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Three Lessons from Nine Years of Conflict in Syria


“However much Americans and their leaders may want to turn away from wars and atrocities geographically far away, sooner or later they will be impacted by them, usually in a jarring and harmful way.”

Nine years ago this month, in the early months of what the world was calling the Arab Spring, Syrians began protesting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Whereas Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had given in to their countries’ protests and relinquished power peacefully, Assad had no intention of compromising with his critics in the slightest. In March 2011, the government’s violent responses to unrest began, including the torture of children and the shooting of protestors. Since then, Syria has become the site of one of the most devastating conflicts since World War II, and it now features the massive, tragic humanitarian catastrophe of nearly a million refugees trapped near the Turkish border.

There are any number of lessons observers could draw from the Syrian war. With America in its nineteenth year of continuous combat in Muslim-majority countries (and its people weary of wars that seem never to have any end in sight), it would be understandable for U.S. policymakers to conclude that intervention in a place like Syria is futile. Why, an American can reasonably ask, should U.S. troops be thrust into a conflict thousands of miles away, in a country that has not attacked the United States, when there are so many problems to attend to at home? But if this is the conclusion America’s leaders reach, it will have terrible consequences, not just for America, but for the world.

It would be far better if current and future policymakers, instead, learned three other lessons from the last nine years. First, alliances with liberty and democracy at their core are vital to American interests, both strategic and moral. Second, while it is easy to fear the uncertainty of democracy and opt instead for the security that autocrats say they can provide, America has more to gain by embracing peoples’ democratic aspirations, rather than the short-term illusion of stability. And third, despite the public’s weariness with “endless wars,” the U.S. must maintain the ability to intervene swiftly in future crises—and develop the willingness to intervene early on rather than let conflicts grow and fester. 

The belief in non-intervention assumes the U.S. can safely ignore problems on other continents and not be affected by them. Already the flow of refugees, not just from Syria but from across the Middle East and northern Africa, has strained European countries’ ability to shelter them. This has, in turn, produced a populist, often reactionary backlash. While far fewer refugees have come to the U.S., then-candidate Donald Trump’s demagogic rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, including his call for a Muslim ban, contributed to his victory while exacerbating toxic political polarization. The rise of Trump, Brexit, the ongoing rule of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the power of Italy’s League, Poland’s Law and Justice, and Vladimir Putin’s popularity in parts of Europe, all stem, in part, from Americans’ attempts to ignore or downplay the Syrian conflict.

The recent battles between Turkey and its allies among the Syrian opposition, on one side, and the Assad regime and its ally Russia, on the other, show the world that the war in Syria is not over. Assad has not reasserted control over the entire country. While his and Putin’s air forces have brutally bombed civilians (including in hospitals) in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, Assad has also had to deal with uprisings in the southern city of Deraa. There is still hope for a decent outcome: one acceptable to the conscience of the free world.

What hope there is of ending Assad’s reign, or even of significantly weakening his grip on power, is largely because Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has stayed in Syria and continued fighting, while Western leaders, led by President Trump, have either stayed out or begun to leave. This helps to show the value of an alliance like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), one committed to liberal democratic values even when some of its member states do not adhere to them. Turkey’s conflict with Russia and Assad shows there is still hope for the opposition, even if it comes from a less than optimal source.

It is certainly troubling that Erdoğan has silenced critical news outlets, arrested domestic opponents, attacked the Kurdish-led forces that have pushed back ISIS and kept former militants from escaping, and purchased Russian S-400 missiles rather than American-made Patriots. Nevertheless, Erdoğan’s Turkey is the only country willing to take a stand against much more brutal regimes as they deliberately kill civilians and try to keep humanitarian aid from reaching refugees. A deeply flawed, illiberal regime that is still in part democratic can still do some good in the world, and those who believe in liberal democracy and worry about its future should not disregard Turkey’s positive role in Syria, even as they cheer for the opposition to Erdoğan within Turkey.

The fact that Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952 gives it a link to the liberal democracies of the West, a tie that, if nothing else, helps leave open the possibility of liberal democracy resurging in Turkey (there have been signs of this in the past year, as Erdoğan opponents have won elections in Istanbul and Ankara). Yes, Turkey has its own national interests keeping it in Syria: a suspicion that U.S.-supported Kurdish forces are terrorists in disguise, as well as a desire not to see any more refugees come onto its soil (there are 3.5 million already). But the fact that Turkish soldiers train and engage in operations alongside other NATO service members links Turkey to NATO values, just as NATO membership links Poland and Hungary to liberal democratic values even as their present governments turn their backs on them.

There is a striking parallel between Erdoğan’s distancing Turkey from the West and Charles de Gaulle’s similar efforts to move France out of the United States’s orbit. Both moves were made by nationalist leaders who wanted their countries to be less dependent on the U.S. De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s unified military structure in 1966, and the country did not rejoin it until 2009. Nevertheless, in that forty-three year interval, French, American, and other NATO-member forces saw action together in NATO operations (Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan) and other missions (peacekeeping in Lebanon, the war against Saddam Hussein in 1991). A combination of inertia, shared interests in many cases, and the sentimental attachment of allies assured they would not drift too far apart. The same can be true for Turkey—if NATO survives as a force to be reckoned with.

Throughout the Cold War, and for most of the time since its end, the U.S. preferred a stable Middle East over one in which democracy stood a real chance of flourishing. Despite President Barack Obama’s vocal, repeated, public insistence that the time had come for Assad to step down, there are definitely precedents for the U.S. standing by as a dictator massacred his people. Richard Nixon continued sending military aid to Pakistan as its military carried out genocide in what is now Bangladesh. Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds did nothing to temper President Ronald Reagan’s support for him. And while the U.S. paused military aid to Egypt after General Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s coup in 2013, it has stood by while Sisi has presided over a dictatorship even more brutal than Mubarak’s.

Contrary to many Westerners’ fears, when democracy has emerged in the Middle East in the last decade, it has taken benign forms. In Tunisia, the most powerful parties since 2011 have been the secular Nidaa Tounes (until last year the largest party in the legislature) and the Muslim democratic Ennahda, the winner of the first post-Ben Ali election and the largest part in the current government. Fears that Ennahda would be authoritarian and religiously zealous were unfounded, as the party has abandoned proselytizing and become a purely political organization. Likewise, when the Muslim Brotherhood governed Egypt from 2011 to 2013, it did not attempt to turn the country into an Iran-style theocracy. President Mohammad Morsi did seize excessive amounts of power before he was overthrown, but he hardly ruled with a heavier hand than Sisi has. Egypt’s liberals have suffered far more under the current military regime than they did under the Brotherhood.

A movement need not be liberal in order to deserve the sympathies of liberal democrats in the West. Illiberal democracy may not be the optimal form of government, but it is preferable to dictatorship of any kind. Even supposedly liberal, liberalizing, or modernizing autocrats, those that protect property rights and open markets while cracking down on extremist movements, are hardly bastions of freedom (as the victims of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet knew all too well). Popular support, the support of large portions of a population fighting to overthrow tyrants and determine their own destinies, combined with a rejection of ideologies that are nearly or equally bad, is reason enough for support.

Before 2011, the U.S. cooperated with Assad, as when it sent him suspected terrorists to torture, and prominent American politicians, including then-Senator John Kerry and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, visited him in the hope that the U.S. could turn him into a modernizing force in the region. And in the early years of the conflict, as Assad lost ground and pressure grew for Obama to help push him out, the United States’s two most prominent practitioners and advocates of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger and the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, both opposed intervention, citing the traditional realist concerns of order and stability. Critics of intervention, even before the emergence of ISIS, feared undermining Assad would empower hardline Islamists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

But the truly terrible factions of the non-ISIS opposition were few and far between, and they inflicted far less damage on the Syrian people than Assad and Putin have. Meanwhile, ISIS by early 2014 famously became too extreme even for Al Qaeda, and it frequently fought against other rebel groups. The choice between Assad and the violent zealots was a false one.

And, surely, President Obama would have looked less like a fool if, instead of calling for Assad to go and doing nothing to push him out, he had worked diligently to force him out regardless of whether he made a public call for regime change or not.

Was there a genuine chance for democracy taking root in Syria if Assad were defeated on the battlefield? And could early U.S. intervention have helped bring it about? By 2013, when Assad unleashed chemical weapons against civilians and President Obama refused to retaliate, the Syrian opposition and rebel forces consisted of a wide range of groups: some Islamist, some avowedly democratic, some Kurdish, and in one case led by a Christian despite its members being largely Sunni Muslim. If the U.S. had aided some of these groups, both by putting weapons in their hands (as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus proposed doing) and by launching airstrikes against Assad’s troops, it would have done far more to help the Syrian people than it has done by sitting on the sidelines while Assad and Putin have created a complete humanitarian catastrophe.

For the long term, though, there are three things the U.S. must do. This is not only for Syria (should intervention later be deemed necessary and feasible) but also for other countries that may face similar horrors.

Early action may not have overthrown Assad, but it could have weakened him sufficiently to force him to negotiate some of his power and territory away. This is what happened to Yugoslavia’s genocidal president Slobodan Milošević in 1995 and 1999, both times after being militarily defeated by NATO. And, surely, President Obama would have looked less like a fool if, instead of calling for Assad to go and doing nothing to push him out, he had worked diligently to force him out regardless of whether he made a public call for regime change or not.

What can the U.S. do now? It is certainly good that both Presidents Obama and Trump placed sanctions on the Syrian regime. President Obama first did so in 2011, and again in his last month in office. And last year, the Caesar Act, legislation to institute very wide-ranging sanctions on anyone deemed responsible for mass atrocities in Syria, became law as part of America’s annual defense appropriations bill. For the long term, though, there are three things the U.S. must do. This is not only for Syria (should intervention later be deemed necessary and feasible) but also for other countries that may face similar horrors.

First, the U.S. must recommit fully to NATO. For all the faults of its members, NATO is the only alliance with a long enough reach and a large enough capacity and capability to confront the likes of Putin and Assad in Europe and the Middle East. The United States is already moving in this direction: the Army’s V Corps (on mainland Europe) and the Navy’s Second Fleet (in the North Atlantic), which were both deactivated early this decade in the belief that major conflict in their zones of responsibility was highly unlikely, have been reactivated in 2020. There are also proposals for more troops in Germany, more ships in Spain, and the first permanent U.S. troop deployment to Poland, all of which would help shore up the alliance.

Although Turkey appears to be going ahead with its deployment of Russian S-400 missiles, the U.S. should offer to sell them Patriot missiles instead, if they are willing to dismantle the Russian-made systems. America could even offer to pay for the dismantling, if it helped seal the deal. The U.S. should also offer to sell M1 Abrams tanks to Poland, the better to help it deter direct Russian military aggression, or to push back against such aggression should it occur.

But as the U.S. reinvests in the alliance, it should make clear that it values liberal democracy within the member states’ borders. In Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and other countries that have seen backsliding, U.S. diplomats and visiting high-ranking U.S. officials should meet not only with their host governments, but with the domestic opposition as well. A reinvigoration of both military strength and faith in the institutions of freedom is what NATO and its members need to continue being one of the best hopes for humanity on the international stage.

Second, the U.S. must finally choose democracy in the Middle East over the illusion of stability. This does not mean imposing democracy on countries but rather buttressing democracy where it emerges. In Tunisia—where the Arab Spring will celebrate its tenth birthday in less than a year—the U.S. can help democracy thrive through economic policy. In addition to the $335 million in financial aid promised last year, Washington should offer to begin negotiations for a bilateral trade promotion agreement. The U.S. can also provide targeted economic assistance to Lebanon—a struggling democracy dealing with the results of decades of corruption and mismanagement—to help economically vulnerable Lebanese, without empowering the terrorist group Hezbollah (part of the governing coalition). Coupled with this, the U.S. should immediately cut off military aid to Egypt until democracy reemerges there.

Finally, the United States must develop and maintain the capability to intervene swiftly in future conflicts like the Syrian civil war to prevent them from spiraling out of control and having jarring impacts on the U.S. and its allies. Even as the Pentagon asserts that it is preparing for an era of “great-power conflict” with Russia and China, it remains in the United States’s interest to have units prepared to fight in the next Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya or Syria. Creating a United States Foreign Legion, similar to the famous French Foreign Legion, would give the U.S. a rapid reaction force that could be quickly inserted into a conflict zone. This would provide the U.S. with boots on the ground, as well as missiles overheard. As Sean McFate, a former US Army officer and an expert in national security strategy, has noted, this would also provide Washington with an alternative to hiring private military contractors to do the dangerous jobs that it does not want to assign to Americans in uniform.

It would also behoove the world’s most powerful democracy to have more men and women around the world assessing tense situations, helping to keep them from deteriorating into violence. The U.S. should greatly expand the size of its Foreign Service, giving Washington more eyes and ears in potential conflict areas before the conflicts emerge. The U.S. also needs more diplomats willing to speak up and warn their government about the dangers of current policy: Richard Holbrooke in South Vietnam, Archer Blood in East Pakistan—and Robert Ford in Syria.

In the highly interconnected world of the 21st century, no conflict remains local for very long. However much Americans and their leaders may want to turn away from wars and atrocities geographically far away, sooner or later they will be impacted by them, usually in a jarring and harmful way. Paying attention and acting early, difficult though they may be, are far better than ignoring an unpleasant sight in the vain hope it will go away. The last nine years in Syria show this all too well.

Michael D. Purzycki is a staff writer at Charged Affairs, the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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