The inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what’s happened in Syria.
Do the horrific pictures of refugees from Syria make you want to condemn the West and the United States for not acting sooner and bolder to end Syria’s civil war?
Do you scoff at the latest U.S. plan to field a more competent rebel force against the Islamic State in Syria as too little, too late or call it an otherwise strategically misplaced effort because the real problem is the country’s murderous President Bashar al-Assad?
Have at it. The fallout from four years of civil war — the refugees and displaced people, the torture, violence, and killing, the destruction of entire cities and the inroads it has afforded the Islamic State — has made the situation in Syria a moral, humanitarian, and strategic crisis for which the West and the international community certainly bears some responsibility. At a minimum, more might have been done.
But if you’re going to chastise the West — or, more specifically, the United States and Europe for their callousness and incompetence (see here, here, and here) — you first need to acknowledge that there are certain inconvenient truths about who’s really responsible for the Syrian tragedy and the level and scale of that responsibility.
To read both the analysts and editorialists lately, you might think that the United States in particular bears the lion’s share of the blame for the horrors now unfolding. Even an article on Foreign Policy by Fred Hof (who is one of the best and most levelheaded analysts of Syria in the business) carries a line charging the Obama administration with responsibility for the dead Syrian children washing up on Europe’s shores.
Do you want to assess fairly and soberly who’s responsible for this crisis and tragedy? Follow my logic chain:
First, the primary responsibility for the Syrian civil war and the horrors we now see lies not with the West, but with the murderous policies of the Assad regime. As with any epidemic, Assad is patient zero, the source of the contagion. Almost everything he has done has made matters worse, subsequently opening the door to gains by the Islamic State and creating the initial flows of displaced Syrians and refugees.
Too obvious a point you say? Hardly. It is the fundamental and primary point of departure for further discussion of the placement of principal responsibility for the crisis and any lasting solution. And it needs to be repeated over and over again. Why? Because Syria first and foremost is a Syrian and an Arab problem, part and parcel of a Middle East that is broken, angry, and so dysfunctional that it’s in a class all by itself, giving new meaning to the word “hopeless.” It is so torn apart and riven with sectarian, political, and religious hatreds and confrontations that it seems beyond the capacity of any external party to remedy.
And this is precisely where the chastisers make their mistake. They infantilize this region by assuming that only the West can save it or even begin to make it right. Right now, nobody can. Any real hope of redemption must rest with a recognition on the part of those who live and presume to lead in this region that they must assume the major responsibility for their own fate and destiny.
Second, are those who live in this region assuming that kind of responsibility? I think we know the answer. We can expect nothing in the way of collective responsibility from the myriad Syrian factions and leaders that make up this bloody civil war. From Assad, to the Islamic State, to al-Nusra Front, to the scant few rebels the United States has trained, none of these groups speak for a coherent, well-governed, ecumenical, and tolerant Syria. Each has its own agenda, and right now all are in conflict and impervious to the West’s influence. Certainly, the frontline states that border Syria — Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey — are trying at considerable risk and expense to themselves to cope with the refugees flowing into their countries. But their capacity to do so is at best limited. Not to mention the consequences for a country like Lebanon or Jordan of accepting large numbers of refugees, who could create political tensions and security challenges in their own right and stress social support networks that are hard pressed to provide adequately for the country’s own disadvantaged. Then there are the different agendas of the frontline states. In Lebanon, Shiite Hezbollah is Assad’s key ally. And in the case of Turkey, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s policies toward Syria have much more to do with weakening and attacking Syrian Kurds there — and setting up a buffer zone along the border to prevent them from establishing a base of operations — than they do with aiding refugees.
As for the other Arab states (Saudi Arabia in particular), their motives are shaped in large measure by a desire to back their favorite jihadis in Syria in an effort to get rid of Assad and stop Iran from spreading its influence. Sure, they have thrown money at the refugee problem. But how many Syrian refugees have the Gulf states actually welcomed into their own countries, and how active have they been in pushing other international actors to absorb refugees? Kuwait is something of an exception on financial aid as the world’s third-largest donor. But given the vast amount of wealth that exists in the Gulf and the paucity of resources that Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey have to cope with absorbing refugees, the Gulf Arabs, particularly the Saudis, could do much more. On the military side, the Gulf states and Jordan have flown combat missions against the Islamic State, but their participation is symbolic. And while I see Saudi Arabia and the UAE — even Egypt — sending forces to Yemen, where are the Arab special forces organizing to fight the Islamic State or Assad in Syria? The Arabs look westward for salvation. But they refuse to accept responsibility for the mess and monsters in their own backyard. Above all, Syria, and the way the Arab states have long coddled the Assads for years now, is first and foremost an Arab problem. Instead of whining and blaming it on the United States, they ought to own up and man up.
Third, want to pin much of the responsibility for the refugee crisis on the West? Go ahead and try. But before you blast the United States and Europe, you might want to single out Russia, China, and Iran as far more callous and contemptible actors. Save most of your outrage and indignation for them. Without their support and acquiescence, the Assad regime might have collapsed long before millions were displaced and the spread of the Islamic State in Syria became a reality. Indeed, perhaps as much as any other factor, it was Iranian and Russian support for Assad that enabled the Islamic State to cement its hold in large parts of Syria. Assad’s atrocities and mass murder alienated Sunnis and enabled the Islamic State to play on the fears and anger of the aggrieved and to recruit jihadis for its enterprise. Blame former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq for the Islamic State’s rise and Barack Obama’s early exit from Iraq for its spread there. But Tehran and Moscow’s continued support for Assad — with a good deal of help from the Lebanese Hezbollah — sustained the Islamic State’s fortunes.
Finally, what about the United States and the vaunted notion — popular among the president’s critics — that only had the United States led, the Syrian crisis might have been averted, preempted, or somehow been made less violent and bloody. Isn’t the United States largely responsible for abdicating its leadership role and thus prolonging the crisis? No argument in the world is going to convince those who believe that the Obama administration should have or could have done more to save Syria that in fact there were few good options available to do precisely that. Even those who reportedly recommended a more muscular policy during Obama’s first term — Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, and Leon Panetta — were not considering the kinds of direct and forceful U.S. military actions that might have fundamentally altered the battlefield balance and brought Assad down or forced a political transition to get him out, particularly in the face of Iran and Russia’s opposition. In fairness to the president’s critics, though, we’ll never know because not much was ever tried.
But that’s precisely the point. Those who expected more from Obama on Syria consistently misread his willful determination to avoid militarizing the U.S. role there. And once the United States joined Iran in secret negotiations in 2012 and the Islamic State began beheading Americans and threatening Iraq, the chances of serious military action against Assad — out of concern over alienating Iran or strengthening Islamic State jihadis — dropped to near zero.
In short, criticize Obama as much as you want; blast him for pursuing an amoral policy that failed to alert the American public to the tragedy of Syria or its damage to U.S. interests. But don’t give him a test he couldn’t possibly have passed.
I recently argued in this space that like death and taxes, Obama’s risk-averse Syria policy was virtually inevitable. The impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lead him to a conclusion that he wasn’t going to invest in another open-ended military campaign that might have shackled America with the burden of another trillion-dollar social science experiment on nation-building. A risk-averse Congress and public made that easier to rationalize, as did a 2013 CIA report sent to the president that analyzed how interceding in civil wars usually fails or makes matters worse, the New York Times reported last October. But if you wanted someone to save Syria or at least do more to ameliorate the disaster it has now become, you would have needed a different kind of president, different times and circumstances, and frankly better allies and less determined enemies.
If you still believe that I’m just rationalizing and making excuses and that determined U.S. leadership could have cut through all of that and stopped — or at least made better — the disaster we see now, I’m not going to change your mind.
But as you tally up the ledger on who is primarily responsible for the Syrian crisis we see now and why it’s so hard to fix, be fair and realistic about it. Chastise on. But just make sure the United States isn’t at the top of your list. America just doesn’t belong there.