Syria: The Risk Factor

Perhaps the single greatest cause of Obama administration paralysis on Syria is the president’s assessment of risks involved in departing significantly from his current policy. Indeed, risks embedded in reviving a credible threat of military strikes to mitigate mass murder, in resuscitating and expanding the military capabilities of a diminished nationalist opposition, in encouraging and supporting the creation of an alternate government on Syrian soil, and in working purposefully for the removal of the Assad regime and its replacement by something decent, are considerable. Yet that which is glaringly missing from administration calculations of risk and reward is the risk associated with pursuing its present course.

Imagine someone prescient enough to have predicted in March 2011 that within three years Syria—a pivotal state in the heart of a critical region—would be the site of a world-class humanitarian meltdown and the host for criminal, terrorist entities ranging from a clan-based, rump regime to a motley collection of jihadists, including al-Qaeda affiliates. Imagine this prophet of doom credibly and convincingly describing how US allies and friends in the region would be affected by the spillover effects of Syria’s one-way, express lane trip to state failure. Imagine him or her persuasively warning that nationalist, non-sectarian opponents of the regime would need robust support lest the terrorists on both sides of Syria’s divide were to succeed in dividing the playing field between them, to the potential peril of all of Syria’s neighbors. Imagine this Cassandra painting a verbal picture of human suffering so heartbreaking as to inspire a President of the United States to say “Never again, and certainly not on my watch.”

Is it remotely possible that President Obama, had he known in March 2011 what Syria and its neighborhood would look like in March 2014, would have taken the same approach to this hellish problem that he has taken? No: it is absolutely unthinkable. Had he known then what would have happened if Syria been left to its own devices to swirl down the drain he would have been consumed with finding the appropriate stopper. Many of the steps deemed risky now would have been implemented starting in the second half of 2012, once it became clear that neither the Assad regime nor its external supporters were the least bit interested in implementing the Geneva agreement reached in June of that year. Had he known what Syria would be in March 2014 Barack Obama would have seen an arm’s-length, rhetoric-heavy, bet-on-Russian-goodwill approach to the crisis as the ultimate in reckless risk-taking.

The purpose of gazing into the rear-view mirror is not to subject the president and his advisors to a judgment made possible only by 20-20 hindsight. Yes, there were people in government in March 2011 who could see Syria headed for unmitigated disaster. Were they able to predict the extent of the looming catastrophe? No. Did they have the credibility to counter the “Assad is a near-term goner” sentiment then prevailing in the White House? No.

The point of looking back now is to put in perspective the assessment of risk for the future. Because the Assad regime (with one glaring exception in August 2013) has been careful to bring the cauldron of humanitarian and political catastrophe to a boil one degree at a time, the current situation—an abomination by any standard—has somehow become the acceptable standard against which risk is measured. Fine: if we are minimally comfortable with today’s human suffering and its impact on US allies and friends; if we can live for the moment with Syria’s de facto partition between two sets of mercilessly criminal terrorists; if, in sum, we have become numb to the sheer enormity of the catastrophe, do we think things will improve on their own six months or six years from now? Shall we knowingly repeat our collective failure of imagination and act—or not act—accordingly?

Are there risks involved in a fundamental change of policy direction? Most assuredly. Will arms and equipment intended to rebuild the capabilities of nationalist, non-jihadist opposition forces sometimes find their way into the wrong hands? Count on it. Will an alternate government established under the patronage of the London 11 core group of the Friends of the Syrian People need a lot of help and still perform at levels far below perfection? Absolutely. Would a full-court diplomatic press on Iran to get its client out of the war crimes and crimes against humanity business be frustrating, time-consuming, and maybe futile? Of course. If the only remaining alternative to stop or slow the human slaughter is to target airstrikes on regime artillery, aircraft, rockets, and missiles, might there be errors, inadvertent civilian casualties, US losses, and outrage on the part of Russia and Iran? You bet.

There are no free rides in any of this. Policy options should be bracketed between two absolutely unacceptable outcomes: American boots on the ground, and accepting the continuation and growth of the abomination wrecking Syria and threatening the neighborhood. At a minimum, however, there should be solid appreciation of the fact that nothing—absolutely nothing—is risk free. The arm’s-length approach to Syria—although fully understandable if one sees Iraq as the one-size-fits-all template, the slippery slope as the only policy-relevant piece of terrain, and “someone else’s civil war” as the sum total of Syria’s significance—has turned out to be a losing roll of the dice. There is nothing risk-averse about the present course—far from it. Those inclined to double-down on this catastrophically losing bet should at least assess the risks of doing so and weigh them against the risks associated with alternatives.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: President Barack Obama talks with Amb. Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, following a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 12, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)