador told The New York Times (quoted in the introduction to this excellent collection of essays, The Syria Dilemma), “I often detect a conversation between ghosts. The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq are vying with the ghosts of Rwanda and Kosovo.” Those spectral voices dominate the public debate as well. The ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan intone that wars are easier to start than to finish, that murderous dictators are more often the product of political dysfunction than the cause of it, that it is simpler to destroy an old order with bombs and tanks than to construct a new and lasting one in its place. The ghosts of Rwanda and the Balkans respond that in the face of genocide and extensive killing and mass displacement, the world community—and America first and foremost—has a duty to act, or will face an eventual reckoning, as President Obama put it at the UN, with “the cold logic of mass graves.”

Syria does not lack for graves: the war’s death toll has exceeded 115,000, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Here is the Observatory’s tally of the dead2:

Civilians          41,533    36%
Rebels              23,707    20%
Regime Soldiers
& Militia          47,206    41%

The numbers are horrific—and, when we add to the civilians who have been killed the two million who have fled their country, and the four million made homeless within it, they describe a humanitarian catastrophe.3 But they are the numbers of an increasingly brutal, and maddeningly complicated, civil war, not a genocide. However insistent the voices of its ghosts, Syria is not Rwanda, or even Bosnia—at least not yet.

Syria’s is a multidimensional battleground: the struggle by a confusing congeries of rebel groups—some of them called moderate and democratic, some Islamist, some linked with al-Qaeda—to unseat a dictatorship, launched with the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011, is overlaid by a region-wide, sectarian war fought between Shias and Sunnis. In Syria this formerly cold war, simmering since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and then ignited by the US invasion of Iraq, is now raging: here the Iranians and the Saudis, leaders of the Shia and Sunni blocs, are fighting out their differences “to the last Syrian.”

These intricate fault lines are overlaid and intercut by others: between Alawite and Kurd and Sunni and Christian, for example, and between moderate and “extreme” Islamists. This “patchwork quilt of ethnicity and sectarian identity,” as Ambassador Christopher Hill, a veteran of negotiations in the Balkans, puts it with elegant understatement, “suggests that ruling Syria would not be an easy task for anyone.”

The Assad dictatorship, like Saddam Hussein’s, is a national security regime of interlocking and overlapping intelligence and military agencies led and largely staffed by a besieged and increasingly ruthless minority. Like Saddam’s, it is as much a product of political dysfunction—what Hill calls “the failure to create workable political arrangements”—as the cause of it. Removing the regime is less likely to remove that dysfunction than to expose and exacerbate it, as it did in Iraq. If it is removed, what will follow, as Michael Ignatieff notes, in a moving essay comparing Bosnia and Syria, “is hard to define because the Syrian rebels do not constitute either a united front or a believable alternative to the Assad regime.” He adds that in Syria, unlike in Bosnia, “there are no good guys, no victims whose cause can be sold to reluctant publics to ennoble a humanitarian rescue.”

On the one hand, mounting carnage at the heart of the “strategically vital” Middle East with no end in sight. On the other—with direct intervention forestalled by memories of the too recent folly of Iraq—no clear policy that would seem to hold promise of gradually lessening the violence and marking the way to a stable outcome.

Faced with this bloody conundrum, haunted by Iraq and other ghosts, the Obama administration has floundered about, led by a reluctant president who has shown a tendency to substitute rhetoric for policy and then to find he has trapped himself in his own words. More than two years ago, Obama declared that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Perhaps he believed that Assad would fall quickly, as had Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt before him. But his words undermined a fledgling diplomatic effort in Geneva; and when Assad did not fall, it soon became clear that Obama’s demand would not be followed by any plausible policy meant to achieve it. Confronted with this vacuum and with worsening bloodshed, the Washington national security elite has gradually coalesced around a classic bureaucratic compromise: arm the “moderate rebels.” The president, however, has been slow to embrace it.

In hearings last spring Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton let slip that they had advocated a “CIA plan” to arm the so-called “moderate opposition.” The two officials’ unusual public statements, Ambassador Hill remarks, “created the unsettling impression that Obama was at odds with his national-security officials.” Perhaps the president was recalling his own admonition about entering into “dumb wars.” (Clinton’s support of the Iraq war had done much to lose her the 2008 Democratic nomination to Obama.) Perhaps he recognized in the proposal what Marc Lynch of George Washington University calls “a classic ‘Option C’”—a bureaucratic trap disguised as the sensible middle ground:

Whether or not Option C has any chance of actually working is almost an afterthought…. In Syria, the most likely effect of arming the rebels is simply to set up the president for another decision point six months later as the battle rages and the rebels seem unable to close the deal. And at that point, the president would face an even starker decision: Option A, give up and be tarred forever for cutting and running; Option B, full-scale military intervention, which of course would be rejected; and Option C, escalation through some combination of no-fly zones, a bombing campaign, and safe areas.

That prominent voices in Washington, most notably Senator John McCain, are already loudly advocating such an escalation underlines the point: almost no one believes that the US arming “moderates” among the rebels would lead anytime soon to an end of the war, or indeed do anything more than exacerbate it, while pushing the US inexorably deeper into an increasingly violent and open-ended conflict it will have little power to control. As Lynch points out, Obama had seen this movie before, with the so-called “Afghan Surge” in 2009–2010, an escalation championed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “which lacked even a plausible theory of how it might work.” With visible reluctance, the new president had found himself going along for the ride, but managed to extricate himself before reaching the logical destination: a much more ambitious, and open-ended, counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.4 Instead, the remaining US troops will come home next year.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister ­Sergei Lavrov, Geneva, September 14, 2013

Early in September, American “lethal” assistance—mostly small arms—finally began to flow to some moderate rebel groups. Such aid might help these moderates but it is unlikely to achieve anything more, as Lynch suggests, than to present Obama soon with another fraught decision about whether to impose a no-fly zone or escalate in some other way. Against this background, the chemical weapons attack in Damascus of August 21 seems in retrospect to have offered a kind of perverse rescue. As an example of statesmanship, what followed was disorganized, contradictory, improvised, perhaps even impulsive. Not for the first time, President Obama had boxed himself in with his own rhetoric. The Obama of September 2013 found himself imprisoned in the imprecise phrases of the Obama of August 2012, who had declared that “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” Though the president’s use of the peculiar Washington metaphor “red line” apparently was his own unfortunate improvisation, the White House affirmed it the next day and has reaffirmed since that “the use of chemical weapons is…a red line for the United States of America.” Obama added, this past April, that any such use “would be a game-changer.”

And so it has been. Though the chemical attack on August 21 was not the first in the war, the evidence that it had occurred appears to have been persuasive enough that the administration could no longer plead ambiguity about whether or not its red line had been crossed. The deaths were a hundredth part of the Syrian total, but in violating an “international norm” while the world looked on, they raised the ugly ghosts of Bosnia and Rwanda. The president now proposed to launch “a targeted strike” to “make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.” By striking Syria—presumably with cruise missiles launched from American warships—the United States, he said, would “degrade his regime’s ability to use them and make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.”

Advanced by strong human rights advocates within the administration, the proposed attack seemed an attempt to exorcise the Bosnian ghosts while escaping the Iraqi ones—to enforce the “international norm” while avoiding deeper involvement in the war. But would an “unbelievably small” military strike have achieved these goals? What if Assad responded by using chemical weapons again? Would not Obama have been compelled to respond—adding another turn to the rhetoric-led dynamic begun with his original “red line” threat? In that case American policy toward Syria would increasingly have been compelled by the choices of Assad, not by the decisions of Obama.

More broadly, would an American strike have “made clear to the world” that the United States would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, and thus forestall it? The last dictator to use them, after all, was Saddam Hussein, who, during the Iran–Iraq War of the late 1980s, launched artillery shells loaded with chemical weapons against Iranian “human wave” attackers, and during the notorious “Anfal campaign,” dropped chemical bombs on his own rebellious Kurds, killing many thousands.

On these occasions, American policymakers, far from “making clear to the world” that the country would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons, had actually assisted Saddam by allowing shipments to Iraq of the necessary chemical precursors and then supplying critical satellite intelligence to help the Iraqis target the weapons more effectively.5 (This active help by officials of the Reagan administration did not prevent many of the same people, as members of the George W. Bush administration a dozen years later, from declaring that Saddam’s “use of chemical weapons on his own people” was one of the compelling reasons the United States must launch a war to remove him from power.)

As Glenn Kessler, former diplomatic correspondent of The Washington Post, has written, Assad’s father acquired his arsenal in part to give Syria a strategic deterrent:

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile results from a never-acknowledged gentleman’s agreement in the Middle East that as long as Israel had nuclear weapons, Syria’s pursuit of chemical weapons would not attract much public acknowledgement or criticism.

Indeed, whether one speaks of Syria’s chemicals or Iran’s centrifuges, Israel’s nuclear weapons might be called the black hole of Middle East politics: its two hundred or so nuclear bombs and warheads are invisible, hardly mentioned, and yet the power of their gravitational pull partly determines policymaking on “weapons of mass destruction” throughout the region, from the chemical arsenal in Syria to the nuclear program in Iran.6

We will never know what consequences would have followed the “limited strike” on Syria that Obama proposed, for within days he had shocked many in his administration, and pleased almost no one, by suddenly asking authority for such a strike from Congress. No doubt the president came to realize that launching even several cruise missiles could well lead to deeper involvement in Syria and that in such a case he would badly need public support. But he quickly found that, thanks not least to the lingering shadow of Iraq, he did not have the public behind him. As it became clear to the administration, and to the world, that the House would likely refuse to grant the president authority to act, a chance remark by Kerry allowed Assad’s Russian allies to swoop in opportunistically with a proposal to help rid the Syrian regime of its chemical arsenal.

Though the resulting Security Council resolution does not provide measures to enforce its provisions with military action, it is likely that the Russians, eager to keep Assad in power and the United States out of the conflict, will be more than happy to do what they can to make sure he observes his commitment. In this they will be supported by the new administration of Hassan Rouhani in Iran, Assad’s other major ally, who is now engaged in high-level negotiations with the Americans and the so-called P-5+1 countries over Iran’s nuclear program—and a possible broader détente with the United States.

One view of these surprising events is that US policy, through a series of ill-advised, ad hoc, and often improvised words and actions, and out of a domestic political weakness now exposed to the world, has come almost accidentally to focus on Syria’s chemical weapons program, which was never the crux of “the Syria dilemma,” and in so doing has assured that Bashar al-Assad will remain in place, at least for the foreseeable future.

But it can also be said that because of these halting steps, together with the credible threat of military force, the Syria dilemma has now been shifted, sloppily but decisively, into the realm of diplomacy. Diplomatic action has begun with the arrival of UN inspectors, who are already working to identify, confiscate, and destroy most of Syria’s chemical arsenal. But this work could proceed with a revitalized diplomatic effort that will shape a policy out of the interests that the major international players in the Syrian conflict share: that the conflict be contained, that the violence be reduced, that a stable political modus vivendi be found and enforced.

This last point, of course, is vital, and will prove to be elusive, especially with Assad still in place. Is it possible, with the dictator in Damascus—and even with real cooperation from Moscow and Tehran—for the United States to “lead a sustained and substantial diplomatic effort to identify political arrangements that could offer Syrians a way out of civil war”? The words are Christopher Hill’s, who points out that such a process “brought about the end of the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.” He neglects to add a grim but essential detail: that in Bosnia such political arrangements only became “identifiable” after the country had been virtually dismembered and large parts of it “ethnically cleansed” at the cost of a couple of hundred thousand dead. Only then, when the lineaments of a settlement had been worked out on the ground, in blood, did the United States launch air strikes to support its diplomacy.

The war in Syria has not yet reached such a pass. But the specter of US air strikes has been convincingly conjured by President Obama—and that threat, embodied in the US warships he has ordered into the eastern Mediterranean, will go on looming over the conflict. The Russians and perhaps the Iranians are lending their support to an ongoing internationally negotiated effort to rid the regime of its chemical weapons, an effort that is now formally linked to the so-called “Geneva II” process headed by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Meantime, even after one hundred thousand have died, all evidence suggests that the Assad regime retains considerable support within the Alawite and Christian communities and in other parts of an increasingly fragmented and terrorized polity. Among the resistance, meantime, the more hard-line Islamists seem to be gaining ever greater sway. Is it too late—or perhaps too early—to negotiate a path out of what seems to be unending war?

Is it conceivable, for example, that the way might gradually open to the kind of “managed transition” that removed Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in Yemen in 2012, as Asli Bali and Aziz Rana suggest? Such a transition might lead to the eventual removal of Bashar al-Assad himself—a central demand not only of the rebels but of the United States and its allies—but retain elements of his regime, perhaps as part of a federal state with provisions for regional autonomy of Alawi, Sunni, and Kurds. Some have speculated that Assad could step down when his second seven-year term ends next spring.7

Syria and Yemen are dramatically different countries, of course, and amid the present savagery and bitterness in Syria, the comparison might seem utopian, or worse. To take the first steps down the path to such a settlement—or one by which Assad would remain in Syria with more circumscribed political power—would require the Americans and the Russians, as well as the Iranians, the Saudis, and the other regional players who are fueling the war, to make a real commitment to diplomacy—and that means giving up on the dream of victory on the battlefield.

Such a settlement, or indeed any diplomatic outcome, seems hard to imagine today. It is a testament to the grim realities of Syria, and to the legacy of a zealously misguided US policy in Iraq, that the alternative seems much more likely: ongoing and increasingly savage war, and an eventual reckoning, perhaps many years from now, with the cold logic of mass graves.

October 9, 2013

  1. 1

    See “Iraqi Civilian Death Tally at 3,240,” USA Today, June 11, 2003. This count, performed by reporters of the Associated Press, relies on a careful survey of Iraqi hospitals, and only those that separated military and civilian deaths. Excluded, of course, were Iraqis who died during the invasion but were never brought to hospitals. It is fair to assume the actual death toll was much larger. 

  2. 2

    “More than 115,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war,” Agence France-Presse, October 1, 2013. I have listed only the numbers of the major groups. 

  3. 3

    See Hugh Eakin and Alisa Roth, “ Syria’s Refugees: The Catastrophe,” The New York Review, October 10, 2013. 

  4. 4

    See Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (Simon and Schuster, 2010). 

  5. 5

    See Glenn Kessler, “History Lesson: When the US Looked the Other Way on Chemical Weapons,” The Washington Post, September 4, 2013. See also Patrick E. Tyler, “Officers Say U.S. Aided Iraq In War Despite Use Of Gas,” The New York Times, August 18, 2002. 

  6. 6

    See Amos Elon, “ A Very Special Relationship,” The New York Review, January 15, 2004. 

  7. 7

    See, for example, David Ignatius, “Obama’s Diplomatic Opportunity,” The Washington Post, October 4, 2013.