The United States is flailing rapidly toward an ill-conceived military intervention in Syria against ISIS, as I predicted last week, apparently under the inertia of the cop-out analysis known as “there are no good options.” This troubling declaration is a common hand-wave used in Washington to justify stumbling into catastrophic decisions without much of a rational or clear-headed decision-making process, before or after it happens, to silence public criticism.
I really dislike the whole “there are no good options” school of foreign policy punditry and officialdom, because even when there are a lot of bad options and no good ones, that doesn’t mean you should immediately pull the lever on the more horrendous end of the spectrum.
And a spectrum of bad ideas is exactly what we’re looking at here. Doing nothing in Syria continues to be on the less bad end of the spectrum, as I explained at length in last week’s analysis (and in many prior posts). Simply put: Airstrikes in Syria opens a door we are not prepared to walk through, but if this starts, we may well be dragged. Any direct U.S. military intervention in Syria should be avoided, to prevent that.
Additionally, as I examined in a recap of the Wall Street Journal’s investigation of the Assad-ISIS relationship, the Syrian regime has carefully positioned ISIS (and itself) over the course of a year such that the United States may be forced to align with Bashar al-Assad, if it intervenes, at the cost global humiliation and anger of many allies and the Washington Beltway. Already, even just with the start of unauthorized U.S. surveillance flights over Syria, the trolling has begun.
Syria on Monday signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against ISIS. But it warned the White House that it needed to coordinate airstrikes with the Assad government or it would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an “act of aggression.”
Let’s look, too, at an article, by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, entitled “The Problem With Bombing ISIS.” I have a lot of problems with this article’s framing, but the core premise is correct, in my opinion. A crucial deciding factor of when to intervene in a situation needs to be who fills the vacuum after a U.S. military intervention (if successful!) and whether they are better than the dislodged power, for the people ostensibly being helped:
From Somalia to Kosovo to Libya, the problem with America’s humanitarian interventions has never been ascertaining the nastiness of the people we’re fighting against. It’s been ascertaining the efficacy and decency of the people we’re fighting for. That’s a particular challenge in the case of ISIS in Syria.
In Syria, that’s either going to be Assad or other jihadists in al Qaeda’s Nusra Front or in the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (if they somehow bounce back from the brink of defeat):
Still, for all the problems with intervening militarily in Iraq, they pale next to the problems of doing so in Syria. In Syria, the United States has two potential ground allies. The first is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate Syrian opposition battling both ISIS and Bashar al-Assad’s brutal Alawite regime. The problem is that the Free Syrian Army isn’t much of an army and may not be all that moderate.
The theory behind supporting Syria’s non-jihadist rebels has long been that an infusion of U.S. aid could strengthen and unify them. But it’s not even clear that the rebels the U.S. would empower are actually non-jihadist. Citing research by the University of Virginia’s Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, Lynch argues that the moderate/jihadist dichotomy that governs much of the American discourse about opposition fighters in Syria doesn’t hold on the ground, where various armed groups have engaged in “rapidly shifting alliances.” As Abu Yusaf, an ISIS commander, recently told journalists with The Washington Post, “Many of the FSA people who the West has trained are actually joining us.”
Backing Assad directly would be unconscionable and play directly into his master plan. The alternative partners are effectively as bad or worse. But that’s not an argument for picking one of them anyway just to pick one.
Faced with such a choice, at that point one has to start widening your scope, not keep narrowing down, and find a policy strategy that doesn’t actively damage the United States, both at home and in the world. Sometimes “doing nothing” is a better choice in a situation than doing something just to do something, without a clear idea of where it will lead or what the consequences will be.
In sum: What’s going on in Iraq is — for the moment — a somewhat manageable situation with more direct U.S. interests. Syria is an unwinnable, unmanageable situation for the U.S. that will entangle us at great cost (politically, diplomatically, economically, and in lives) with no net benefit to the people there. This is Assad’s problem now, and his military and allies have proven capable of sorting it out. Containment of ISIS presence in Iraq is a reasonable option for the United States, for now. Expanding the mission into Syria will be an inescapable pit of failure. The locals can and will sort this out in due time, while the containment policy in Iraq holds the line to keep the threat of ISIS at a manageable level.