What's America's Next Move in Syria?

Improvised weapon in Aleppo, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Mil.ru

Trump faces the same limits on U.S. influence that plagued his predecessor.

Assad has Russia and Iran as his wingmen. Where are America’s friends in the long fight against Assad? It might be reasonable to assume that, with the administration’s courtship of the Sunni Arabs, now would be the time to press them to do more in Syria; after all, the victims of the latest chemical attacks are Sunni Arabs. But one of the more stubborn realities of the Syrian conflict is that America’s Sunni Arab partners—with the exception of small Jordan and vulnerable Lebanon—have talked tough but done little in the way of absorbing refugees or contributing forces to the actual fight against ISIS. Hundreds of thousands of the Sunni Arabs’ religious brethren have been slaughtered or displaced by the Assad regime and its Shia allies, and yet the wealthy Gulf Arabs have contributed a pittance of humanitarian aid to Syria, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two of the wealthiest Gulf states, have refused to take in any Syrian refugees.

This is a dismal and embarrassing record. The shift to a post-Raqqa ISIS 2.0 strategy could provide an opportunity for redemption, if the Sunni Arabs can muster the political mettle to seize it. For starters, they could contribute billions of dollars to humanitarian aid for Sunni refugees and to the economic reconstruction of war-torn Syrian communities. Second, in the (unlikely) event that Syria and Russia agree, international efforts to stabilize Sunni areas should include a contribution of Sunni Arab peacekeeping forces under either a UN or an Arab League mandate.

Humanitarian Interventions: Exception, Not the Rule

The Obama and Trump administrations can be hammered for their failure to intervene more aggressively in Syria to stop mass killing. But some perspective is in order, to put the United States’ role in these kinds of circumstances in context. The historical record of U.S. action in these kinds of situations isn’t pretty. From the Armenian genocide and the Nazi Holocaust, to Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, Congo and South Sudan, the United States has been risk averse when it comes to humanitarian interventions. Bosnia and Kosovo appear to be rare exceptions. There are many legitimate reasons to explain this hands-off approach, but the pattern is clear: the notion that American values, including the use of armed force to stop evil and mass killing, are also American interests just hasn’t been borne out. Indeed, Syria, far from being the exception, seems to be the norm. And it is doubtful that, in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, the American public and Congress would welcome the escalation of U.S. military involvement in another messy war without end in Syria.

The Trump administration confronts the same dilemmas, complexities and contradictions—and the same limitations on U.S. influence—that plagued its predecessor. It stretches credulity to believe that the administration, given all the other preoccupations of the White House and the dysfunction in the foreign-policy decisionmaking process, has developed a coherent political and military strategy to end the war in Syria, and that U.S. military retaliation in response to the latest chemical-weapon attacks is an element of this strategy. A one-off strike is not going to intimidate Putin (or Assad) into abandoning their goals for Syria, while a disproportionate U.S. military response could drag America deeper into the Syrian muck.

If the administration, despite the risks, decides on a military response, it should have good answers to three questions. First, what is the purpose of using force: changing Assad’s behavior on chemical weapons or his regime, or pressing Assad and the Russians into a more serious negotiation on a political transition? Second, if it’s regime change or ending the war, what is the administration’s military and political strategy for the day or, more likely, the decade after? And finally, will the president have the support of Congress and the American people to stay the course, particularly if things go wrong? We can only hope that someone is asking these questions and that the benefits, risks and consequences of the options are given extreme vetting. If the administration doesn’t, big trouble looms.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

Richard Sokolsky is a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served in the State Department for 37 years, including 10 years as a member of the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning from 2005–15.

Image: Improvised weapon in Aleppo, 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Mil.ru

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