Why staying away from the Syrian quagmire makes sense

The ceasefire in Syria that the United States and Russia tortuously negotiated has, like the one before it, fallen apart.

The trouble began when an errant American air strike killed some 60 Syrian government soldiers. Then, Russia resumed its disingenuous grandstanding and the Syrian government, with Russia's support, went back to indiscriminately bombing rebel-held areas of Aleppo. On Monday, less than a month after the agreement went into effect, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the US would break off talks with Russia on trying to revive it.

This failure, accompanied by images of suffering in Aleppo, has inspired renewed calls for a tougher American policy in Syria from liberal hawks and traditional conservatives alike. At the vice-presidential debate on Tuesday, Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia and Republican Governor Mike Pence of Indiana advocated more aggressive American action.

But the truth is that it is too late for the US to wade deeper into the Syrian conflict without risking a major war, or, at best, looking feckless by failing to fully commit to confronting Russia and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and then backing down.

The goal now should be reducing harm, saving lives and keeping prospects for a political deal alive. Ceasefire talks between the US and Russia, tormented though they may be, remain the best way to achieve this.

Although Russia has denied it, it is clear that Moscow considers Mr Assad's survival crucial to protecting its interests in Syria, which include combating jihadism, preserving intelligence and military assets, and asserting that Russia is a geopolitical player in the Middle East. Russia has unflinchingly protected the Assad government both militarily and at the United Nations Security Council.

Damaged buildings in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab quarter of Aleppo, Syria. While there have been renewed calls for a tougher American policy in Syria, it may be too late for the US to wade deeper into the conflict without risking a major war. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indeed, Mr Assad seems to enjoy practically unlimited leverage over Russia. Despite narrowly escaping American punishment for using chemical weapons by surrendering his stockpile of deadly nerve gas and other poisons in 2013, he has felt free to continue using toxic commercial chlorine gas. Even though Russia moved towards political compromise when it provisionally withdrew from Syria in March, Mr Assad was not inclined to give peace talks a serious chance. In both cases, Russia fell back in line with his defiant brutality.

There are probably limits to Moscow's deference to his blood lust, but it is unclear what they are. This is what makes an American escalation in Syria so dangerous. American supporters of intervention, including the vice-presidential candidates, often say that the US should create a no-fly zone in Syria to protect civilians from Mr Assad and Russia's bombs.

But imagine how this might work: An American warplane enforcing a no-fly zone would risk fire from a Russian-made anti-aircraft battery or fighter. (Just this week, Russia shipped new anti-aircraft systems to Syria.) This risk clearly worries advocates for the use of force within the Obama administration. They are said to favour increased air support for the Syrian rebels that would avoid direct confrontation with the Russians. But small-scale, targeted bombing is unlikely to change Syrian behaviour, so to be effective the strikes would have to escalate. (Alternatively, ineffective strikes could be ended, but this would make the US look incompetent.)

This would ultimately lead to a violent response, which would compel the US to retaliate against Russian and Syrian government ground targets.

As conflict spiralled and casualties increased, so would international pressure for another costly, protracted and thankless American-led ground intervention to enforce peace, which domestic opinion in the US would not support. While Russia's real appetite for a political solution in the Syria conflict is unclear, it is wiser to test unknown political limits than unknown military ones.

Some of those advocating more intervention in Syria believe that as the so-called indispensable power, the US has an ethical responsibility to reduce the suffering caused by Syrian and Russian bombing of civilians. Another camp of interventionists criticises what it sees as President Barack Obama's weakness, heartlessness and strategic myopia, and wants the US to stand up to Russia and assert its intention to remain a major geopolitical player in the region.

The liberal interventionists seem to have forgotten that it is no longer the 1990s. Disastrous forays in Iraq and Libya have undermined any American willingness to put values before interests. Meanwhile, the second group of interventionists seem to have forgotten that Syria has been Moscow's client since early in the Cold War - a situation Washington was willing to live with when the geostrategic stakes were much higher.

The US does, in fact, have a clear Syria policy: Roll back the Islamic State group by way of the air campaign and American-supported Syrian rebel forces, coordinating with Russia to the extent possible; provide extensive humanitarian support; and continue to press for a sustainable ceasefire and a negotiated political transition involving Mr Assad's eventual departure. It may be frustrating, but against the alternatives, it is the only sensible course of action.

Certainly, the Syrian government and Russia have manipulated the ceasefires, using them as cover for continuing offensives. Nonetheless, fragile though they have been, these deals ratchet down the overall level of violence and save lives.

The deal struck by Mr Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Mr Sergei Lavrov, for the US and Russia to coordinate counter-jihadist operations and restrain opposition and government military activity was intended to produce a durable ceasefire, promote more effective humanitarian operations and re-energise political talks. Although it has fallen apart, the next step, unsatisfying as it may be, is to try again.


  • Steven Simon, a professor at Amherst College, was the National Security Council's senior director for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 through 2012. Jonathan Stevenson, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a fellow at Cullman Center, was the council's director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa from 2011 to 2013.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline 'Why staying away from the Syrian quagmire makes sense'. Print Edition | Subscribe