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W&L's Cantey Examines U.S. Policy Toward Syria

The following opinion piece by Seth Cantey, Assistant Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee, appeared on USA Today’s website on July 21, 2016, and is reprinted here by permission.

Obama did too much in Syria, not too little: Column

By Seth Cantey

The U.S. and its partners did just enough to make things worse. Next time, let Assad win.

The recent tragedies in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad, Medina and Nice — like the related ones coming — all have roots in Syria. Conventional wisdom holds that if the United States had done more to affect the course of Syria’s civil war, the Islamic State terrorist group might never have taken hold, Syrian President Bashar Assad might have been defeated, and the scale of the war might have been far smaller. According to this argument, the terrorist attacks that fill our headlines are the results of failed policy.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong. Providing lethal aid early would have made matters worse, accelerating the war rather than slowing it. What no one wants to see today, because so few saw it at the time, is that there was another policy that could have prevented the chaos now consuming the region. The U.S. and its partners could have, and should have, let Assad win. Instead, years later, an anti-ISIL coalition met for two days this week in Washington to plan next steps against the caliphate and those it has inspired.

Several points are worth remembering about how the Syrian civil war began.  First, to the extent that a moderate opposition existed, it was weak. There were Syrians who protested peacefully, and many hoped for a secular alternative to Assad. These people were no match for a well-trained Syrian army supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah. The U.S. could have poured weaponry into the conflict, but most intended recipients would have had little training or combat experience. Those weapons would have changed hands, just as U.S.-provided artillery, tanks and Humvees have in Iraq.

Second, the opposition was disorganized and lacked coherent leadership. Many people recognize the names Assad and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIL. Some recognize the name Abu Mohammad al-Julani, head of the Nusra Front. But who can name anyone in the moderate Syrian opposition? Who leads the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Coalition?

Third, Assad and the powers supporting him had a clear objective: keep Assad in power. Syria’s allies were unburdened by the regime’s atrocities, because they had a dog in the fight. In contrast, the U.S. found itself in a catch-22. By attacking Assad it would help extremist rebels; by attacking extremist rebels it would help Assad. Unwilling to back either party, and without a plausible alternative, the U.S. had no clear goal. And thus no clear strategy. The administration believed it could keep its hands clean by not intervening militarily. Meanwhile, the body count continued to rise.

In this context, Washington chose a third way. When President Obama called on Assad to step down in August of 2011, he invested the U.S. in the dictator’s defeat without changing policy on the ground to facilitate that outcome. The possibility of Assad winning the war outright was no longer on the table, and U.S. acquiescence to a political solution in which Assad remained became more difficult. To do something, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions on the Syrian government, froze Syrian assets under U.S. control, prohibited commercial ties with Damascus, and blocked the import of Syrian oil.

There were other actions too. The U.S. helped to establish supply routes and funneled money, intelligence, and non-lethal aid to handpicked rebels, many of whom would later change sides. Physical supplies included communications equipment, night vision goggles, bullet proof vests, pickup trucks, food, medicine, and more. Most damaging, the U.S. and its partners did little to prevent states like Qatar and Saudi Arabia from sending vast sums of materiel and money to Assad’s opposition, including its most extreme elements. Turkey faced little pressure to control its border, even as thousands of militants flooded into Syria to join the war.

It was clear that none of this would be decisive, but it was also clear that these steps would prevent Assad’s victory and prolong the war. In the meantime, the correlation between the most effective fighters and the most brutal ones grew stronger, eventually to the point that one group began holding territory and attracting recruits from around the world. By doing enough to avoid accusations of doing nothing, the U.S. poured fuel on a fire that might have extinguished itself — and watched as others poured on more.

The main problem with U.S. policy toward Syria is not that the administration did too little early in the conflict. It is that the administration did too much. If the U.S. and its partners had not intervened, Assad would have stamped out the civil war before it began. A brutal dictator would have retained control of his country, but the death toll would be lower, Syria would be more stable, the refugee crisis might not have happened, and ISIL might never have taken its current form. When we look at Iraq and Libya, we see obvious examples of the unintended consequences of intervention. We should see that when we look at Syria, too.

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