Once again an impending but avoidable humanitarian tragedy is looming over Syria. Last Thursday, Bashar al-Assad’s forces dropped leaflets over one of the last rebel strongholds—Idlib province—urging residents to surrender to his rule and telling them the seven-year war was nearing its end. A wave of airstrikes followed, and Assad has indicated that regaining total control of Idlib is his next priority.
In many ways, Idlib is a microcosm of the greater war. As many as three million people—at least half of whom are internally displaced—are packed into this region. Fighting elsewhere in the country forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to relocate to Idlib. More recently, the province has become the only remaining “de-escalation zone” of the four originally established under Russian auspices as opposition-held areas where the government agreed to a ceasefire. The other three areas have all now been overrun by the Assad regime, forcing defeated opposition fighters and their families to retreat to Idlib. The impending regime offensive there would now leave civilians and armed rebels with no remaining escape route and the opposition with no representation on Syrian soil. A military campaign would run the risk of greater civilian casualties than any previous assault. Fearing a mass exodus towards its border, a heavy death toll, and the fall of the last opposition-held outpost, Turkey has declared Idlib a “redline.” The dire need for a negotiated solution to avert a military offensive is obvious and was even paid lip service by the Russian foreign minister in a joint press conference with Turkey this week.
Yet despite these developments, there is limited US coverage of the events and almost no public consciousness of them. In a recent essay, we analyzed last month’s Trump–Putin Helsinki Summit, remarking on how little actual attention was paid to its implications for Syria. The dominant US view was and remains that the United States has, for better or worse, refrained from intervening in the country. We argued, to the contrary, that the United States has been a central actor in militarizing the conflict from the beginning. To the extent that Idlib is the latest iteration of such intense militarization, the United States is indirectly implicated. Indeed, the United States shares in the responsibility for the overall disasters of the past seven years, and, correspondingly, has an obligation to help to resolve the conflict and remedy the ongoing suffering.
To discharge that obligation, the United States should, we proposed: 1) admit significant numbers of Syrian refugees (we argued for four hundred thousand over the next four years); 2) provide substantial humanitarian assistance for those displaced in the region as well as reconstruction aid for Syria; 3) press for an inclusive political settlement to the conflict, rather than treating the country as a proxy for growing confrontation with Iran or as a chip to be bargained away to Russia; and 4) reorient to the region as whole beginning with a US–Iran dialogue over future relations.
We have received thoughtful criticisms of our position, both of our basic assumptions and conclusions. Due to the moral and political importance of these issues, we are grateful for the opportunity to reflect further on these difficult questions. The recent developments in Idlib highlight just how essential having a genuine conversation about the war is, and we hope that our follow-up helps move such a conversation forward.
Some critics, such as Nader Hashemi, maintain that our presentation of the conflict “grossly exaggerates the US role & grossly understates the role of Russia, Iran and esp. the Assad regime—who Human Rights Watch blames for ninety percent of the atrocities.” Other critics, such as Lama Abu Odeh asserted that despite its title (“Remember Syria?”), our first piece did little to show “how Syrians experienced the intervention of Iran in Syria and the destructive role it played in propping up Assad (sectarianization, ethnic cleansing, colonization of Syrian territories, arrest and torture of native Syrians).” All emphasize that the vast majority of the violence was carried out by Assad and his regional backers, Russia and Iran. By contrast, the Obama administration may have offered assistance to rebels, but chose not to intervene militarily through an aerial campaign, boots on the ground, or the kind of armed support that would decisively shift the war. By exaggerating US culpability, they say, we implicitly absolve Assad, Russia, and Iran of their brutality.
We agree fully that the Assad regime bears the largest share of responsibility for what has unfolded in Syria. This is due principally to its decades-long authoritarian rule. Moreover, the regime violently repressed a mass popular uprising, similar to those elsewhere in the region in 2011, and facilitated the militarization and sectarianization of the conflict. We also agree that the external support of Russia and Iran prevented the regime from falling and that this coalition of pro-Assad forces is directly responsible for the vast majority of violence, displacement, atrocities, and destruction in Syria.
Our argument is that the United States nevertheless played a significant role in the post-2011 trajectory of Syria. We focus on this role not because it was the biggest factor in the conflict, but because we are both scholars in the United States and writing to shape how activists and policymakers think about US foreign policy. We are not writing from a knee-jerk anti-Americanism, nor do we think that the United States is the only relevant imperial power. Russian and Iranian behavior in Syria has been deeply imperialist. But given that there is some degree of US culpability, we see it as our responsibility to offer a path forward for the United States.
What, then, was the US role? Early in the conflict, US policymakers opposed an inclusive diplomatic solution, in favor of an “Assad must go” approach. They backed the formation of the Syrian National Council, opposed negotiations that would include Iran, and offered support to regional allies financing and arming groups on the ground—in ways that also contributed to militarization and sectarianization. As the conflict wore on, the United States in addition began arming and training local proxies through a covert program run by the CIA. But all of this was guided by a faulty assumption: that limited force would tip the balance and lead to regime overthrow. The initial intervention in 2011 and 2012 provided sufficient support for the various rebel groups to continue the war against Assad but not enough for them to win, ensuring that the violence would be prolonged.
As early as 2012, the United States itself predicted that funding to rebels coupled with the withdrawal of Syrian regime forces from northern and eastern Syria would create the conditions for the rise of—in the words of a Defense Intelligence Agency document—a “Salafist”-controlled region in Syria. Once the Islamic State emerged there, the United States moved in 2014 to directly fund, train, and arm Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. US airstrikes and a broader aerial campaign against ISIS followed, with a record of civilian casualties across Iraq and Syria. The anti-ISIS campaign also became a conduit for US funds and arms to Kurdish YPG forces.
As is evident from this brief record, US intervention in Syria has continuously sought both to facilitate regional allies’ role in the conflict through their chosen proxy militias and to directly intervene where US geostrategic interests so dictated. None of this changes our view of the brutality of the Syrian regime and its external backers, but it highlights that the United States, too, played a role. The United States may not have directly committed much of the violence—although its airstrikes certainly took their toll on civilians—but its choices had a clear effect on metastasizing the conflict.
The Obama administration’s approach ultimately consisted of half-measures. For many interventionists, including former Obama officials, the lack of greater military involvement is the principal failure of US policy toward Syria. If the United States had intervened with an aerial campaign in Syria the way that Russia ultimately did, this argument goes, the military balance would have been very different, and Assad would have fallen. At the very least, opposition forces would not now be penned into a single region facing an overwhelming onslaught in Idlib. Syria, from this perspective, is a striking example of how US hesitance to use force after the Iraq War worked to the detriment of Syrians trapped under a terrible dictator.
But would a more forceful US intervention have altered the course of the war? The underlying presumption is that US military force—even if at times rough around the edges—is essentially good while the other options appease terrible dictators. Even many opponents of the Iraq War have come to think of the bloodshed in Syria as so extreme that some US force was probably necessary.
It is undoubtedly true that the US military has the capacity to overwhelm the conventional military forces of the Syrian government, as was previously illustrated in Iraq and Libya. But as with the Libya case, absent the political will to commit tremendous resources—including everything from boots on the ground to massive reconstruction funding—any coercive intervention to topple the regime would leave civilians prey to escalating violence rather than providing them the capacity to undertake a political transition. In other words, a more forceful intervention might have left in its wake just as much displacement and violence as we have already witnessed.
This is all the more so because the Assad regime—unlike Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi—has powerful external supporters who might have entered the conflict sooner had the United States sought to dispatch Assad directly. This would have created the potential threat of major regional armies fighting a direct conflict on Syrian soil, disconnected from the concerns of Syrians themselves.
US geostrategic interests are, of course, at the center of any intervention decision by the United States. The problem, however, is that these priorities—whether they be propping up or toppling governments, tilting the regional balance of power towards allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, pursuing counter-terrorism goals against actors such as ISIS, or securing Israeli interests—bear at best a contingent and easily reversible relationship to the goals of the Syrians who initiated the uprising. US priorities also bear no relationship to the protection of civilians caught in a catastrophic war, including the countless civilian casualties of the anti-Islamic State campaign waged directly by the United States. We have argued from the outset that the first test of any would-be interventionist should be: do no harm. There was very little evidence in 2011 or 2012 that a full US military intervention in Syria could meet that test.
Let us assume, however, that the United States in 2012 had committed the full resources for a military intervention to overthrow Assad and shown the political will to remain engaged in facilitating a transition. Returning to the “do no harm” principle, defenders of this assumption would still have to provide plausible day-after scenarios and account for their likely impact on civilians. Again, Iraq and Libya are recent examples of the long-term violence that may follow regime change intervention. Moreover, because of Russian and Iranian interests in Syria, those actors would have had ample motivation and ability to destabilize whatever fragile post-Assad transition was attempted. Pro-interventionists might then argue for a long-term presence of US forces on Syrian territory to create the conditions for a stable transition, but the record of a similar effort in Iraq, where the United States had the political will and was deeply invested in the outcome, has little to recommend it. Notably for all the instability in Iraq, neither Iran (which was eager to see Saddam go) nor Russia actively opposed US regime change there—one can easily imagine how their very different calculations in Syria would have made post-regime change stability immensely more difficult in that country.
Despite the weaknesses of the various military options, and the decades-long record of failed US foreign policy in the region, we reject the idea that the United States should have simply refrained from acting at all. We believe that the United States had an obligation to support Syrian civilians rising up against Assad’s authoritarian rule. This is not least because US aggression in Iraq imposed significant costs on neighboring Syria (one of the contributing factors to the 2011 uprising). Nonetheless, the Syria case is difficult precisely because there were no good options that could be easily deployed to decisively produce a sustainable transition from authoritarianism and ensure local control.
So what should the United States have done? At the time, we supported policies of embargoing international arms to the Assad regime, protecting open border crossings into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey (to provide channels for Syrians to flee the conflict), accepting a significant proportion of Syrian refugees for resettlement in the United States, and providing substantial humanitarian assistance. But we most strongly contended that, from the outset, the United States should have focused on a real diplomatic process that brought all Syrian factions, as well as external interveners, to the table to hammer out a political settlement. Such talks should have aimed to end the violence rather than to shift the regional status quo in favor of the United States and its allies. Instead, the US position undermined early efforts by the UN Special Envoy—initially Kofi Annan—to secure a ceasefire in 2012 that might have allowed such a diplomatic process to take hold. By obstructing political settlements, the United States also signaled to local groups and external actors that it would see the fight against Assad through, structuring expectations and strategies in ways that served to prolong the violence.
What does this mean for the present in the context of the attack on Idlib? Most concretely this entails immediately seeking a negotiated solution to limit the humanitarian damage. Such a diplomatic effort can only succeed if the parties currently engaged, or complicit, in the military offensive in Idlib—Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime—are at the table, in addition to the United States, Turkey and local actors on the ground. The United States has lost much of its leverage in Syria, but there is still some scope for exercising influence. Russia estimates that rebuilding Syria may eventually require as much as 450 billion dollars, a massive sum that no single external power is likely to provide. With its ongoing ties to both Kurdish forces and Turkey, as well as its capacity to offer substantial funding to facilitate reconstruction and address the needs of refugees and internally displaced people, the United States may still be able to play a constructive role. This would mean not only facilitating talks but also insisting that local opposition groups have a meaningful seat at the table. It is absolutely incumbent on the United States to pursue this now and without delay.
Our focus on inclusive diplomacy and critique of armed intervention has raised questions about whether we believe it is ever politically viable for an oppressed people to take up arms against their ruler. The regime was able to enlist military support, so why are we so suspicious of allowing opposition groups that same access? If regime opponents cannot count on US force, is this not a recipe for quiescence—simply resigning oneself to domestic oppression?
We believe very strongly in local self-determination as a basic principle and support the right of oppressed groups to confront oppressive regimes, including through armed resistance. Thus, nothing about our arguments countenance quiescence. Nor do we condemn all instances of external military support for armed resistance.
There are, however, numerous contextual factors that local groups must take into account in determining whether, on balance, external military support will advance the goal of greater self-determination or ameliorate oppressive conditions. External intervention can as easily exacerbate violence and repression as advance liberationist ends. Ultimately, just as they have long done, local actors must weigh the costs and benefits of armed resistance as well as of choosing to seek external assistance from particular regional and global powers—who have their own competing security objectives. Weighing these factors is not a matter of submitting to oppression, but rather of assessing the political conditions that any popular movement faces.
Similarly, when external powers intervene they also act within a specific context. Our argument is not that local groups should never be backed, but instead that such interventions are only justified if—based on an ex ante judgment—force will not do more harm than good. It is incumbent on Americans, or any would-be intervener, to make this assessment in a way that includes the predictable loss of civilian life, the costs to the country’s infrastructure, and the prospect for a sustainable transition away from authoritarianism. For the reasons laid out above, we have long opposed militarizing the conflict in Syria, including through direct armed force by the United States (i.e., air strikes and boots on the ground), because we believed such force would have simply escalated the violence. In our view, it would not have offered a credible path to meaningful political settlement and transition.
Although we reject the claim that this position is driven by a reflexive opposition to US policy, we have generally opposed US armed interventions, especially in the Middle East. This is for a number of reasons. First, there is a conventional view among Americans across the political spectrum that so long as a military intervention is guided by good intentions, the United States has the prerogative to resort to force. This is dangerous because it is inconsistent with an international order designed to place limits on non-defensive uses of force. When the United States asserts its right to armed force wherever it believes its cause is legitimate, that precedent weakens protections against war across the international system.
The position is also dangerous because the belief in the benign character of US actions results in an expectation of impunity. This expectation is often made explicit—as when the United States required a provision in a Security Council resolution immunizing Americans from international liability should they commit war crimes in Libya in the midst of a purportedly humanitarian intervention. But even when this expectation is not explicit, the tendency to treat local actors as having benefited from well-intentioned action allows Americans to disclaim responsibility for the aftermath of violence. The commonplace view that Iraqis owe a debt of gratitude for having been “liberated” from tyranny under Saddam Hussein is just one example of this tendency.
Moreover, the prevailing approach to US intervention relies heavily on aerial bombardment and is designed to minimize US casualties. Reliance on air power greatly increases harm to the local civilian population and damage to infrastructure. This is despite U.S. claims that efforts are made to minimize collateral damage through the use of “precision guided” munitions. Time and again—from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen, and Syria—the evidence shows that civilian deaths are orders of magnitude greater than the United States admits. Moreover, as Jomana Qaddour and Ibrahim al-Assil recently wrote in The American Interest, “the sixty-six Tomahawk cruise missiles fired into Syria on a single day in April 2017 cost the United States 92.4 million dollars.” We agree with their view that a better use of such funds would be for non-lethal assistance that would strengthen Syrian civil society.
For all of these reasons, we are generally skeptical that current US military doctrine (combined with judgments about regional national security ends) can produce armed interventions that meet the do-no-harm test. In fact, this is yet another reason why we think shifting the approach to Syria should be part of a broader rethinking of US orientation towards the Middle East as a whole.
Despite our claims, some critics still maintain that our diplomatic and humanitarian approach ultimately ignores the local aspiration for self-determination and treats Syrians simply as victims or pawns in a regional power struggle. Even worse, it is highly unlikely to succeed and so naively strengthens the position of Assad on the ground. Qaddour and al-Assil offer “three reasons why the United States should remain engaged and credible in Syria. . . . First, Iranian ambitions in Syria are on the rise, with no indication of retreat. . . . Second, if all of Syria returns to Assad’s totalitarian grip, it will be impossible for refugees to return home. . . . Third, American stabilization funds are budgeted for civil society work . . . Cutting these stabilization funds, let alone terminating them altogether, would disable American partners on the ground from being able to establish any foundation for sustainable and democratic governance structures.”
We agree that the United States should remain engaged in Syria in all the ways we have described, including backing an inclusive political settlement and providing extensive reconstruction and stabilization assistance. In the case of Idlib, in particular, we have argued for the United States to play a role in facilitating talks to avert impending violence and ensure that the opposition is included in any political process determining the course of events. By contrast, we worry that a framing of US engagement that continues to be premised on blocking Iranian ambitions is simply another formula for yet more militarization.
Our focus on US obligations to address civilian costs is motivated by deep concern about the suffering in Syria and its destabilizing effects across the region. But our policy suggestions about refugee assistance or reconstruction aid are not driven by a conception of Syrians as simple victims. Rather we highlight these US responsibilities because our view is that the United States is partly culpable for the catastrophic events and so owes a palpable debt to Syria. Again, one of the great problems with military intervention today is the degree to which external powers generally—and not simply the United States—enjoy absolute impunity for their actions. One could certainly make similar policy claims about Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States, and Israel with respect to their actions in Syria. Writing from the United States, we underscore the necessity of US assistance because it is a clear way to make amends for the costs of US policy.
At the same time, we want to know how best to ensure that Syrians actually control their own political future. There is no obvious path, given the complexity of the conflict, the number of domestic and external interveners, and the sheer violence. But among the variety of available choices, the best way to preserve some degree of local control is to create the political space for the various groups on the ground to negotiate a transition through an inclusive diplomatic process. This would require an initial move by the United States and all the external interveners to cease hostilities on all sides, thus creating the conditions for meaningful discussion.
We agree, however, that even this may fail—and failure is certainly more likely than in 2012 when Assad’s position was far weaker. But we believe it remains the only viable path toward both peace and local political control. Some critics will say that we have a naïve and utopian faith in diplomacy. We see instead an assessment of what remains the most morally and politically acceptable choice among a number of difficult options.
One last thought by way of conclusion. The US left is now more organized and politically vocal than it has been in decades. For those of us on the left to influence policy—let alone exercise power—we must have clear approaches to the hardest political questions. Iraq and Vietnam were relatively easy cases for the anti-war position. Syria, however, is more complicated and the left needs to provide a credible foreign policy alternative to conflicts where all the solutions are compromised in some way and there are no simple answers.
It is not enough to remain silent—like most of the elected members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—or to unthinkingly fall back on isolationism or a pro-sovereignty, anti-interventionism, given its troubling implications for local aspirations and humanitarian welfare. The national security establishment prefers approaches grounded in flawed assumptions about regional alliances and about US force. The US left needs to offer its own alternative. By attempting just that, our hope is to reset the terms of US engagement with Syria and make space for the United States to both fulfill its ethical and political obligations to the country and begin a more fundamental shift with respect to the Middle East.
[This article was originally published in the Boston Review.]