Paul Pillar

No Good Option on Syria

The growing civil war in Syria is a prototypical case of a problem with no good solution. An authoritarian regime appears to have passed the point of being able to reestablish either authority within Syria or legitimacy within the community of nations but retains enough determination and firepower to avoid being toppled any time soon. Opposition elements demonstrate their own form of determination but are not demonstrating unity, effective organization or clear purpose beyond wanting to get rid of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It is much easier to point out the downsides of any proposed response to this situation than to come up with a response that is at all attractive. It is still necessary to consider carefully all the doubts and downsides, not just to shoot down other people's ideas but to know what we are getting into even if we wind up only with the least bad of several decidedly bad options.

Marc Lynch has usefully raised several important questions about one of the more forward-leaning of the options that are within the realm of political feasibility, which is to provide arms to the armed resistance that calls itself the Free Syrian Army. The first question is who exactly would get the arms. Lynch notes that the FSA “remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups.” Other questions include: How would provision of arms affect the Syrian opposition, including its degree of unity and its aims? Exactly what would arms aid be intended to achieve? If it is intended to defeat the regime rather than just to keep the opposition fighters going, how much aid would be needed to do that? How would the regime respond to such external aid? And if the regime falls, what would happen then to the armed opposition groups?

The answers to all of these questions are currently unclear. Similarly probing questions can be asked about other possible options, and the lack of current clarity is not necessarily a reason to discard either the possibility of arming the FSA or any other possible course of action. But more attention should be devoted to trying to answer the questions before making any major new departures on Syria. Besides addressing the questions, several tendencies need to be resisted in formulating policy on the Syria problem.

One such tendency is the emotional urge to “do something” in the face of obvious human suffering and bloodshed. This tendency needs to be resisted because some possible measures that may help to satisfy this urge might only lead to different scenarios in which the humanitarian situation would be even worse (not to mention possibly being detrimental to other policy objectives). This is another application of the general rule that emotion usually does not produce sound foreign policy.

We should not equate getting rid of Assad with bringing about a better Syria. Some of the alternatives might be worse. And even if there is no possibility of the current regime reestablishing authority and legitimacy, how Assad goes will have a lot to do with what comes after.

We also should not equate more forceful options in opposing the regime with greater likelihood of the regime falling sooner rather than later. Consider how different possible endgames look to Assad and to others who are irretrievably associated with his regime. He knows what happened to Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein. If he has to lose power, a negotiated exit may appear less unpleasant than a fight to the death.

Every option has risks and uncertainties, of course, including the option of doing absolutely nothing. But if there is to be any bias, it should be in the direction of taking fewer rather than more new departures. New departures entail more risks and uncertainties because they stir the pot in ways that bring about new and unforeseeable situations. Those who stir the pot generally also assume new responsibilities. The Hippocratic principle of first doing no harm applies to statesmanship as well as to medicine.