No More Utopian Dreams on Syria
The Eastern Ghouta region, which lies about 12 miles east of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s palace, is a smoldering ruin of ash, dust, and misery. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres’ depiction of Ghouta as “hell on earth” does not even begin to describe the scene. The Assad regime, with the support of Russian aircraft, has been engaged in a wide-ranging ground and air bombardment, and is now claiming that rebel groups entrenched in the city are using the civilians there as “human shields.”
As of March 20, more than 1,473 civilians have died in 30 days, including 301 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
With all the chaos and the bloodshed in Ghouta, calls from the Washington establishment for a more active and aggressive U.S. policy have inevitably grown louder. Foreign policy and defense officials from past administrations are recommending punitive military strikes against the Assad regime to compel compliance with Security Council resolutions. The analogy to Bosnia in the early 1990s is at the forefront of their arguments—if the U.S. could force Slobodan Milosevic to sue for peace with airstrikes, then surely we can do the same thing with Assad today.
What proponents of U.S. military intervention want us to believe is that any operation would be quick, easy, and painless. In reality, it would be anything but.
Indeed, the reason the United States has not undertaken such a large humanitarian operation of the sort Farkas describes is because it would likely exacerbate the conflict and drag us into a regional cauldron where much could be lost and little gained.
Simply put: were the Trump administration to authorize a military operation ostensibly to ease Syria’s suffering, the U.S. would be initiating yet another regime change campaign in the Arab world with zero clue about what the aftermath would bring; zero idea as to how the Russians and Iranians would respond; and zero assurance that far more powerful extremist groups would not fill the void. And, not to be forgotten, because Congress hasn’t provided statutory approval for a Bosnia-like air campaign against the Assad regime, there would be zero legal authority for the operation.
As difficult as it is to witness suffering, Washington cannot fix the political problems at the root of the violent struggle, and none of our core interests are threatened by what’s transpiring in Syria.
Russia, however, has great interests at stake. Moscow has shown throughout the past seven years of conflict that it is willing to devote significant military resources to saving Assad’s skin. Being the transactional pragmatist he is, Vladimir Putin has used all components of Russian military and diplomatic power to frustrate Western attempts to stem the bloodshed and promote a peace process that would end with the Syrian dictator’s removal from power. At considerable risk to its own international reputation, Moscow has leveraged its status as a permanent member of the Security Council to block a total of 11 resolutions against its Syrian client, practically shutting down the U.N. as a mechanism of conflict resolution.
Those in Western capitals love to explain Moscow’s constant obstruction in purely emotional terms, with the Russians branded as either difficult or, even worse, inhumane. Yet however morally satisfying it is to call Russia an enabler of a human rights calamity, such an explanation misses the forest for the trees. The central reason Russia is so invested in the Syrian government’s survival is, and always has been, realpolitik. For Moscow, it is preferable for a pro-Russian Assad regime to rule a ruined Syria than to accept a government that might be less accommodating.
Putin does not hold any fondness for Assad as a person, but he does see an Assad victory as the best possible outcome for Russia’s national interests, which include those military bases on Syrian territory. To Washington, Assad may be a thug and a war criminal, but to Russia, he is an ally willing to provide Moscow with some strategic depth in the region through half-century leases for naval facilities on the Mediterranean coast. The Russians have far more to lose than the U.S. has to gain from Assad’s removal—they are therefore open to investing more than America ever will and ever should.
At a time of constrained budgets and increasing multipolarity in the world, it’s time for the United States to once again accept international politics for what it is: an often brutal and never-ending contest for power where governments adapt their foreign policies to whatever they believe is best for the security and prosperity of their people.
That means Washington must stop draining the nation’s limited resources on missions that are utopian and, even worse, peripheral to vital U.S. interests. Great power politics is the name of the game.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.