Saturday, October 12, 2019

Syria Retrospective

The invasion of Syria by Turkey is making some folks look backwards and blame Obama for not doing more.  And I have put forth a challenge on twitter: what exactly could Obama have done?

I ruled out bombing, as hitting Assad directly is harder than folks think.  And it got harder still after the Russians got more involved.  Oh, and it would be the US mostly alone since David Cameron could not get a vote through his parliament.  And as Ben Dennison reminded me, NATO was out of bombs after Libya.

I ruled out a massive intervention, as the US was still winding down Iraq and was still stuck in Afghanistan, and the army was near the breaking point after nearly a decade of two wars.  And, as those two wars remind us, once you are in, how do you get out?  Especially with the Russians, Iran, and Hezzbollah seriously involved?

I ruled out safe havens as they are neither safe nor havens (thanks Doug Benson, as I am stealing your take on Safe House).  Srebrenica anyone?  To create a safe haven requires an invasion of one kind or another, so that a space is created in which people can gather (which kind of makes them targets).  And that space has to be large enough that Assad's artillery would have been far enough away that it would not be able to hit the people in the safe haven.  Or have enough arty in place to counter-battery fire to deter such stuff.  Again, safe havens require war. 

As a scholar of international relations, I simply do not have any ideas of what the intervention could have looked like that was politically feasible.  Remember, this was with a very hostile Congress that was not willing to vote for a new authorization and budgets fights were constantly risking the closure of the government. 

The US has essentially tried everything--doing a lot (Iraq, Afghanistan), doing something (Libya), doing nothing (Syria)--which should tell us both about the limits of American power and how hard it is to intervene in civil wars.  Which is why I repeat my plea for some humility.  These things are really hard, that mistakes are inevitable (we rely on unreliable proxies on a regular basis because ... that is often all there is), they are very expensive, and there is no easy way to leave. 

The other regret folks have is Obama pulling US troops out of Iraq (something Bush had agreed to), but that points to the big problem--once you get in, it is hard to leave.  Rumsfeld wanted Afghanistan to be "break the Taliban and leave" situation, and he expected to hand over Iraq to some random Iraqi exiles (who happened to have been Iranian agents) and have the US forces leave quickly.  Obama understood that entering Syria meant staying for the long term, I believe.  And that was problematic. 

Sure, now it seems like intervening would have prevented the flow of millions of refugees to Europe, which has not helped Europe very much (although I still blame much of the problems European democracies have with the embracing of austerity measures after the 2008 crisis).  But if the US had intervened forcefully (again, how?), would Syrians have stuck around?  The US way of war does create a lot of collateral damage (civilian casualties), so I still think there would have been refugee flows.

Anyhow, again, the crowd of MOAR needs to tell us what more would have looked like and how it was politically feasible.  Which is kind of like the anti-JCPOA crowd--tell us another way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons that Iran would have agreed to.  And don't tell me some bombing would have done the trick. Because bombing is wildly overrated.

So, instead of learning to blame Obama, I prefer to learn something else: humility.

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