Syria’s Few Options

What is happening in Syria is horrifying. Protests in 2011 were met with shooting by Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Brutality led to civil war. Factions joined one side or the other, including groups linked to al-Qaeda, as ISIS expanded into eastern Syria. The United States and European countries bomb various groups, mostly ISIS, and supply special forces and training. Iran supports Assad with troops and equipment. Saudi Arabia supports rebel groups. Russia entered the fighting last fall and bombs hospitals and markets along with the Assad regime, which has also used chlorine as a war gas. Refugees flee into surrounding states and Europe. Every day my Twitter feed brings photos of more atrocities.

The Guardian recently featured shaming articles and editorials: The world must stop the slaughter. Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times tells us that we need to do more in Syria. Of course we want to do something, but it is likely that the Obama administration is doing all it can and is, slowly, making a difference.

Most complaints that more needs to be done are devoid of proposals that might stop the slaughter. Kristof assembles a number of proposals that ignore significant factors. I have seen no proposals worked through in a serious way.

The insistence that the United States do something assumes that the United States has the ability to change things in Syria in a way that will not cause more deaths and end the fighting. Certainly the United States possesses overwhelming military might that could defeat Assad, Russia, and ISIS in Syria. The cost would be more Syrian deaths, including civilians, and American and other deaths as well. Further costs would include a direct confrontation with Russia, a situation that both the Soviet Union and the United States chose to avoid during the Cold War.

One thing that the United States might be able to increase is humanitarian aid in surrounding countries receiving refugees. But Donald Trump and a Republican congress regard such proposals as toxic.


What The United States Has Done

Under the direction of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, Syria was disarmed of its chemical weapons. This achievement is often minimized or President Barack Obama’s administration is condemned for not bombing instead. Expectations that military action is always the answer and that there is a single way to end the fighting seem to underlie that criticism.

As the civil war ramped up in 2011 and 2012, many experts, including me, were concerned about the large arsenal of chemical agents that Assad had built up as a deterrent and response to Israeli nuclear weapons. The fighting might accidentally release agents, or groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda might confiscate agents and delivery systems. Bombing chemical weapons depots would disperse the agents and cause more damage. As long as they were there, Assad could use them and in fact did, most notably at Ghouta in August 2014. That attack provoked the US and Russia to put together a plan to remove all of Assad’s chemical weapons. That plan was effectively carried out by a coalition of nations. If Assad had retained any significant stocks, he would be using them, as he does dual-use chlorine cylinders.

Chlorine can be used as a war gas, but it is necessary for water purification and other peaceful purposes, so it cannot be eliminated as was the single-use war agent sarin. Assad’s use of it in attacks is a war crime. It is not a failure of the removal operation, which prevented much worse from happening.

What seems to disturb many critics is that Obama had signaled a “red line” relative to those weapons. He seized the opportunity to deal with those weapons peacefully and more completely than any other possible scenario. The critics seem to feel that there should have been more “punishment”, including bombing and other damage to Assad’s close interests.

Kristof notes the rescue of the Yazidis in 2014 by air strikes, another success.

US airstrikes are pushing ISIS back, most recently from Manbij in northern Syria. The primary goal of US operations has been to limit ISIS moves and take back territory. The airstrikes seem to be partially successful  in that goal.


Limitations On US Operations

The greatest limitation on US operations in Syria may be the unwillingness of the American public to support another war in the Middle East. War continues in Afghanistan and Iraq after more than a decade, with Americans still involved, whether as military or contractors. Americans disapprove of sending ground troops to fight in Syria.

Justification via international law for intervention seem dicey unless they are framed in humanitarian terms. Even there, however, there should be some expectation of more lives being saved than lost, and, given the distributed nature of the fighting and the great variety of groups involved, such an assessment is very difficult except in particular cases, like that of the Yazidis.

The enormous number of groups on the rebel side make it difficult to discern which to support and how to support them. One of the most militarily effective insurgent factions, Jabhat al-Nusra, has been associated with al-Qaeda. Recently they changed their name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and say they have cut ties with al-Qaeda, although experts doubt the separation. The battle for Aleppo illustrates the complexity; it has involved sieges by both sides on different parts of the city. Here is an description of the battles around Aleppo.

Removing dictators in Iraq and Libya should have taught us that societies that have been under dictatorship for long periods of time cannot easily adjust to democracy. As long as Assad is in power, the many militias will group around pro- and anti-regime positions. If Assad goes suddenly, those militias will fight each other for power. That is likely to be an even bloodier war and much more difficult to bring to negotiation.

Ramping up US bombing will bring the US into conflict with Russia. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union were careful not to directly confront each other militarily. The stakes were too high. The stakes are still high.


Russia’s Role

Russia began flying bombing sorties in Syria last fall in support of the Assad regime, basing its planes at the Latakia Air Base. It also sent cruise missiles into Syria from the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. This week, Russia announced that some of its Syrian missions will be refueled in Iran, but based in Russia.

Russia’s stated goal is to destroy terrorists in Syria; it defines terrorst as anyone opposing Assad. Some Russian statements have implied less than total support for Assad, actions but Russian bombing and other actions are consistent with keeping him in power at least until an end of fighting can be negotiated. Although several temporary halts to fighting have been negotiated, Assad’s military, with Russian help, have broken those halts.

Both Russia and Assad use tactics and weapons that constitute war crimes: bombing hospitals and markets, cluster bombs, chlorine as a war gas, and incendiary munitions against civilians. The purpose of these tactics is to terrorize civilians and remove support for the insurgents. Russia used similar tactics in Chechnya in 1999.

Russia has multiple objectives in Syria. Assad is one of Russia’s few clients. He allows Russian naval basing at Tartus on the Mediterranean, supporting Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Russia is showing off military hardware in its Syrian operations. The cruise missile exercise reportedly brought in many new orders.

One of Vladimir Putin’s big objectives is to bring Russia back as a major player on the global stage and to end US and European sanctions. Russia’s move into Ukraine seems to have been partly intended to set up negotiations with the United States to divide up spheres of influence, as was done at the Yalta Conference in 1945. That great power conference hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to. So moving into Syria, where the United States already has a presence, provides another opportunity for great-power negotiations. Russia talks about cooperation with the United States against terrorists in Syria, but its actions frequently undermine US goals. Additionally, the US cannot join Russia’s war crimes.

Negotiations will be the only way that the Syrian mess is ever settled. Russia calls regularly for negotiations but seems not to be committed to a negotiating process. As with the Minsk agreements in Ukraine, shortly after a ceasefire is negotiated, Russia or its client breaks it. There is some indication that Russia cannot fully control Assad, although it is also possible that the disconnect is a pretense.

Nonetheless, negotiations must continue. Because Russia and Assad are willing to be extremely aggressive in their military actions, and because they cannot be trusted to adhere to agreements, US negotiators have a narrow path. Because Russia is actively fighting in Syria, there is not a choice as to whether Russia is involved in negotiations. That is not a concession or weakness on the part of the United States; it is a recognition of reality.


The Alternatives

No-fly or safe zones are often proposed as places where civilians could avoid attack. As long as Russia and Assad target civilians, such plans cannot be carried out because the safe zones themselves would be targets. Setting up the zones and the military protocols for avoiding them would require negotiations among the various factions. During the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the United Nations declared six safe zones in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Serbs complained that the Bosnians were preparing attacks from the safe zones and eventually attacked two of them. Military means would be necessary to defend the safe zones, which could become another center of fighting.

Supplying more weapons to the insurgents means identifying appropriate groups. There is no guarantee that weapons will be retained by those groups, and there is evidence that weapons that have already been supplied are moving outside the groups they were supplied to. This is inevitable when the groups are fighting together against the regime.

Although there may be an emotional pull to the idea of American aircraft confronting Russian aircraft, such direct confrontations would be utter foolishness. The objective is to stop the fighting in Syria, not to extend it to the two major nuclear powers.

Although Putin’s Russia has put on a confrontational face, Russia is not the Soviet Union of the Cold War. Russia is aiming much lower than total world domination. It is easy to read Putin as a great strategist when he has a small victory, but his record in Ukraine and his stated beliefs that the United States is responsible for all insurrection in the world indicate otherwise.

A similarity with the Cold War is that we must at times work with Russia to achieve our aims. If our objective in Syria is to stop the killing and arrive at stable governance, we must work with Russia toward a negotiated solution. Russia managed to bring Assad along in giving up his chemical weapons. They may be able to influence him in other ways.


Assad is strongly motivated to try to win the war. At best, he is likely to be accused of war crimes, or, at worst, to be killed as were Saddam Hussein and Muhammar Ghaddafi. He is willing to kill his own people to avoid those fates, but in the process he is making those fates more likely.

There will be no real solution in Syria for years. Determining a governance structure that is satisfactory to most parties and then putting it into effect will take another year at the least. Repairing the social and physical fabric will take longer. Partial solutions, like the removal of chemical weapons, should not be condemned because they do not solve the whole problem. There will be many more partial solutions on the road to peace.


Top photo from Al Jazeera.