Recently Ross Douthat of The New York Times posted a lengthy piece on the Times‘ blog entitled “Syria and the Risks of Intervention.” It is perhaps the best piece of argumentation out there against the proposition (advanced here and elsewhere) that timely military support for armed Syrian nationalists “would have prevented more radical groups from getting traction in that conflict, and thus forestalled the rise of ISIS to its current bad eminence.” Douthat draws heavily on the work of George Washington University’s Marc Lynch, a thoughtful scholar. Although the view here is that a profound though still correctible error was made by President Barack Obama when he rejected the “arm the nationalists” advice of his top national security officials in the summer of 2012, the Douthat-Lynch counter-argument is worthy of reflection and rebuttal.
Douthat—a supporter of the administration’s current intervention against ISIS in Iraq—notes at the outset “as we’ve seen in Iraq lately, American armaments in the hands of putative allies and clients have a way of finding their way out of those hands…” The intended analogy here involves the Iraqi Army running away, leaving its weapons and equipment to ISIS, and what might have happened to weapons supplied to Syrian nationalists. But why not apply the analogy to something Douthat supports: arms for the Kurdish Peshmerga? Are they immune to defeat? Yes, the risk Douthat describes has been largely avoided in the case of Syria’s armed nationalist opposition. How do we like the results?
The heart of Douthat’s skepticism, however, resides in the view of Marc Lynch and others that the very fragmentation of the Syrian opposition and the differing interests of external backers would have made the whole undertaking mission impossible. “An effective strategy of arming the Syrian rebels… [w]ould have required a unified approach by the rebels’ external backers, and a unified rebel organization to receive the aid…” American diplomacy would have had to resolve differences between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey while staunching “huge private donations from the Gulf [that] flowed toward mostly Islamist-oriented groups.”
There is much in this argument that resonates positively. Yes, the United States would have had to assert its primacy in the process of who in the Syrian opposition got what. Yes, this may have entailed some hard, even unpleasant conversations with a variety of royals and at least one very headstrong prime minister. There are those who argue that a credible, George H.W. Bush-James Baker style assertion of US leadership would have brought leaders into line reasonably quickly. Let us accept, however, the proposition that the diplomatic lift would have been heavy indeed. Would it have been worth making?
Yes. Why, after all, should Kuwaiti leaders get a free pass on rich, stupid private Kuwaitis sending money to jihadists? Why would the tendencies of others to acquire employees instead of supporting Syrians seeking freedom from a murderous regime go unchallenged?
Douthat and Lynch are correct: the lift would have mandatory for US assistance to have been something other than “another bucket of water in an ocean of cash and guns pouring into the conflict.” Indeed, recent, post-Geneva 2, pre-ISIS-in-Iraq indicators of US interest in providing something resembling leadership have already helped to instill some supplier discipline. Still, the real diplomatic effort should have been made in mid-2012: post-Geneva 1. Yet Douthat has an answer for that as well: “even if that kind of diplomatic lift had been possible, the idea that the US could then identify reliable recipients for aid seemed dubious at best.”
As any number of US officials will truthfully testify, reliable recipients for aid—both lethal and non-lethal—have indeed been found and have been the beneficiaries of low-level US assistance for quite some time. The real debate (at least within the administration) has been over scale: doing things robustly enough to make a difference on the ground; arming, training, and equipping sufficiently to prevent the migration of young men to lavishly financed jihadist organizations and to enable nationalists to fight effectively in two directions—against the Assad regime and ISIS. The argument that even if external suppliers had been brought into line and even if supporters of al-Qaeda affiliates had been brought to heel nothing would have worked is unfair. The fact that reliable recipients were found and supplied with those conditions not in place would seem to suggest that successful diplomacy might well have enabled the desired results: a nationalist force capable of fighting, defending, and advancing in two directions.
Douthat’s insistence, therefore, that “A ‘moderate, vetted opposition’ means little when alliances are this fluid and organizational structures so weak” is circular. It assumes that the Obama administration—if the president had decided differently in 2012—would have had neither the wit nor the will to enforce supplier discipline, which in turn could have been used to create unity of command. It is prejudicially dismissive to say, in effect, “Nothing you would have or could have done would have produced anything better than what you have right now.”
Having dismissed the possibility of successful diplomacy either happening or having desired effects, Douthat then tilts at the windmill of a policy aimed only at creating chaos in Syria: something that has never been a US objective. Here his bottom line is that ISIS is a bigger threat to US interests than is Assad: “And when you have more to fear from what might fill the power vacuum than from the existing power, there’s a very strong case for restraint rather than risk-taking, for holding back rather than rushing in.”
This argument assumes that no amount of American effort and diplomatic success could ever have produced an alternative to ISIS and Assad. It ignores the role played by the Assad regime in helping to create ISIS. It sets to the side the fact that Assad and ISIS collaborate, in a de facto sense, in trying to erase altogether a nationalist opposition that has somehow survived US skepticism, supplier disunity, Assad barrel bombs, and ISIS savagery. It reduces everything to the binary, Assad v. ISIS formula that both sets of criminals so earnestly want for their own reasons, and judges Assad—the author of Syria’s vacuum—to be less bad.
Douthat is correct when he concludes by noting that it is not enough to say “look how bad things have ended up without our involvement [in Syria].” Still, had Barack Obama in mid-2012 been given a glimpse of what Syria (and, for that matter, Iraq) would look like in 2014 after two years of letting nature take its course, might he have chosen the course recommended by others? Yes, the president would have wanted “a plausible account of how that involvement would have worked, how it could have been made effective enough to matter, and how its significant risks would have been contained.”
That plausible account was never entertained. It was never even invited. It has been put forward in MENASource and elsewhere and has been based on precisely the kind of diplomatic heavy lifting preemptively dismissed as implausible. One hopes that the administration’s request of $500 million from Congress to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels reflects a ground-up interagency rethinking of what has gone wrong since 2012 and what needs to be done now to help Syrian nationalists survive and prevail. Is it plausible to aid those fighting Assad and ISIS? At this point “possible” may be good enough.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.