On September 10, 2016, the U.S. State Department announced that it had struck a breakthrough ceasefire agreement with Russia in Syria, the site of a conflict that has in recent months rekindled Cold War tensions long-thought to be extinguished. The much-lauded deal promised a stop to all hostilities between Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, providing a window of relief for embattled civilians across the war-torn country as well as a renewed round of formal peace talks. Additionally, an international aid convoy would be allowed safe passage from Turkey through contested territory and entry to the besieged, starving neighborhoods of Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. For the first time in many months, the prospects of the struggle for humanity in a nation forgotten by it seemed to be looking up.
By the following weekend, the Syrian accord was in shambles. On September 17, An American airstrike, supposedly intended for ISIS fighters not party to the agreement, bombarded forces stationed at a Syrian Army airbase on Al-Tharda mountain, killing sixty Syrian soldiers and wounding over a hundred more. The Russians responded in turn two days later, directing a covert attack against the vitally-needed aid convoy en route to Aleppo, knocking the relief effort out of commission and taking twenty civilian lives. In the two months since the breakdown of the accord, Russian forces have brazenly ramped up their most aggressive air campaign against the rebel-held city yet, decimating the starved, eight thousand-year-old city with nearly continuous bombardment. Accusations and recriminations abound, and any hope for reconciliation between Western and Russian diplomats has all but evaporated as passions on both sides now stand at fever pitch.
Adding insult to injury, the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the American role in the accord’s demise have raised serious questions over the Obama administration’s capacity to prevent a regression, let alone generate any sort of diplomatic headway, in Syria during the remainder of President Obama’s term. Secretary Kerry’s efforts in securing this most recent peace deal represented, perhaps, this administration’s last and best chance at détente with Russia in a conflict that has increasingly resembled a Middle Eastern proxy war between the two former Cold War adversaries. It is no small shame that the deal’s breakdown has only served to inflame passions on the ground in Aleppo and dishearten further attempts at constructive diplomacy. More than ever, among policymakers and pundits there is a profound sense of frustration and despondency surrounding the future of the Syrian conflict—a future that appears darker with each passing day and each broken accord.
The Syrian war has in this sense become synonymous with the vexing, endemic nature of geopolitics in the twenty-first century. Its birth and subsequent deviation from the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring is no doubt an unfortunate parody of the West’s own fall from geopolitical idealism in the new millennium. In an era of American foreign policy that began with a quixotic, perhaps even religiously-charged expedition to topple Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship—complete with presidential ovations given aboard aircraft carriers burnished in “Mission Accomplished” banners—Syria is the nagging hangover from America’s idealism binge in an age now recognizably devoid of it.
Public trust in the capacity of American or transnational institutions to spread democracy, or even protect global stability, has given way to an emerging order of political uncertainty, chaos, and fear—a paradigm shift no better embodied than in the farce of Iraq and the tragedy of Syria. The singular failure to protect human decency in those two countries over the last fifteen years, a legacy consisting of over one million civilian casualties, millions more refugees, and ultimately a complete disintegration of society into violence and barbarism, stands alone as the starkest indictment of liberal democracy today. It is, perhaps, our worst moment as a nation. Indeed, the only contentious debate fought over the Iraq war today concerns who opposed the deeply regrettable conflict first.
These failures of naive American idealism, along with a recognition of a resurgent realpolitik in the foreign policy of Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China, humbled even the foreign policy discourse of an otherwise raucous American presidential election. Secretary Clinton and President Trump may have championed the basic tenets of promoting democracy abroad, but their lip service is a far cry from the idealism of providential democracy commonplace among American politicians, including the candidates themselves, just some years ago. Narrowed realism, not boundless idealism, dominated foreign policy talking-points in 2016.
This change reflects not only a shift in the attitudes of the two candidates or even the policy elite, but a deeper shift in national sentiment toward uncertainty concerning America’s role abroad in the wake of Iraq and in the face of the complex political realities of 2016. The chaotic and uncertain nature of international politics today dictates that public discourse remain grounded in stability, order, peace, and a return to global growth. Indeed, more Americans than ever express the necessity for a far more realistic “America-first” political perspective on international dilemmas for this unpredictable age. Undoubtedly, the election of Donald Trump should signal as much.
To most, Syria represents a conundrum so complex it may not even warrant addressing at all. It is not that Americans or policymakers do not care. It is simply that through a realist perspective, there is not an upside to getting involved in Syria anymore.
I wrote a column last year urging Americans not to fall prey to extremist fear-mongering, to heed the legacy of Iraq in considering future interventions, and most importantly to keep American soldiers out of Syria, a potential quagmire so damning it could entangle American forces in another decade of conflict. This remains paramount today.
There stands an equal risk, if not even more perilous today, of becoming totally disillusioned by the conflict. Emerging American realism was instrumental to the cautious, deliberate, and largely effective foreign policy of the Obama administration. But there were moments where the overbearing, now culturally-ingrained legacy of Iraq prevented the administration from acting decisively when it was most necessary. Perhaps a more decisive American presence could have prevented the religious genocide, systematic destruction, and unprecedented refugee crisis that have befallen Syria and its people.
Perhaps it still can.
So far, however, President Trump has repeatedly signalled a total unwillingness to take on a greater involvement in Syria, going as far as to suggest he would cede the conflict to Putin and Assad. What are we, as peace-and-human-decency-loving Americans, to think of this?
While we are absolutely right to denounce as individuals and as a country the overly aggressive and idealistic interventionism of administrations past, the character of American power must not simply shift from imperialist to indecisive. Say what you will about the excesses of American military might, but by rightly or wrongly assuming the role of the so-called “world police” a generation ago, we precluded the emergence of truly just international adjudicators, and now bear the responsibility of protecting basic human rights around the world into the foreseeable future. An unbroken succession of administrations dating back to Wilson have more or less followed this precept, a near-sacred principle in American foreign policy that Trump’s rashness runs the risk of permanently overturning.
In a conflict so agonized by relentless, calculated attacks against civilian populations, which are crimes against humanity of the first order, the central question concerns not whether or not to intervene, but how to balance our realist tendency toward nonintervention with the serious responsibility of protecting human life and decency. This need to reconcile the American aversion to intervention and occupation with the responsibility of protecting humanitarian ideals has emerged as America’s central moral dilemma, not only in this conflict, but in the broader, post-Iraq foreign policy era as well.
The Obama administration has tended to operate on the cautious side of this calculation, with mixed results. His administration long emphasized its commitment to limited direct involvement of U.S. forces on the ground in Syria— a strict reading of the lessons of Iraq—despite political pressure from both Republicans and humanitarian activists to intervene more directly. Still, it cannot be said that Obama shied away from playing a heavy hand in the war’s course. American coordination with the Kurdish Peshmerga and a number of rebel groups, as well as continued cooperation with Iraqi armed forces, has proved decisive in supporting recent reconquests of major Islamic State strongholds in Syria and Iraq. The ongoing coalition air campaign against the Islamic State represents the most significant achievement yet towards an eventual resolution of the region’s strife, knocking infrastructure critical to their military and finance operations out of commission for the foreseeable future.
Despite these limited successes, the overriding political situation in Syria remains desperate. A patchwork of rebel organizations, many of which are U.S.-backed, has managed to maintain control over large areas of Syria’s western and northern territory, a political reality Putin and Assad are apparently intent on bombing into oblivion. And of course there is the ever-present Islamic State, which continues to wage its singularly barbaric brand of apocalyptic jihad from the east. Although Obama has made progress, Trump will still inherit a struggle against the extremists that is far from concluded.
Although the American effort charges on to the northern city of Mosul in Iraq, it has stalled in Syria. The Western promise to ultimately depose Assad and Putin’s insistence on his survival have transformed what began as a popular revolt into a proxy war between global superpowers, further entrenching all sides. While the recent accord signified a sliver of progress in an otherwise diplomatic slog, its breakdown underscored the mutual distrust and animosity which permeates the relationship and the conflict. Beginning the work of political reconciliation will only be the first step in the decades-long process needed to bring back any sort of long-term stability.
The final reading of Obama’s Syrian policy is that his stringent caution has avoided possible catastrophe at the cost of decisive success. While the administration’s reliance on local alliance networks rather than ground troops limited American exposure in the conflict, it also served to severely curb the U.S.’s ability to quickly adapt to the situation on the ground or leverage dispute resolutions with Russia. In hindsight, Obama’s preferred peace strategy—a negotiated deal involving the Russians that would phase out Assad over time—appears more of a folly today than it did at the outset of his last term.
But it is hard to disagree with the reasoning, at least initially, behind the administration’s restricted strategy. The costs of Iraq were simply too steep to even ponder the introduction of significant American ground forces—any posturing to the contrary was doomed to be written off as a bluff.
This was a lesson the administration learned early, when Assad crossed Obama’s infamous “red line” on chemical weapons in 2011 with essentially zero consequences. Putin, of course, took advantage of this American reluctance, asserting himself aggressively first in revolutionary Ukraine and then again in revolutionary Syria. After the fact, there was little the U.S. could do.
The so-called “no-fly zone” that would have grounded Syrian government jets was continually championed as an alternative, a position that often gave little thought to the political implications of its enforcement. The potential of a fatal incident with the Russians, much like the Syrian “red line,” was an unfathomable dilemma for a post-Iraq Obama administration.
Elected in 2008 partially as the “anti-war” candidate, President Obama just never had enough “credibility” to achieve a leveraged peace resolution with Russia in either Ukraine or Syria. The political impossibility for the Obama administration of following up on “bluffs” meant Assad and Putin always held the upper hand. The takeaway here is that any effective foreign policy relies on both carrots and sticks, or at least the threat of sticks, and when it is common international knowledge you will not or cannot come down with force, it is nearly impossible to keep rabble-rousers like Putin in check. In this regard, when Trump so humorously laments that American foreign policy makers have failed because the world knows what they are up to, he is right.
The foreign policy challenge the next administration faces will be reconciling the seemingly opposed lessons of the two eras. In other words, it must strike a foreign policy balance not so cautious it lacks credibility, yet not so zealous it acts without considering consequences.
Taking all this to mind, there remain for the Trump administration two possible courses of action. The first is retreat. This option would mean scaling back American support for anti-Assad rebels, rescinding demands for Assad’s removal, and effectively acknowledging America’s uninterest in participating in any sort of long, costly state-building process. Such an option would almost guarantee the survival of the Assad regime, Putin’s foremost strategic objective in the region.
There are, however, some serious advantages to this option that should be taken under consideration. It would do much to ease diplomatic tensions with Russia, diminishing the very real possibility of a drawn-out Cold War rematch in the twenty-first century. Secondly, it is likely that in such a scenario Assad and Putin, freed of any humanitarian constraints, would rapidly move to consolidate control of the country through swift and brutal force.
Terrible as it sounds, a prolonged continuation of the status quo would almost inevitably result in even greater casualties. If our ultimate aim is the protection of life and not the furthering of American interests, this is a serious, though clearly dubious, calculation that deserves consideration. Trump may very well choose this path of radical détente with Russia—with profound consequences for the standing geopolitical order.
The second—and perhaps less salient, given the outcome of the election—option is to escalate the pressure on Assad directly via a no-fly zone. This would be an aggressive first move for the new Trump administration, but given his preference for supposedly erratic foreign policy, various hawkish factions in the new administration may push this confrontational strategy. Though an impossibility for the Obama administration, it is likely the Trump administration, aided by an air of hawkishness and unpredictability, might be able to issue a more credible “bluff” that it will use force against jets in violation of a no-fly zone.
Still, it remains to be seen whether they would actually elect to do so, potentially at the risk of triggering an international incident. Moreover, the fallout from a failure to adequately respond to a violation would mire the new administration in a suffocating foreign policy controversy before it even had the chance to get off the ground. Certainly, the no-fly zone is a risky strategy. But its success would spell the best chances for a peaceable return to order and stability in Syria. If a full stop on Assad’s bombing operations could be achieved, it is hard to imagine how Russia could justify a continued confrontational military presence, and it is likely a leveraged, Obama-esque peace accord could be brokered. Most importantly, a successful no-fly zone would put an immediate end to the wanton destruction of life brought about by Assad’s daily bombings of civilian neighborhoods. It is a high-risk, high-reward strategy—but one that could make a bold statement for a Trump administration seeking international respect.
Because Trump framed his entire campaign as a radical departure from the “failed” policies of Obama and the establishment, it is likely the next administration will pursue a serious program to erase or reverse the outgoing president’s legacy. We can expect, then, that Trump’s foreign policy will be a departure from Obama’s reserved realism. His choices in Syria will say much about the direction he will take regarding the current geopolitical order. Cooperation with Russia would usher in a new international paradigm, legitimizing Putin’s unabashed aggressions and calling into question our commitment to NATO allies in Eastern Europe. A no-fly zone, on the other hand, runs the risk of igniting a twenty-first-century Cold War in point of fact.
Trump and his advisors will have to decide if the United States wants to do business with an autocrat who has gassed his own people and an international bully who unabashedly intimidates his neighbors. Unfortunately, there may be reason to believe that this is Trump’s best option. As Assad and the Russians come closer to outright victory, a no-fly zone may simply serve to prolong and confuse a conflict that has horrifyingly outlived its use.
Trump’s unpredictability may yet prove an unexpected asset. If Putin’s position is weakened and the opportunity arises to issue a credible “bluff” (preferably with wide Western support), Trump should jump at the chance to leverage meaningful Syrian political reforms and reassert American stability against the danger of the void. It is a strategy only Trump—with his trademarked cavalier bravado—could use to convince Putin and Assad he intends to follow through.
No matter which option Trump chooses, it is critical he base his deliberation on an American realism that befits our professed commitment to human rights. Otherwise, we are no better than the worst of our adversaries.