National Security & Defense

The High Price of Non-Intervention in Syria

A Syrian soldier stands near a banner of President Bashar al-Assad in Aleppo. (Reuters photo: Ali Hashisho)
We were already in the quagmire during the Obama administration. It’s much worse now.

The world was privy to a lamentably familiar sequence of events this week. The Syrian regime once again used chemical weapons, this time a potent nerve agent, on civilians. The world reacted with revulsion at the carnage. The political class resolves to “never again” witness such a slaughter. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley demanded that Assad’s benefactors in Tehran and Moscow acquiesce to some form of punishment, as her predecessor did before her, or else “we may” act alone. But what is it that we are prepared to do, precisely? Not much. The sad fact is that the window in which the U.S. might have helped to positively resolve the Syrian crisis closed long ago. The Obama administration’s desperate effort to avoid entanglement in that confused and bloody civil war only made the crisis worse. Today, the bill for that irrational commitment to non-intervention has come due.

Doctrinally opposed to the kind of preemptive action that George W. Bush took against Saddam Hussein and snakebit by the chaos that followed the collapse of Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, the Obama administration had no taste for intervention in Syria. The Obama administration’s credibility lay in tatters amid the bodies of the anti-Assad demonstrators that began to pile up in 2012. The principle of the West’s “responsibility to protect” civilians (the “R2P” doctrine”), which led the Obama administration to intervention in the Libyan civil war, had been rendered non-operational by the president’s inconsistency. Only when the Assad regime appeared ready to deploy chemical munitions did Obama even countenance the prospect of intervention.

One year after Obama drew his infamous “red line,” and after a series of civilian massacres, the president did appear to commit himself to a perfunctory effort to punish Bashar al-Assad. Yet somehow, the attempt to drum up support for an air campaign against Assad that would have been “just muscular enough not to get mocked,” as one U.S. official put it at the time, but not so devastating as to prompt a response from Russia and Iran failed to convince the House of Commons, which ruled against joining any U.S.-led airstrikes.

After suffering a humiliation at the hands of members of parliament in London, President Obama went to the American public. On the evening of September 10, 2013, he addressed the nation in prime time. He warned of the consequences of ignoring the use of WMDs in Syria. He said that chemical weapons could soon spill over the Syrian border and that American soldiers around the world would one day be fighting on chemical battlefields if the norm prohibiting their use eroded further. Bizarrely, Obama then insisted that he would not act without congressional consent. Also, the Russian government had offered to intervene in the crisis, and Obama told the country that he had accepted Putin’s aid

Obama’s attempt to secure congressional support for a strike on Syria wasn’t some noble deference to the role of Congress. He was simply looking for a plausible excuse for inaction. Obama said that he wanted congressional consent for a strike on Syria, but he didn’t need it. If Congress were to decline to provide authorization, he could just have gone it alone. Moreover, the request, made while Congress was still out of town on its August recess, was apparently not so urgent that it required the legislature to reconvene. It could wait a week or so while Syrian forces dug in and while members of Congress absorbed and internalized the apprehension of their constituents over the prospect of another Mideast war.

Mistrust toward Obama and the ill-defined, “unbelievably small” goals (in John Kerry’s risible phrase) of a Syria campaign had left a sour taste in Republican mouths. In light of that, House Speaker John Boehner sought “meaningful consultations” with the White House. “When we’re working Syria, we’re not working on something else,” Democratic senator Ben Cardin lamented to Politico — Cardin was already thinking about the 2014 midterms. In the end, the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee voted to approve Syrian strikes, but former majority leader Harry Reid never brought it to a vote. Notably, Obama hadn’t asked him to bring a vote on the air strikes: The president preferred to blame Republicans for staying his hand.

Twenty-nine months into the conflict, in September 2013, the window for an effective intervention against Assad was still wide open. The world had not yet become acquainted with the Islamic State. Syrian army soldiers were reportedly demoralized and were defecting to the Free Syrian Army, the most pro-Western rebel group on the ground. With the introduction of both Iranian regular troops and Lebanese Hezbollah, the legitimacy of Assad’s regime was on the wane. The horrific gas attack in the Syrian city of Ghouta that forced Obama’s hand had only further alienated average Syrians from their rulers in Damascus. But President Obama deferred to Putin.

The Obama administration continued to claim a political victory in Syria even as it became obvious that allowing Russia to take the lead was a terrible mistake. Assad’s abuses continued, as did the use of chemical weapons on civilians. Brazenly, Obama-administration officials continued to call the Russia deal a success that had removed “100 percent” of chemical weapons from Syria (as long as you refuse to call chlorine gas a chemical weapon).

By 2014, faced with the prospect of a well-heeled terrorist caliphate larger than Great Britain, Obama expanded the theater of anti-ISIS operations to Syria, encompassing the use of air and ground assets. This time, there was no prime-time address; no overtures to Britain’s parliament or Congress. Aware of the fact, however, that Assad was supporting the “caliphate” by purchasing its crude oil and ignoring ISIS’s fighters, Obama committed covert assets to the fight against Assad. The only reason we know about that is that many of those American-built CIA assets have since been targeted and destroyed by Russian warplanes.

As late as the summer of 2015, the opportunity to topple the Assad regime still existed. In a speech in July of that year, Assad acknowledged that his military lacked the manpower necessary to achieve victory on the battlefield. Squeezed on all sides, the regime was losing territory and falling back to its stronghold around the capital. With no options left by the autumn, Russia intervened militarily in Syria and inaugurated among the most dangerous periods in recent history.

Russian intervention was aimed not merely at propping up Assad but in clearing NATO assets out of the regime’s theater of operations. In the ensuing months, Russia has participated in and facilitated some of the worst crimes against humanity of this century — including strikes on humanitarian targets and facilitating the starvation of whole cities. All the while, Putin and Assad perpetuated a refugee crisis that has destabilized and permanently reshaped the politics of Europe and North America.

“We think that it’s self-defeating,” Obama said of Moscow’s invasion of Syria. “And it will get Russia into a quagmire.” This is a parochial way to think about a nation’s interests. Perhaps Syria is a quagmire from which the United States would find extrication difficult, but avoiding it was impossible. We were deep in it, and we are in it still.

Today, President Donald Trump is accelerating the troop deployments that Obama first ordered in 2015, Special Forces have been augmented with Marine artillery units and armored personnel vehicles, some of which are responsible not only for fighting ISIS but also for keeping peace among the anti-ISIS coalition.

Perhaps ill-advisedly, Trump has made his own “red line” comments. When asked at a press conference today whether Assad’s chemical attacks had crossed a red line, Trump replied:

It crossed a lot of lines for me. When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal — people were shocked to hear what gas it was. That crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line, many, many lines. . . . That attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me. . . . My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.

As a result of the grotesque inhumanity of the Assad regime and the West’s counterproductive and ultimately fruitless efforts to keep the Syrian conflict at arm’s length, Trump is finding that he has few good options left.

The perils of reckless intervention are well known, but less thoroughly studied are the dangers of non-intervention. In Syria, the norm prohibiting the battlefield use of WMD has died along with nearly half a million civilians. Millions are displaced. The risk of great-power conflict looms over its decimated cities, and American credibility is on the line. The U.S. has made many sacrifices in Syria, even if America’s soldiers were based thousands of miles away. There are no painless options in Syria any more, but America’s non-intervention is untenable. When we act, we will do so at a time and place not of our choosing and amid suboptimal circumstances. It’s a costly lesson to learn, but one Americans seem doomed to regularly repeat.

— Noah Rothman is the associate editor of Commentary.

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