The weeks following the end of the ceasefire agreement have seen some of the most intense fighting and worst humanitarian conditions in Syria since the beginning of its civil war 5 ½ years ago. As the pressure on the world and the United States increases to act to stop the killing, it will be important to remember the difficulty and risks of any decisive action in Syria.
Every article about the Syrian civil war should begin by going through the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe that has racked the country over the last five and a half years. Over 400,000 are dead, eleven million are displaced, over four million are refugees, and every day more die and fewer survive as critical infrastructure in besieged areas is reduced to rubble.
Since the failure of the U.S.-Russia brokered ceasefire agreement and the Assad regime’s announcement of an offensive on September 18th, the pace of the bloodshed has surged. The frequency, duration, and intensity of Russian and Syrian airstrikes on rebel-held territory have reached their highest point in the conflict as the Russians trot out bunker buster bombs. On September 30th, 86 civilians were killed, including 23 children, the plurality of whom died in and around eastern Aleppo. On Sept. 29th, those numbers were 44 and 12, on the 28th, 90 and 10, on the 27th, 43 and 13, and so on. Government forces have been targeting hospitals, water pumping stations, markets, aid warehouses, and other civilian centers, besieging an estimated 250,000 civilians still in eastern Aleppo and 875,000 throughout the war-torn country. Against this backdrop, with the international diplomatic process towards a negotiated settlement in tatters since the aborted ceasefire agreement, the pressure on the international community, notably the United States, to adopt a more assertive posture to stem the killing grows with each passing day.
On September 29, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken sat in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and attempted to defend the Obama administration’s Syria policy to a hostile audience. In the course of his remarks and in response to Senator Bob Corker’s aggressive line of questioning, Blinken said that the administration was “actively considering other options” at the President’s request, “some familiar, some new.” On September 30, audio clips of a conversation between Secretary of State John Kerry and unnamed members of the Syrian opposition showed an exasperated top diplomat who expressed that he had made the case for the “use of force” and an “enforcement mechanism” for the ceasefire within the administration and had “lost the argument.” From outside the deliberations of a divided administration and in the foreign policy establishment, there seems to be a growing consensus that the Obama administration’s limited engagement has translated into willful neglect and inaction. According to this narrative, the administration’s Syria policy has been a shameful failure that has damaged America’s credibility on the world stage and within the Middle East, not least for the residual fallout from President Obama’s “red line” episode. Many, then, are waiting for the next American administration to review the situation and change course towards greater involvement.
In this context, on September 30, Charles Lister, one of the most prominent American Syria analysts with extensive connections to various opposition armed groups, published a policy paper in which he argues that the United States should not wait for the next administration to take decisive action. He presents “a plan for winding down the Syrian civil war,” premised on the Obama administration’s current effort to reach a negotiated settlement between the parties on the basis of a lasting cessation of hostilities (CoH). His stated objective is to provide a framework for the creation of a credible form of Kerry’s “enforcement mechanism” through the judicious use of American power that he describes in three phases: Surge, Freeze, and Enforce. This paper will no doubt prove an asset for U.S. policymakers reviewing options for Syria at this inflection point in the conflict, and the author should be lauded for his attempt to think imaginatively about solutions to this immensely complicated problem.
But the paper glosses over or minimizes the fundamental dynamic of counter-escalation at the heart of this war, and this is more generally the problem with arguments that the United States should assume the assertive shift in strategy it is being pressured to take. The plan depends on the success of Lister’s “surge,” which he portrays as a 20-day period in which the U.S. and its allies “would initiate a substantial increase in assistance to vetted opposition groups,” in the form of “small-arms and light weapons, mortar and medium-range artillery systems, as well as anti-tank guided missiles.” The goal is to “exert discernible pressure on Assad regime positions around Aleppo city and south of Damascus,” identified by Lister as the two fronts where the seventy CIA-vetted rebel groups he references as the recipients of this increased aid are most viable. This situation of “discernible pressure” would then, according to Lister, provide the United States with the leverage it needs to negotiate an enforceable CoH.
Without considering the next steps, whose success depends on creating this situation of discernible pressure, the plan seems to fall apart under scrutiny. Why might Russia or Iran not drastically increase their own military efforts to cancel out any benefit that such a surge of munitions would provide? Why would Russia negotiate or agree to a CoH from a position of weakness, knowing that its terms would be unfavorable? How does a surge of munitions address yet another fundamental battlefield dynamic, and that is the lack of manpower both sides suffer from necessary to take and hold new territory? And how, especially in the northwest, can American policymakers expect these munitions not to empower al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham, and other extremist and Salafist groups who could never be a part of a negotiated settlement, despite being the best organized and strongest opposition armed groups?
The answers to these questions are not favorable to the plausibility of the intricate arrangement that Lister proposes, and this plan, so far, represents the most detailed outline for what a successful and more muscular U.S. juggling act in Syria would look like under present conditions. The White House and the Pentagon probably have more detailed options laid out for the President and have had these options available over the last five years, four of which did not have to wrangle with the Russian question.
U.S. inaction in Syria is not based on fecklessness, neglect, or a lack of imagination, but rather a cold assessment of national interests, the risks of proposals similar to Lister’s, and a full understanding of American capabilities to effect political outcomes. The humanitarian catastrophe of the last five and a half years screams out at us for action, any action. But the truth of the matter is that there is little to nothing we can do beyond what we already are doing to help put an end to the violence. This is not reflective of American moral failings so much as it is a testament to the often chaotic and cruel nature of states of disorder.
The Serenity Prayer, oft-cited at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, asks an almighty God for the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change the things one can, and the wisdom to know the difference. It is perhaps impossible, then, to be wise about Syria. The next administration will have to initiate a full policy review and investigate a wide range of alternatives from a zero base. As long as hundreds of thousands live and die in the most brutal conditions imaginable in the disintegrating hulk of what was once a state in the heart of the Middle East, serenity will not and should not come.