The Syrian civil war has been devilishly difficult from the moment it broke out and has defied easy solutions for good reason. It is a complex society ruled with an iron fist for decades that has resisted any serious attempts at reform.
Although it also held on to a historical narrative that saw itself as both the embodiment of the Arab nationalist spirit and the last of the frontline Arab states still implacably opposed to Israel, neither was enough to ensure Arab solidarity in the face of its descent into chaos. Damascus’s close links with Iran and personal slights felt by some neighbouring and regional rulers meant other autocratic rulers have seen fit to support and facilitate groups that sought to overthrow Bashar al-Assad.
Washington has been right to avoid becoming militarily involved. This war’s complexity is greater than that of Iraq and the interference of Syria’s neighbours has made a complex situation even more difficult to understand, let alone resolve. The second-order effects of any US military intervention needed to be deeply thought through, yet its proponents never argued a convincing case.
The mistake most commentators make in arguing the case for a lost opportunity for US intervention is twofold; first they speak of the conflict in binary terms, as if there were a government and an opposition.
If there was a time when the uprising was genuinely domestic and secular, it was fleeting.
Any US military intervention had to take into account the impact it would have had on the actions and desires of myriad other actors; jihadist fighters, Islamist political players such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, regional states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Assad’s allies in Iran and Russia.
Second, they have never articulated what form that intervention should have taken. The best they have done is to advocate a no-fly zone, as if that would somehow solve the problem. Unfortunately, such proposals never addressed some fundamental concerns with Syrian no-fly zones; how jihadists would be excluded from taking advantage of the coalition air cover, what would be the coalition response to Syrian military ground offensives in the no-fly zone, or activities by Hezbollah or perhaps Iranian military advisers.
The Syrian air force has not been the decisive factor in allowing the Assad regime to survive. It has been his ground forces and the support of his allies that has allowed him to survive, and no-fly zones would have had no impact on them.
Rather than a failure to intervene militarily, Washington and the West’s strategic error was in calling so early and so publicly for Assad to step down. In August 2011 there was a co-ordinated demand that Assad had to step down. And while Washington never made Assad’s departure a precondition for peace talks, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in June 2012 that it “should be an outcome”. The military push to oust Assad followed the next month. A bomb planted in the National Security headquarters killed the defence minister, his deputy Assef Shawkat (Assad’s brother-in-law), and several other high-ranking security officials, and was closely followed by a co-ordinated attack by rebels on the capital. The assault on Damascus was put down by the Syrian military.
Even if Western leaders believe that Assad has no future in post-conflict Syria, having so publicly made his departure a non-negotiable element of any solution the West’s leaders effectively have made a rod for their own back. It has allowed Assad and his supporters in Moscow and Tehran to use these calls as evidence that the West is seeking to reshape not only Syria but the broader region.
It also fits into that part of the Syrian historical narrative that sees itself as the last truly Arab nationalist resistance state. Its close relationship with Iran dilutes the impact of such a claim, but it nevertheless remains.
More important, making Assad’s departure non-negotiable, unsurprisingly, has made him somewhat unwilling to negotiate. Not only that, it has also made his backers in Tehran and Moscow much less likely to throw their ally under a bus lest they be seen as acquiescing to Western demands.
For states whose attraction to potential allies also lies partly in their willingness to support autocratic rulers regardless of the international pressure they are under, Iran and Russia weren’t likely to devalue their diplomatic currency by abandoning Assad too early.
There have been plenty of mistakes made in addressing the Syrian situation; however, failing to intervene militarily wasn’t one of them. Rather, overestimating the opposition’s military and political abilities and underestimating Assad’s ability to hang on to power led Western leaders to adopt a negotiating strategy that gave Assad and his allies no room to negotiate; 2½ years after calling for Assad to step down, what has passed for negotiations has been little short of disastrous and a messy, sectarian stalemate exists.
Rodger Shanahan is a fellow at the Lowy Institute and a lecturer at the ANU’s National Security College.