Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Syria shambles

At The Monkey Cage blog (hosted at the Washington Post), Marc Lynch argues very persuasively that US military supplies to the Syrian rebels would never have worked and would have pulled the US in even deeper as there would have been inevitable pressure to scale up once such an intervention had failed. Nonetheless, a few points may be worth setting out.

Lynch's basic diagnosis is that the anti-Assad forces were too fragmented and had too many competing external supporters for US support to be decisive. But that fragmentation of the opposition and the multiple external partners was itself due to a lack of direction from western countries in how to handle the uprising -- the default position was to outsource it to Turkey and the Gulf countries.

But taking that narrative of the opposition as given, how does the actual White House policy on Syria stack up? At key stages of the conflict, American policy weakened the moderate opposition and thus strengthened the hardline elements like ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front. Consider:

  • Repeated announcements by the US that they would be supplying weapons to the rebels -- which as far as anyone can tell, never arrived. Not helpful to the moderates' credibility.
  • Championing the Geneva peace talks even though they knew this was a disorganized opposition across the table from a cohesive Assad regime, which in turn had backing from Russia for a maximalist position. Not helpful to the moderates' credibility.
  • The "red line" fiasco. Even if it was the right outcome, it confirmed to all sides that Assad could do anything and no western military intervention was coming. A gift to hardline rebels saying that jihad was the only solution. The massive private fundraising in Kuwait that Lynch describes doesn't happen in a vacuum -- it happens against a video backdrop of Assad regime atrocities committed with impunity, motivating donors to the rebel cause in the Gulf.
  • Russia. The US spent at least two years operating on the assumption that Russia was not a bad faith actor in international relations, including in Syria. Key decisions including participation in Geneva (see above) and how to handle the chemical weapons attack (see above) flowed from that. Only with Ukraine (and despite claims from Ben Rhodes that there was no link between Ukraine and the Arab crises) did the scales fall from the eyes. Bad assumptions lead to bad policy outcomes.
And finally, even if all the above can be refuted, and Lynch is 100 percent correct, there is still the issue of managing the spillover. ISIS came to Iraq from Syria, apparently catching the US by surprise. If the rational decision was to let Syria fester for 3 years, the idea that all the chaos was going to stay one side of a Sykes-Picot line was delusional.