by Kahlil Ram
After the 2011 Syrian democratic protests derailed into a horrifying civil war, many wonder why the United States did not do more to stop the crisis. ISIS had been allowed to carve out a piece of territory the size of Belgium. Bashar al-Assad, with the help of his Russian and Iranian allies, bombed and shot his people by the thousands and the Free Syrian Army fought and died in the dust while anemic American aid seemed to limp toward the frontlines. To many, it appeared as though this was an abject failure of American policy and that the United States, through cowardice and stupidity, had allowed this situation to unfold. However, proponents for a more aggressive Syria policy frequently misinterpret or overlook salient details of the Syrian uprising, as well as the geo-strategic quandaries that prevented a heavy American counterblow. Conflicting regional objectives with supposed allies like the Gulf states and Turkey, diplomatic problems involving Russia and Iran and the extremely problematic reality of extensive jihadist proliferation and infiltration across the Syrian opposition–not to mention the haunting memories of the post 2003 Iraq occupation–all justify the measured and dispassionate American response.
The problem with Syria is that it is not diplomatically reliant on the United States, but is still of great strategic interest to the richest, most powerful countries in the Middle East. Its alliance with Iran, access to oil fields, central location and border with Israel all make Syria an important country on the Middle Eastern chessboard. Additionally, Syria’s border with Iraq proved critical for the revival of ISIS after it was nearly defeated at the hands of the Bush administration’s surge strategy and the Anbar Awakening movement in 2007. For the United States, these realities are essential. In a brutal proxy war mainly involving Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Russia and Iran–not to mention jihadists–there are very few local tools the United States can rely on to pursue its interests. As a member of the “resistance bloc” Syria has aligned itself with Iran’s anti-Israel, anti-American sentiment, which helps split the Syrian opposition between pro and anti-Western intervention. The Syrian regime has also engendered the hatred of Iran’s nemesis, Saudi Arabia–a country, in concert with other Gulf states–that has dangerously few qualms about supporting jihadists among the opposition. For the United States, this means competing in an arena in which it has varying levels of support. It must prevent its own allies from radicalizing the opposition, while simultaneously supporting a shrinking and less effective group of rebel moderates as they fight ISIS and Assad.
Critically, the underpinning for a strategy of light involvement centers around the fact that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was a dangerous and unreliable group for the United States to support. The FSA was conceived as the armed security wing of the Syrian opposition to protect its members from increasing regime brutality. Its objectives were to become the official umbrella organization linking multitudes of small local militias together, and to provide a hub for international patrons to supply and organize around. However, the FSA suffered from several key problems. Fundamentally, it was a fractured and decentralized organization that could exert little control over various local units. Because of the nature of a proxy war and the amount of funds that Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia were funneling into their preferred rebel groups, rebels had little incentive to accept oversight by anyone other than their specific patron–and often not even these, given the ubiquity of potential suppliers.
As a result, rebels were difficult to control and would happily espouse radical ideologies–whether or not they actually believed in them–if it meant winning the support of wealthy Gulf donors sympathetic to violent salafism. Finding groups that were moderate, democratically minded and respectful of humanitarian and international law was a daunting prospect when rebels utterly despised the Assad regime and had other easier avenues for access to weapons. This undercuts the argument for heavily backing the FSA: U.S., coalition and rebel objectives only converged on the toppling of the Assad regime, but not what came after. As America learned from defeating the USSR in Afghanistan only to watch the Taliban fill the void, supporting dangerous allies can have terrible long term effects. The inability of the FSA to control its constituents combined with the willingness of the Gulf countries to support jihadist militants made wholesale support of the FSA impossible. This was exacerbated by the willingness of jihadi terrorists to temporarily adopt moderate messaging in order to embed within more palatable mainstream opposition groups. The United States had great difficulty excising the al Nusra Front–al Qaeda’s Syria affiliate–from the ranks of FSA fighters.
In addition to the endemic problems with the FSA, flooding a proxy war with weapons only serves to make the situation more violent, while reducing chances for peace. When the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey supply their proxies, Iran and Russia counterbalance by supplying the Syrian regime. When the rebels gain ground, Assad can count on his allies to save him, and when the rebels lose ground they will not surrender for fear of being massacred, and because they too can rely on assistance. For example, the 2012 and 2013 CIA plan to back various rebel groups against Assad and ISIS succeeded only in increasing bloodshed and eliciting countermoves by Assad’s allies, while moving no closer to peace. In short, the more weapons there are in the region, the less incentive there is to lay them down. Were the United States to pursue a more aggressive strategy by supporting the rebels en masse, it would be doing little more than fanning the flames yet higher.
The United States wisely refrained from being goaded into an overzealous response in Syria. Without the diplomatic and theater tools necessary to control the fractured groups of the FSA, America would have essentially found itself competing with Gulf countries and Turkey to fund and arm rebel groups (the most successful of which were jihadists) in an effort to control them. This would have been impossible given that such groups were highly averse to outside control and had their pick of regional patrons, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that the Gulf countries and Turkey had competing objectives that did not align with long term U.S. interests. Additionally, Assad’s allies could effectively counter whatever support the opposition received by pouring weapons, money and even troops into Syria in support of the regime. Added to this is the presence of ISIS, a group that would have gained oxygen had the U.S. Army tried to occupy Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria, but was instead gradually crushed by the U.S. Air Force and Kurdish and Iraqi ground troops. Despite the horrific violence that has plagued Syria, the United States was in no position to actually prevent it. After the protests turned violent, increased American involvement would have only elevated Syria’s suffering and moved it further away from peace.
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