Foreign Policy Blogs

Is Obama’s Syria Policy Defensible?


As the conflict drags on, civilian death tolls mount, and more refugees are created, how could the answer be yes? On October 6, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reprinted tweets by victims of Syrian military atrocities, concluding that non-intervention in Syria “has been [Obama’s[ worst mistake, a huge blot on his legacy.”

Meanwhile, the same day’s Times Opinion page included a column by former Obama Administration National Security Council officials Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson (“Don’t Intervene in Syria”) defending the president’s stance. Simon and Stevenson argue non-intervention is not paralyzed inaction; it is a considered action, deemed to be the best U.S. response to the problem.

Both columns agree that the overarching U.S. goal should be saving Syrian lives. Diverging views emerge over whether introducing U.S. force would do so, or whether U.S. engagement should have a purely humanitarian focus.

So has President Obama has been taking the “least bad” course for the U.S. on Syria? Reflecting on the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy interventions, the answer is yes.

Obama’s ‘Hippocratic Oath’

In caring for patients, a physician swears an oath to “first do no harm”. The urge to “do something” in the face of a health crisis is overwhelming, but taking the wrong action can be just as deadly. President Obama’s Syria stance is a sort of ‘Hippocratic Oath’ of foreign policy: above all, do not add to the problem. Following the aftermath of U.S. invasion of Iraq, this position is understandable both politically and in terms of practical problem solving.

Politically, is there any way an American public would support another protracted U.S. war in the Middle East? Despite some election year drumbeating for greater U.S. intervention, it is hard to imagine that a U.S. public still healing divisions over Iraq would support another large-scale U.S. intervention in the Middle East. For now, however, assume intervention would be popular, or at least tolerable: what would “success” in Syria mean for the U.S.? What new responsibilities would the U.S. be taking on?

The short and long-term answers to both questions are daunting. Success would surely mean on overthrow of the Assad regime and introduction of a more democratic Syrian government—similar to the U.S. goals in Iraq. Unlike Iraq, however, Syria is embroiled in civil conflict now, when U.S. intervention is being considered. Historically, major powers have not intervened in civil wars out of pure altruism: they have a strategic goal in mind. France did not aid the U.S. in the Revolutionary War out of neighborly duty: it wanted to weaken archrival England and knock it out of North America. Syria is already a fault line in the U.S.-Russia relationship, and President Obama’s advisors are rightly concerned about the possibility of U.S. intervention morphing into a protracted proxy war with the Syrian people caught in the middle.

Alternatively, if the U.S. were to mount a full-scale invasion and overthrow Assad by force, it would own the results (Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” rule.) The Obama Administration has aimed to pivot U.S. foreign policy attentions from Europe and quagmires in the Middle East to productive relations in Asia. Having extricated America from Iraq, President Obama is rightly hesitant to leave his successor with another long term U.S. Middle East commitment in its place.

Limited Engagement May Get Limited Results

Kristof’s caveat in supporting further U.S. engagement in Syria (“Of course, we shouldn’t send in ground troops”) mirrors the debate over NATO engagement in the Balkans in the mid-1990s. In that conflict, the strategic danger of committing to only partial military response (“no boots on the ground”) was discussed at the outset: if limited engagement does not work, then what?

In addition to telegraphing a signal of America’s partial investment in the conflict, limiting engagement also risks committing forces without achieving goals. The dangers of committing ground troops to Syria are obvious following the U.S. experience in Iraq. The NATO experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina may well suggest that air power alone could go a long way toward ending the conflict. There is an inherent risk, however, in placing more Syrian lives at risk from the air in the name of helping them.

Arms are Fungible

Even the strategy of arming Syrian rebels, which scratches the intervention itch while keeping U.S. forces at a safe remove, has issues. Using the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” calculation, it is difficult to know for certain that today’s friends will not be tomorrow’s enemies. The U.S. had many experiences with tenuous and temporary alliance relationships over Iraq.

But it can go back to the experience of the Afghan Mujahideen for a clear example. At the time, Islamic militias in Afghanistan were allies in opposing the Soviet invasion. Only years later, Islamic militias—and militant Islam in general—was a problem in Afghanistan the U.S. was fighting an uphill battle to solve. The game changes quickly, especially when the players are not established allies, and erstwhile allies can use the weapons you provided against you.

None of this is meant to suggest the Syrian civil war is not a humanitarian catastrophe begging for a solution. It is the kind of crisis the United Nations was designed to address collectively, both in humanitarian terms and, if necessary, militarily. U.S. refugee policy could better reflect the nation’s commitment to Syrian innocents.

But President Obama is correct to be extremely cautious about the use of U.S. military power in the Middle East following the Iraq invasion. That caution does not reflect political dithering, but rather a grasp of the enormity of the challenge involved in stabilizing that region. President Obama’s own UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, coined a term in a book about America’s response to genocide that is apt for Syria today: it is “a problem from Hell.”



Michael Crowley

Mike Crowley received his MA with distinction from The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in American Foreign Policy and European Studies in 2003 and his MFA in Classical Acting from The Shakespeare Theatre Company/George Washington University in 2016. He has worked at the Center for Strategic International Studies, Akin Gump, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. He's an actor working in Washington, DC and a volunteer at the National Gallery of Art, and he looks for ways to work both into his blog occasionally.