December 09, 2021

Lessons of the Syrian Conflict

Toward a Better Intervention Debate

By Nicholas Danforth

Executive Summary

In October 2019, The New York Times published a feature story describing how “Russia, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad carved up northern Syria as the Americans retreated.” It is hard to think of a more telling, and damning, one-sentence encapsulation of both the failure of American policy in Syria and the skewed political discourse compounding it. Somehow the United States was retreating from a place it never wanted to occupy—and the Syrian regime’s success in partially clawing back control of a country it once ruled with an iron fist was prime evidence of American decline.

This paper begins from the premise that Washington will increasingly be confronted with conflicts where it can neither determine the outcome nor stay out entirely, and the country needs better strategies for charting a middle course. Given the scale of the tragedy that has befallen Syria, and the damaging repercussions it continues to have for U.S. interests in the region, few would argue that Washington’s handling of the Syrian civil war represents a success. Yet there remains no consensus on the nature of Washington’s failure. In a highly charged debate, many critics are adamant that faster and more forceful military intervention could have secured a more favorable outcome. Others, by contrast, are equally insistent that Washington should have done even less.

It is possible that the ideal form of intervention advocated by interventionists or the ideal form of nonintervention advocated by noninterventionists would have created a better outcome in Syria. Instead, Washington pursued a sometimes-inconsistent intermediate approach that achieved the worst of both worlds. The United States engaged in the conflict in a way that put its credibility at stake without positively affecting the outcome. By examining how this happened, this paper seeks to ensure that Washington can avoid similar failures in the future.

Washington will increasingly be confronted with conflicts where it can neither determine the outcome nor stay out entirely.

In recent years, think tanks and analysts have argued that, as the United States confronts an increasingly multipolar world during a period of domestic stress, it must craft a foreign policy that more effectively matches ends to means. Syria represents a clear mismatch in this regard. A more forceful intervention would have required the application of greater means than many Americans were prepared to commit—and still may not have produced a better outcome. Yet the ends that Washington desired—maintaining stability in the Middle East, preventing mass atrocities, and containing Iranian and Russian influence—remain important ones. This paper suggests four broad lessons for how Washington can pursue its interests without overcommitting when faced with foreign conflicts in the future.

  1. Other Actors Have Agency. Both advocates and opponents of intervention have often relied on unproven assumptions about the behavior of other state and non-state actors to bolster their case. For example, some interventionists now insist that more U.S. support for the opposition earlier in the war would have preempted Russian and Iranian escalation rather than provoked it. Opponents of intervention, by contrast, assume that without U.S. encouragement, the rebellion simply would have died away. Both assumptions fail to account for the way other actors were likely to use their agency. As a result, neither strategy was likely to work as well as its advocates imagined.
  2. Positive Thinking Can Be Perilous. Rather than confront the mismatch between what America wanted (Bashar al-Assad gone) and what America was willing to do to make that happen (not much), many policymakers were initially too quick to assume that the Syrian president was likely to fall anyway. This was not a foolish assumption, but policymakers should have been quicker to question it precisely because it offered too easy a path to their desired end state.
  3. Caveats Do Not Count. To reconcile modest means with ambitious goals, Washington also sought to publicly articulate limited objectives. For example, in the same breath that President Barack Obama said Assad must go, he announced that America “cannot and will not impose this transition.” Yet this clearly stated caveat got him no credit and did little to dampen expectations in Washington or abroad. Recognizing this, leaders must speak with a greater awareness that people will inevitably interpret their words as they want.
  4. The United States Does Not Always Need to Do Something. Many policymaking discussions remain framed by the implicit assumption that America can and should do something in every crisis. Yet the desire to “do something” has often led Washington to respond to crises with a series of half measures that hurt more than they help. In the case of Syria, the importance of doing something was stressed by well-meaning politicians and pundits who hoped they could pressure America to do more. But advocates of this approach should also anticipate the risks when it fails. Likewise, politicians hoping to pursue noninterventionist strategies should also plan for the fact that America’s desire to do something will almost certainly persist.

The United States cannot change its decisions over the last 10 years. But it can learn from them to pursue more pragmatic and measured policies today. To help mitigate the ongoing harm Syria’s civil war is causing to both U.S. interests and the people of Syria, the Biden administration should:

  1. Support negotiations toward preserving partial autonomy in Idlib and northeast Syria. Only two significant parts of Syria remain outside of Assad’s control, and in both cases this ability to resist Assad is linked to the presence of foreign troops. Rather than assume this military leverage will enable the status quo to go on indefinitely, Washington should use it to negotiate a sustainable arrangement with the regime that allows these regions to maintain as much autonomy as possible.
  2. Engage with Russia only where leverage exists. A decade of U.S. attempts to negotiate with Russia showed that Moscow was not interested in a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war so long as it could obtain better results on the battlefield. But rather than see this as an argument for increased military involvement, Washington should pursue diplomacy more realistically by taking advantage of other forms of leverage and facts on the ground that favor a political settlement.
  3. Link sanctions relief to achievable goals. Current sanctions seek to either significantly reshape the regime’s capabilities and behavior or precipitate its collapse. There is no clear evidence they will have this effect. The administration should be willing to bargain limited sanctions relief for concrete concessions from the regime, specifically greater humanitarian access throughout Syria and the consolidation of cease-fires in northwest and northeast Syria.
  1. Allison McCann, Anjali Singhvi, and Jeremy White, “How the New Syria Took Shape,” The New York Times, October 30, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/10/30/world/middleeast/syria-turkey-maps.html.
  2. “Seeking Stability at Sustainable Cost: Principles for a New U.S. Strategy in the Middle East” (Bipartisan Policy Center, April 13, 2017), https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/principles-new-us-strategy-middle-east/.
  3. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by President Obama on the Situation in Syria,” State Department, Washington, August 18, 2011, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2011/08/18/President-obama-future-syria-must-be-determined-its-people-President-bashar-al-assad.

Authors

  • Nicholas Danforth

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