The last U.S. ambassador to serve in Damascus, Robert Ford, testified to Congress earlier this year that the “U.S. military and civilian costs in Syria over the past four years are at least $12 billion.” It is a high price for failure — failure to depose President Bashar al Assad, to break his alliance with Iran, to prevent Salafist jihadism from taking root in Syria for the first time, to maintain the friendship of U.S.-NATO ally Turkey, to save an estimated half-million Syrians from death and to stem the exodus of nearly half the Syrian population from their homes. Most of the dozen or so former officials of the Barack Obama administration to whom I have spoken in Washington over the past three weeks regret what transpired on their watch, but it’s too late for them to do anything about it.
President Donald Trump’s administration inherited the Syria mess when it entered the White House on Jan. 20, 2017. Its policy was anyone’s guess, reminding me of an old joke about an Irish farmer telling a tourist who asked for directions to Dublin, “Well, I wouldn’t be going there from here.” It is unclear how far Trump and his new foreign policy team, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will commit the country’s money, armed forces and intelligence services to Syria. They could, if they dared, learn from the mistakes of Obama’s policies to avoid prolonging the war and deepening the United States’ involvement in it.
The Danger in Doing
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, confesses in his new book, The World As It Is, “I wanted to do something about the catastrophe in Syria, just as I advocated intervention in Libya.” (The italics are his.) The Obama administration’s best and brightest argued among themselves for nearly seven years about what to do. Like Rhodes, they all wanted to do something. Doing something in Libya led to anarchy and the flowering of rival jihadist brigades. Doing less in Syria led to a similar outcome, though the Syrian state and government have so far survived in the most populous parts of the country. By the time Obama left office, his detractors contended that he didn’t do enough: He didn’t invade; he refused to enforce a no-fly zone; he didn’t create safe havens inside Syria for rebels to mobilize and for civilians to find shelter. Other critics say he did too much: He militarized the opposition to al Assad either directly or through Saudi and Qatari surrogates; he conducted covert operations from Turkey and Jordan; he deployed American soldiers against the Islamic State in northeast Syria without an exit plan.
As members of the Trump administration consider wading more deeply into the Syrian morass, they are confronting complexities that cannot be squeezed into a simple “with us or against us” dichotomy. Why, for example, did the Jaish al-Tawhid jihadist militia that fought hard against al Assad’s Syrian army in Homs until 2014 suddenly join forces with that same army to fight against the Islamic State? Why have the Kurds of the U.S.-armed Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria maintained relations with the al Assad government, avoided conflict with the Syrian army and recognized government sovereignty in all of Syria while hoping to preserve some autonomy at the war’s end? Other questions come to mind. What tribal rivalries along the fence-free border between Syria and Iraq hold the keys to control of the desert and have nothing to do with Iran, Russia, the United States or any other outside power? How does the Syrian mosaic of sectarian and ethnic communities play into governing the country? If al Assad’s Alawite minority government was so hated, why didn’t more of the Sunni Muslim majority join the rebellion against it? Further U.S. intervention in Syria risks more destruction, polarization and failure for years to come.
Heeding Past Failures
Although Ford was an enthusiastic supporter of peaceful protests against al Assad in 2011, he urged Congress this year to scrutinize Trump’s Syria operations in ways it had neglected to police Obama’s. Maintaining troops in northeast Syria risked, he said, a Syrian response along the lines of the “more unconventional tactics from Lebanon in 1983 and 1984.” There is every reason to believe that when al Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, secures most of the rest of the country, he will turn his attention to restoring his rule to the northeast through the kind of insurgency that drove the U.S. Marines from Lebanon in February 1984. Ford concluded his testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee with a word of warning:
“More than ever I think we should heed the words of former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in his book summing up what he learned from the long, failed American effort in Vietnam. McNamara urged great caution before we get involved long-term in foreign civil wars. He stressed that we cannot fully understand the complexities of local civil wars, and some foreign policy problems have no real resolution. That certainly does apply to Syria. I don’t think anyone would suggest there is a more complicated conflict than what we see now in Syria.”
Having covered the war from inside Syria off and on for the past seven years, I have come to Washington to ask officials from the Obama and Trump administrations what went wrong. The only U.S. success they cite is depriving the Islamic State of the territory it briefly governed under its so-called caliphate. Otherwise, the Obama people I’ve interviewed admit Syria is a disaster that will haunt them for years. Their successors in the Trump administration may or may not learn from the mistakes of the past. The Syrians who have survived almost 7 1/2 years of savage warfare must hope they will.