The American approach to Syria can and has been criticized on a number of legitimate grounds. One of them, however, is not a lack of strategy. President Obama has articulated, repeatedly, a vision for what he believes is necessary and proper for Syria in the future and what the American role should be in executing that vision. It involves the transfer of power away from Bashar al-Assad (ideally, to a moderate, representative coalition), containing the threat of al Qaeda against American interests, and preventing widespread use of weapons of mass destruction.
The policies to support this strategy have not met our objectives. Assad is still in power, the opposition is fragmented, Salafi jihadism is expanding its reach in the Levant, and the effort to remove Syria’s chemical weapons is proceeding painfully slowly. Critics say it is time for something else.
What critics do too often, however, is push policy options without explaining the purpose of the policies. Take Max Boot, who wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times (copied here at the Council on Foreign Relations). After analyzing the problems with Obama’s Syria policy, he suggests the following:
It is time for Mr Obama to admit that his Syria policy is not working.
No one is suggesting sending ground troops. But options range from doing more to arm the moderate opposition, to declaring a no-fly zone. Drones could strike al-Qaeda operatives in Syria; air power could create humanitarian zones near the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The US could also take the lead in referring Mr Assad and his aides for war crimes prosecution.
Do these all support the same strategy? Is Boot even on board with the Obama strategy? Does trying to take the lead in prosecuting Assad for war crimes help realize a coherent strategy, whatever that may be? Calls to simply “do more” assume that doing nothing is the worst option, without exploring whether that is the case. In a highly complex, dangerous, and fluid security environment, American actions can easily backfire or create unintended consequences elsewhere. Boot is too well-versed in the history of war to make such omissions.
One interesting argument for more American involvement in Syria comes from Ambassador James Jeffrey, writing at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Jeffrey says the need to be involved stems from the importance of maintaining credible commitments to the region and the promise of coercing the Assad regime into real negotiations:
Even the most limited military engagements carry risk, and operating in Syria would pose specific military challenges. But the risks become acceptable when one acknowledges two things: first, that doing almost nothing is the more dangerous option, as argued above; and second, that military action in Syria has an achievable goal. That goal is not an American military victory per se, but rather “supporting diplomacy” by convincing Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow that Washington will do what is necessary to prevent Assad from achieving military victory. The Syrian conflict will not end in a way that is acceptable to U.S. national interests unless Assad and his allies are pressured to the point of realizing that a negotiated compromise is better than continuing the war.
Intelligent counterarguments can be made against Jeffrey’s points, but his argument begins from the diagnosis of strategic—not policy—failure.
The urge to “do something” in Syria must plan comprehensively, even if the actions are limited. And the first question to ask is not “What should we be doing?” but “What realistic outcome do we desire?”