James Bryan, Hamilton College
In August of 2013 during the Syrian Civil War, the Obama administration obtained evidence that showed the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians outside of Damascus. This appeared to be in direct violation of the Obama administration’s previously issued “red line” for the Assad regime – that the United States would strike against government forces if chemical weapons were used. However, in place of military action, President Obama negotiated an agreement with Vladimir Putin and the Assad regime to remove the Government’s stockpile of chemical weapons from Syria.
The decision came in the face of a congress that was reluctant to authorize unilateral action, but was still a surprise to many, including members of Obama’s own administration, most notably Secretary of State John Kerry. Since 2013, the lack of action in Syria has been heavily criticized by the foreign policy establishment for appearing to step back from a previously established red line and for paving the way for the ensuing humanitarian and geopolitical disaster. These criticisms are not unfounded and in some respects are fair; however, anyone criticizing the Obama administration should consider some of the possible consequences of intervention and acknowledge there was no good option when it came to American foreign policy toward Syria in 2013.
Before delving into the possible downsides of intervention and how it actually could have been worse than the current state, I must first acknowledge that I am in no way saying the situation in Syria is good or has been a success. In fact, it has been the exact opposite – a complete catastrophe.
The humanitarian situation on the ground has been tragic with the death toll estimated to be slightly under 500,000. Additionally, the UN has estimated that over five million civilians have fled the country and millions more have been displaced internally. There has been evidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on civilians, even after the deal the Obama administration negotiated to remove stockpiles and the Government has purposefully interfered with humanitarian missions by the UN and other international organizations. Displacement has led to a massive refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, which has added fuel to the fire of right-wing populism in the West. On top of the humanitarian disaster, Russia and Iran have staunchly backed the Assad regime and it now appears that the Syrian president will stay in power, providing both adversaries to the United States more influence in the volatile region.
Despite the atrocities that occurred in Syria, we cannot be sure what the consequences would have been if America had intervened in the civil war. There were a number of risks and possible negative outcomes and they should be acknowledged before criticizing the Obama administration’s decision not to intervene militarily.
The Best Case Scenario
Before discussing the more morbid potential results of intervention, it is important to discuss the best case scenario if the Obama administration had decided to intervene in Syria. Although highly improbable in my opinion, there was a possibility that a swift and decisive response to the use of chemical weapons, likely taking the form of airstrikes against government bases, could have pushed the Assad regime to the bargaining table. Facing the threat of American intervention, President Assad, along with the veto-yielding Russian delegation, could have been more open to a UN security council resolution that would have ended violence and created a political solution to the conflict in Syria. The result could have been a global effort to support a legitimate Syrian government, that would have slowly pushed Assad out of power and created a free and fair democratic process.
Sounds nice doesn’t it? It was a long a shot. Neither the Syrian government nor Russia seemed interested in a UN resolution that called for the removal of Assad and I cannot imagine a few American airstrikes would have softened their resolve. If anything, I think it would have motivated both parties to dig in their heels and refuse any form of American-led compromise. At this point, the United States would have been in a precarious situation, as militarily intervening to oust the Assad regime would have been a prolonged and difficult conflict.
Russia’s outright support for Bashar al-Assad would have made toppling the Syrian dictator more difficult than some may have predicted. Although Russian support was not as outright in 2013 as it is now, it still had significant interest in keeping the Assad regime in power. They had a long-standing historical relationship with the Syrian government and maintaining the status quo would ensure a loyal ally in the region going forward. Additionally, Russia did not want to endanger their naval base in the Alawite city of Tartus, an area controlled by Government and Shiite forces. The base is also of significant tactical importance, as it is Russia’s only Mediterranean port. On top of the geopolitical incentives, entering an indirect conflict with the United States would have played well politically for Vladimir Putin. He would have been able to stoke anti-American sentiment and increase his domestic popularity from a rally-around-the-flag effect.
This, in turn, would have provided more incentive for Putin to prevent the Assad regime from falling, creating a dangerous spiral between the US and Russia, with neither side accepting defeat for their proxies in Syria. Although we cannot predict exactly to what degree Russia would have backed Assad in the face of American intervention, we do know they both would have been actively working to the contrary of American interests, and would have made an already difficult job even more perilous.
Russia was not the only country that had significant interest in the survival of the Assad regime that would have made American intervention both more complicated and more dangerous. Iran seems determined to keep a Shiite government in power, or more importantly deny the Sunni Gulf States an opportunity to install a friendlier government in place of the Assad regime. Similarly to his Russian counterpart, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would have benefitted politically from stoking tensions with the United States, as it would have appeased the more hardline factions within Iran.
As a result of being on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, bilateral relations between the United States and Iran would have deteriorated further, and the signing of the nuclear deal that was negotiated in 2015 would have been highly unlikely. Without the deal, experts believed Iran was only two months away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon, meaning that throughout the Syrian conflict, the United States would have been on the opposite side as a belligerent and nuclear armed Iran.
Risk of Escalation
Lastly, depending on the level of involvement of US intervention, we need to acknowledge the risk that escalating tensions could have resulted in an armed conflict. American forces being active in the same region as their Russian and Iranian counterparts heavily increases the chances of an accident that could escalate into a larger conflict. Had American equipment been used, even by a rebel fighter in Syria, to kill a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or a Russian special operative, there is no telling how that could spiral. It would have only taken one errant missile, or one bad decision, to turn a military operation in Syria into something truly catastrophic.
This, of course, is all speculation, but it needs to be acknowledge that Iran and Russia would have tried to keep Assad in power, which makes the job of toppling the dictator more difficult and poses considerable risks for escalation with either adversarial power.
After Assad, then what?
If there has been a lesson learned for American foreign policy in the Middle East over the past two decades, it is to consider the rebuilding process after taking military action. Even if American intervention, either directly or by arming and supporting rebel forces, was able to topple the Assad regime, it is difficult to imagine what would have come next. The possibility of a stable and democratically elected government being formed out of the various Sunni rebel groups and wealthier Shiite Alawite region was highly unlikely. Rather, the result probably would have been something similar to what we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan – weak central governments that struggle to control various ethnic factions that have deep seated distrust for one another.
To keep some semblance of stability in the country after toppling Assad, the United States would have needed to support a fragile government for an extended period of time, as the United States is currently doing in Afghanistan. Without American support propping up a new government after Assad, the newly formed (and likely very weak) government would have struggled to ward off extremist groups, similar to what happened in Iraq following the departure of American troops, which eventually led to the rise of ISIS. Regardless of how the United States chose to handle forming a new Syrian government after ousting Assad, any reasonable options would be costly and certainly not transient.
Lastly, in all of these scenarios common citizens still suffer and there likely still would have been human rights abuses, displacement, and a staggering civilian death toll.
There was no good Option
The current situation in Syria is a complete disaster and we should critically evaluate the Obama administration’s decision to not strike government forces or fully intervene to oust Bashar al-Assad. However, the likely outcome of American intervention would have also been a disaster. Although it is not impossible that in the wake of American intervention there could have been a UN negotiated peace resolution with lasting value, I am pessimistic that it would have come to fruition. Without a diplomatic solution, Russia and Iran would have made removing Assad difficult and costly and being on opposite sides would have almost definitely damaged bilateral relations with both countries. Additionally, there was no clear path for a transition of power after the potential fall of Assad and the myriad of warring factions within the country would have made stability difficult to obtain if not completely impossible.
I am not defending the decision to stay on the sidelines, but it is not fair for critics of the 44th President to point out the current situation and immediately conclude the decision was a mistake. For criticism to be a holistic and complete argument it is going to require more nuance. Those critics must acknowledge the risks and bleak outlook for intervention and then proceed to argue that the decision was still a mistake.