American Military Intervention Can't Save Syria

October 7, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Skeptics Tags: SyriaObamaPutinRussiaSyrian Civil WarMilitary

American Military Intervention Can't Save Syria

"The Syrian people have endured horrors and face challenges beyond comprehension. Yet these tragic realities do not warrant intervention by the United States." 

The New York Times appears to have experienced an epiphany of the obvious on Syria.

On October 6, its op-ed page ran a piece by Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, both former members of President Obama’s National Security Council, warning against American military intervention in Syria’s civil war.

The paper has been a hospitable forum for advocates of military intervention in Syria, academics ( some of whom had been senior foreign policy officials) as well as Senators. They had backed the wars in Iraq and Libya but insisted that their recommendations would work this time around. Don’t learn the wrong lessons from history…that sort of thing.

Two of the paper’s regular columnists, Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof , have penned all-heart-and-no-head pieces describing Bashar al-Assad’s undeniable brutality and calling for the use of American military power to stop it. Neither has yet explained how that would serve American interests, what risks the creation of no-flight zones and safe havens would involve, why such steps are nevertheless necessary, and what they have in mind should events not unfold as anticipated. It’s enough apparently to dwell on the terrible suffering of Syrians and to portray opponents of intervention as latter-day Chamberlains and Daladiers. Appeal to emotion and guilt tripping substitute for hard-headed analysis.

So it’s refreshing to read an op-ed in the Times that does what the interventionists have singularly failed to do. The authors, Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, offer nothing new. Others have long since questioned the wisdom of military intervention in Syria, and well before Putin deployed troops there in September 2015.  (The warnings of Simon and Stevenson turn largely on the risks of a military clash with Russia.)  Still, when a sober analysis on a critical issue appears in the nation’s newspaper of record it gets attention. That makes it valuable, even commendable.


Simon and Stevenson stress the threat posed by Russian air defense missiles and interceptor aircraft. Establishing a no-flight zone—something many who favor using force in Syria propose—without destroying Syrian and Russian air defense systems would be irresponsible to say that least. Some weaponry wonks, even those leery of intervention, maintain that American F-22 Raptors could make short work of Syria’s surface-to-air missiles and air force, and even Russia’s much-vaunted S-400 anti-aircraft missiles and its Su-30, Su-34, and Su-35 fighter jets, allowing for follow-on raids by American aircraft less advanced than the Raptor.

Leave aside Clausewitz’s warning about “friction,” unforeseen events that bedevil the best-laid war plans. Those who tout the prowess of American airpower avoid the central question about intervention.  So do Simon and Stevenson.  What conceivable American interests would be served by risking war with Russia in Syria?  

States obviously don’t always avoid war. The United States would presumably defend the Baltic states were Russia to attack them. But there are no American interests, let alone treaty obligations, that warrant courting a military clash with Russia in Syria. (That does not make the suffering of Syrians irrelevant. But more can be done about that on the non-military front. The options include taking in more refugees, which, to their credit, Cohen and Kristof have called for and funding relief agencies such as the World Food Program adequately. Most wealthy countries—not just those in the West—have not done either to the extent feasible.)

The Obama administration has sometimes been pilloried for lacking having a plan to shape Syria’s battlefield. It did have one; the problem was that it didn’t work.  

The strategy was to arm and train moderate Syrian resistance groups so they could battle Assad’s army and Hezbollah allies. The United States cooperated with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to this end and also ran its own covert operations. This collaboration began as early as the summer of 2012 , though Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey appear to have starting aiding the Syrian resistance earlier that year .   By then, Assad’s 2011 crackdown on Syria’s Arab Spring protestors had provoked an armed rebellion, which he has failed to quash as his father Hafez did in Hama in 1982.

Pretty soon, however, it became apparent that there were no moderate fighters with the numbers and firepower and territory under their control to achieve this goal.  The Saudis and the Qataris and the Kuwaitis had placed their bets on radical Islamists such as Al-Nusra (which renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham this summer, presumably to shed the baggage of its Al Qaeda affiliation) and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham. These and other groups wedded to creating an Islamic state in Syria were supplied with arms via Turkey, and individuals and organizations soliciting funds for them were allowed to operate freely in these Gulf countries.  

Saudi Arabia and Qatar don’t have identical views on Syria. But neither has backed Assad’s foes primarily to save innocent people. These two states are not exactly paragon of human rights, and Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen has shown a singular lack of regard for civilian lives. Their principal objective has always been erasing Iran’s presence in Syria; and for winning the Sunni-Shi’a contest in the Middle East, the hardline Syrian Sunni Islamists were not only the strongest groups, they were also ideologically preferable.