Too Late To Intervene?

This week, we are joined once again by our colleague Stephen Howard, a graduate of South Dakota State University in Political Science and International Relations.  For more insight and analysis from Stephen, check out his previous posts on Islamic Democracy and the future of a post-war Syria.

It has been five years from the first protest around Aleppo, and the government crackdown on those protests that started the Syrian Civil War. The international community, during this time, has equivocated on the idea of intervention into this civil war. Fear that it might be a second Iraq for the west, or that there would be no way to effectively stabilize the state after intervention, like in Libya, made the majority of the international community hesitate on acting against the increasingly brutal and incorrigible Assad regime. People such as myself, during the first years of the war, advocated for intervention in favor of the Free Syrian Army, the Islamic Front, and other semi-moderate groups of revolutionary fighters.

The catastrophe that this has turned into over five years’ time is now moving western policymakers to suggest that intervention is necessary to end the conflict and repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have endured the war thus far. Unfortunately, these policymakers ignore a crucial fact – the time for intervention has come, and past. The conflict has completely changed in dimensions, and the policy goals advocated by many interventionists are now hopelessly unattainable. In a best case scenario, all western direct action could hope to achieve would be the creation of a failed state which the west would have to fully support and hope it may eventually form into a liberal democratic state similar to Tunisia.

Tunisia is widely regarded as the only successful example of the Arab Spring

Tunisia is widely regarded as the only successful example of the Arab Spring

Conflict Change

The first factor that the west got wrong in Syria was the initial workings with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA, originally the center of weight behind the revolution, quickly declined in influence as it was made out to be a western puppet by Assad, different competing rebel groups, and the west itself. Indeed, the head of the FSA for months on end lived in Europe, trying to court reluctant western policymakers to intervene in the Syrians plight, while his fighters were locked in a bloody stalemate in ground combat. This frustrated many FSA fighters who were looking for success in their revolution. Why should they fight for a command group which spent all of its time in cushy hotels politicking ineptly for support of other countries instead of fighting alongside them? The disillusionment that this led to within the FSA cannot be understated.

This continued until about one year into the conflict, when a small militant non-governmental organization with direct ties to the anti-American insurgency in Iraq came to the forefront of fighting as the absolute opposite of the FSA. Yes, it was the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). Although at the time they were considered little more than a wing of al Nusra, ISIS’s methods were brutal, their ideology warped to fit their needs, and their combat groups were more effective than any other in the field. Even more, they were not beholden to any foreign group (other than themselves) looking for a champion of all that is good, they were only beholden to the results of their work.

This fed into an underestimated dynamic which changed the war – the Syrians were, and are, more dedicated to success against Assad than they were to a specific group opposing him. Thus a FSA fighter might fight with the Islamic Front one day, al Nusra a week later, and go back to the FSA a week after that. They were not concerned with the differing ideologies that each group contained, only with the fact that each group was fighting against Assad. ISIS quickly gained a measure of prominence as an upstart and incredibly efficient fighting group. Many ‘moderate’ fighters saw this group as the best way to combat Assad, and transitioned over to this group which did something that none of the other groups were able to do – win. If the west had enabled the FSA or Islamic Front to fight Assad effectively, by no-fly zones or some other means, the power of ISIS would not have been as great, because its appeal would not have been as great. In fact, due to the nature and brutality of ISIS leaders, it quickly lost the support of regular Syrians. ISIS has been stocked mainly by foreign fighters from that time forward, meaning that without the initial popularity and manpower provided by disaffected Syrians, ISIS may never have attained the status that news pundits award it with today.

Instead, western policy makers at this time were stuck on two aspects of the Syrian Civil War which played into and compounded on one another. First – the fact that al Nusra had made tentative plans to carry out attacks in the west (no matter how infeasible they were) terrified policymakers. This can still be seen today in the fight against ISIS, which many Americans believe to be an existential threat. Second – they envisioned the entire resistance as a single group, something lazy and intellectually challenged policymakers are wont to do. Thus the multitude of different groups fighting Assad turned into either glorious resistance fighters, with no regard for the overtly hostile elements, or terrorists, with no regard for the overtly friendly elements. So while ISIS was on the rise, striking out at both Assad and the FSA and gaining disenfranchised fighters from other groups by the brigade, all the west could see was terrorists killing terrorists or freedom fighters fighting Assad. They were blinded to the complexities of war by academic laziness punctuated by Manichean views of fighting.

This series of events was finally capped off by official American bluster and posturing. Assad, in 2013, used chemical weapons against FSA fighters and civilians alike, an event specifically designated by President Obama as a “redline” that would mean US intervention in the conflict. American policymakers, though, completely equivocated on this self-imposed measure when it came down to it. The Russians quickly intervened to protect Assad’s government, and reached out to the reluctant Americans with a compromise. Russian and American policymakers eventually agreed to ship Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country and destroy them, a positive event no doubt, but also an unqualified political and military victory for Assad. The entire world now knew that the Americans were all bark and no bite. This was the tipping point of intervention – after the Americans showed that they really didn’t mind chemical weapons attacks on civilian populations, trust in any form of western intervention was gone. From this point forward there would, and will, be no trust in American resolve, regardless of the scale of intervention proposed going forward.

Where We Are Now

Contrary to the many pseudo-military tacticians ballyhooing US destructive capabilities, victory in guerrilla conflict is not determined by success on the battlefield. It is instead determined by the idea that the controlling force is legitimate, resolute, and effectual (Gordon & Trainor, 2012) (Ricks, 2012). People under the protection of a military force, whether it be the police or the army, need to know those three concepts can be put into practice. I.E. the force is there to protect them and theirs, that it will be there for the foreseeable future, and that it can do its job effectively. This allows for an air of stability to be created, which in turn leads to economic normalization and thus social normalization.

The United States, other western governments, or anyone working with them would have had a hard time convincing anyone in Syria that they would be a legitimate controlling force, regardless of when they had intervened, but that could have been overcome by a combination of resolve and results. Instead, American equivocation on its own measures for intervention destroyed any illusion of the American military being a resolute force, as it instead showed that it was tied to the nearsighted whims and fancies of the US Senate, who are in turn tied to the nearsighted whims and fancies of the US citizenry. There is still no doubt as to the measure of US military might, it is and will be still the most effectual and powerful force the Earth has ever seen for the foreseeable future, but as Iraq showed this factor by itself cannot win a war of this kind. In essence, it doesn’t matter that we CAN intervene and get the job done, because no one will believe – with good reason – that we are in anything, especially something as painful as this, for the long haul.

What this means is that no matter what the situation is in Syria now, our intervention will only create anarchy. A US military intervention would utterly destroy the Assad government, and leave only chaos in its wake. The FSA would splinter into individual interest groups which would fight amongst each other, as would the Islamic Front, as there would be no legitimate outside power which would hold sway over them. No government formation would be able to take place, and the state institutions of Syria would completely disappear.

The only viable options left are an Assad government victory (with or without Russian intervention), a “moderate rebel” victory (without any outside intervention), or a political solution which leads to a power sharing of some kind. The first events two will almost undoubtedly lead to a genocide of the losing side, the second event would be compounded by inclusion of the fracturing I mentioned above, while the third option is made impossible by Assad government intransigence. I make a point of not including an extremist rebel victory, because every government on earth would sooner see Assad in power for another 100 years than an extremist Islamist government take power in any form.

We have disgraced the idea of R2P, “Never again” and “Never forget”, but I’m sure many don’t remember what they were never supposed to forget. We have doomed Syria through inept policymakers doing only half of their homework and letting CNN do the rest, an inattentive public which suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect on foreign policy, and uncourageous politicians unwilling to challenge their constituents’ for the greater good. The only positive that we can take of this, is to understand and accept that we failed on so many levels – analytical, political, and societal - and fix these flaws in our country moving forward.