Second-guessing President Obama while still in office never gets tiring for Team Ezra, you know. Max Fisher declares Syria lost and it being Obama’s fault, because hey, why not?
There was a time before Syria was a paradox, before it was unsolvable. It’s difficult to say for sure when that time ended, when the window closed. And policy analysts and historians will surely debate, for years to come, what specific US actions — had the US acted when the window was open — might have best addressed Syria’s war.
But it is clear that, at the very least, there was a period of time when the US had a range of options that could have led to a range of outcomes. But those options have since closed off, and the outcome we’ve ended up with is one of the worst imaginable. Maybe it could have been worse, but it certainly could have been better.
There was never an easy or a perfect solution to Syria. But early on, the security vacuum was not so dire, the chaos and destruction not so severe, and the world might have removed Assad without toppling Syria into an unsalvageable chaos.
The opposition was, early on, not nearly so divided by ideology and politics as it is today. Though extremists did begin joining early in 2012, the rebels were still heavily populated by moderate volunteers and defected Syrian soldiers whose primary aim was to topple Assad. Had he fallen then, the opposition might have laid down its arms rather than turning on one another. It was not until late 2013 that rebel infighting became so bad that analysts began warning Assad’s fall would lead to a second civil war.
Early on in the war, before Assad destroyed his own country’s physical and political infrastructure, there was still enough of a state that a post-Assad government could have, in a best-case scenario, restored order with the consent of the Syrian population. But even if it hadn’t, the Syrian population was less riven by sectarianism, the territory less divided among rebel groups apt to lapse into infighting and warlordism.
The point is not to retroactively advocate for a specific policy on Syria, nor to suggest that the country could have been saved completely by US intervention; it’s unlikely a war could ever have been averted once Assad decided to fire on his own people. Rather, the point is that removing him could have at least hypothetically opened up a different set of paths for Syria. Those surely would have had downsides as well, and some could be even worse than the status quo, but there is at least a range of possible outcomes that might look better than today’s reality.
While Fisher is concerned with the reality of Syria today and is correct that it is awful, he also argues that the window for doing something existing mainly between Spring 2012 and at the very latest, Fall 2013. The reality at that point overlooks three massively important things, all of which are missing from Fisher’s analysis.
One is Congress, who made it very clear with an election coming up that the kind of intervention Fisher wanted was never going to happen. Fisher mentions Congress all of once in his piece, and even if the Republicans in the House weren’t going to tell Obama to go to hell, enough Democrats would have. It got nowhere fast, eliminating all of 2012 in Fisher’s scenario.
You can argue that 2013 could have gone better and that there was still time to act then, but by March we were already into Assad’s chemical weapon attacks, and Russia’s reality as the Assad regime’s major patron stonewalling and buying time.
Number two is a US desperately tired of war. Even Libya was too much for America to support anymore back in 2012, and while a robust air campaign could have helped, in an election year it wasn’t going to happen for the reasons listed above.
Third is the 2012 election itself. If we somehow had gone into Syria’s civil war with both US political parties screaming bloody murder, Syrian intervention in 2013 would have most likely been President Romney’s problem, not President Obama’s.
Yes, Syria has devolved into a crisis now, one that won’t be solved anytime soon. But saying Obama “lost” Syria is Monday-morning quarterbacking at its worst and most of all simply untrue. Obama isn’t the only person on Earth who could have done something about Syria, and Syria was never ours to “lose” in the first place.