What should our policy with respect to Syria be? What do we want to happen?
Although it’s nine months old, in the light of recent developments I found this analysis by Thanassis Cambanis at The Century Foundation useful in considering those questions.
First, what has our policy been? In effect whether deliberately or accidentally the U. S. strategy has had the following components:
- We have engaged in limited military intervention preventing any side from winning outright.
- We have provided support to neighboring countries
- We have provided support for Syrian refugees.
IMO the second two of those are practical, productive, warranted, and even necessary; the first has been counter-productive.
As to what our policy should be, Mr. Cambanis lists these as our alternative objectives:
- Assad, and nothing else. Promote an outright Assad victory. Supporters of this approach argue that Assad’s rule is more stable than any alternative. If the United States made a full about-face, it could pull support from rebels and pressure allies to do the same, and signaling that it would accept consolidation of Assad’s power.
- Full withdrawal. Close down the covert rebel aid program, even curtailing or stopping the war against the Islamic State group. Such a course would probably come as part of a wider embrace of U.S. isolationism.
- Attack only Islamic State. Abandon any military involvement, direct or indirect, unless it is entirely concerned with Islamic State, and not the Syrian government.
- Partial withdrawal with humanitarian enhancement. Give up on influencing the prospect of a political solution, and decide that the United States will only take actions aimed to reduce death toll and displacement, and contain cross-border spillover of conflict. Increase non-military aid to bordering countries.
- Balancing the civil war and containing its spillover (the status quo). Provide military and financial assistance so that rebels do not lose, but not enough so they can make advances. Contribute to palliative humanitarian care, but not enough to actually contain refugee crisis.
- Enhanced containment. Intervene militarily and promote a negotiated settlement that includes all major parties, Syrian and foreign. Increase military action by advisers, proxies, and allies designed to reduce civilian death and displacement, and increase risk to Syrian government and allied forces of engaging in indiscriminate bombings and shelling. Deepen collaboration with unsavory rivals (Russia, Iran, Syrian government) to promote negotiated settlement, along with a renewed willingness to confront those rivals.
- Regime change. Give rebels sufficient military support to overthrow government and take Damascus, knowing such a course will likely result in a long, continuing civil war and further sectarian reprisals, with no natural successor to Assad on the horizon.