"It's a pity they can’t both lose.” So Henry Kissinger famously said about Iran and Iraq during their long and ugly war in the 1980s. Having squandered the many opportunities created by the uprising in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and with the Syrian opposition increasingly dominated by al Qaeda-associated fighters, this has now become the de facto policy of the Obama administration.
Even accounting for Secretary of State John Kerry’s finely crafted expression of outrage at “the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons,” actions he called a “moral obscenity,” the White House remains strategically and militarily ambiguous. Interviewed on PBS NewsHour, President Obama repeatedly struck a “jaw-jaw” tone that undercut Kerry’s “war-war” speech. “I have not made a decision” to attack Syria, he told Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff.
The president also promised that, even if he does decide on military action, it won’t have much effect in Syria. The president is content to see Assad kill his own people—which he has done in the tens if not hundreds of thousands—as long as Assad doesn’t do so with chemical weapons. Obama intends to take “limited, tailored approaches,” firing a “shot across the bow.” Most of all, he assured the two anchors, he was “not getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq.”
While the president’s purpose in the interview clearly was a domestic political one, his message reinforces what is, in effect, a strategy of stalemate. It’s not exactly that Obama wants both sides to lose, but he clearly doesn’t want either the Syrian regime to survive—his original “red line” in Syria was not the use of weapons of mass destruction but that Assad “must go”—or a jihadist-led opposition to replace it. And, as his otherwise gratuitous Iraq reference made plain, he’s not willing to do what it takes to achieve a better outcome.
On the surface, this appears to be not a replay of Kissingerian wit but a cold kind of “realistic” strategic wisdom. The case for prolonging the war as much as possible was summarized by Edward Luttwak in the New York Times: “By tying down Mr. Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies in a war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s [Middle East] enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.”
If only it were so simple. Long-running, unresolved wars are extremely difficult to contain, to “limit,” or otherwise manage. They have a way of getting out of hand, particularly when one or more of the combatants is divinely inspired, as at least the al Qaeda fighters are in Syria. Take the Kissinger example, which consumed Iraq and Iran for just eight years, but the consequences of which endure to this day. In Iran, the war helped solidify the Khomeini regime and clerical rule; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s formative experience was as a basij fighter—the fanatically devoted troops thrown away in hopeless “human wave” attacks. Iran’s new president, the supposedly moderate Hassan Rouhani, served in a variety of senior command posts during the war. In Iraq, the war entrenched and further militarized the rule of Saddam Hussein. Left with an army he could not afford to stand down, Saddam turned it toward Kuwait and the long road of confrontation with the United States. The Iran-Iraq war truly had no winners.
It is also true that there are no easy answers to the war in Syria—the opportunities of the last few years are gone. But America’s failure to act has allowed things to get worse, if not actually made them worse. Letting things get still worse is not merely a moral obscenity but a grave strategic miscalculation. And, by intervening fecklessly for the narrow purpose of upholding a “norm” observed only by ourselves, we are very likely to make things worse.
The Syrian war is no longer a “civil war” between Syrian factions. It has become a struggle for regional power—with an Iranian-Shia axis facing off against a more disparate Sunni Gulf states-al Qaeda axis—that is limited mostly by the incompetence of the combatants. It’s a danger that only a realist could fail to see.