On March 17, Syria’s uprising will enter its sixth bloodstained year. The country that existed before the uprising is gone. Its people have been ravaged and dispossessed. Its economy destroyed. Its terrain laid waste by its own leaders and their international patrons.
Syria today has become a case study in the globalization of violence, subject to the predations of a multinational stew of mercenaries, warlords, bandits and thugs. Its sovereignty has been fatally compromised, bartered away by a regime whose survival has always been its sole raison d’être. The armed opposition fights on, still fragmented, still poorly served by its political leaders, still outgunned and more desperate than at any time in the past five years. As this grim anniversary approaches, Russia and Iran have assured the regime’s survival — at least for now — even as the devastation they have wreaked bleeds into the Levant and across the Aegean into Europe.
There is no shortage of causes for Syria’s erasure as a state. The brutality with which the Assad regime has pursued its own survival looms largest but it by no means stands alone. The Islamic State, aided and abetted by the Assad regime, has absorbed large pieces of Syrian territory into its so-called Caliphate. Syria’s fractious opposition, dependent on its regional patrons and captive to the personal ambitions of its leaders, is certainly complicit in the destruction of its homeland. So too are the neglect and incoherence of the “Friends of Syria” group established in 2011 to coordinate international support to the opposition under the leadership of the U.S. and its Western allies. Despite President Obama’s declaration in August 2011 that it was time for Assad to step aside, the administration’s calculus of interests, constraints and costs quickly led it to view Syria and Syrians as expendable.
Was Syria’s collapse inevitable once the Assad regime moved to crush a national protest movement, setting in motion a downward spiral of escalating violence? Was there anything the United States, in particular, could have done to mitigate the conflict, shift the trajectory of the uprising and help bring about a meaningful political transition along the lines set out in the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012? If such options were available, as former senior figures in the Obama administration have acknowledged publicly after leaving office, why did the United States not pursue them?
What has been most evident in the administration’s approach to Syria is a deep cognitive bias against risk. For the president and his advisers, the possibility that U.S. actions might have negative consequences has consistently loomed larger than the actual and visibly negative effects of inaction. Even as Syria’s conflict escalated and the costs of inaction have mounted, the administration’s risk calculus has remained static. White House staff have consistently viewed the payoffs from action as uncertain, the potential benefits as low and the likely costs as unacceptably high. Senior officials, including Obama, regularly justify their approach on the grounds that engagement would inevitably lead to mission creep, drawing the United States into an Afghan-style quagmire — a view reinforced by administration concerns about the difficulty of controlling the cascade effects that often follow what begin as limited interventions.
Given its intense risk aversion, the administration has pursued a minimalist approach in dealing with the Syrian conflict. Apart from its air campaign against the Islamic State, it has directed most of its efforts and a majority of its resources to mitigating the war’s humanitarian effects. It has done far less to address its principle cause — the behavior of the Assad regime. Instead, its aim has been to contain the Syrian conflict and keep violence within Syria’s borders.
The conflict, however, has not cooperated. Violence has metastasized, spilling millions of desperate refugees outward. Regional actors and radicalized fighters have flowed inward, transforming a local insurgency into a “mini world war.”
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