Robert A. Lovett, Secretary of Defense (1951–53) in the Truman administration, advised that faced with political crises that carried great risks for small gains: ‘Forget the cheese; let’s get out of the trap’. Since the end of the Cold War and the resulting upsurge of triumphalism and exceptionalism among US policymakers and public intellectuals, America has been serially mousetrapped by the cheesy allure of Pax Americana across North Africa and the Middle East. The era of grand delusions may be drawing to a close.
For over seven years, the Syrian crisis has shone a spotlight on the receding role of morality, legality, strategic wisdom and institution-building in underpinning world order. It was the terrain on which the optimistic Arab Spring of 2011 morphed into the bleak winter of the restoration of Arab autocracy.
Over the northern summer, the US settled on a policy of keeping troops in Syria, both to act as a bulwark against Iran’ regional ambitions and to ensure the crushing defeat of Islamic State (IS). As recently as August the Pentagon believed there were 14,500 IS fighters still active in Syria. In an abrupt policy flip-flop that caught the Pentagon, aides and allies off guard, President Donald Trump has declared victory and ordered a full and rapid withdrawal of over 2,000 US troops.
Characteristically, he announced this with a tweet on Wednesday morning: ‘We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there’. A little later White House spokeswoman Sarah Saunders put a more nuanced spin on the president’s announcement, ‘clarifying’ that the recall of US troops over the next 2-4 months will mark a ‘transition to the next phase of the campaign’ against IS.
The withdrawal is consistent with Trump’s instincts during the presidential campaign to begin retrenching from overseas commitments that had ensnared the US in too many foreign wars of limited strategic interest. The cost in treasure and human lives was too high for America to continue on the failed strategy of intervening with military force here, there and everywhere.
In the aftermath of major international interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, the entire region is consumed by sectarian, tribal and jihadist violence that has discredited externally directed liberal state-building as a normative enterprise. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Hafez and Bashar Assad were/are murderous dictators. But paradoxically, they were/are secular tyrants who successfully kept the lids on cauldrons of sectarian tensions that boiled over into large-scale violence, killings and displacement when the lid was removed.
All three cases demonstrate the limited utility of the use of force in contemporary conditions. If the primary pathology is lack of local good governance institutions, the military is not just ineffectual; it is counter-productive, for it destroys and degrades the fragile physical and institutional infrastructure that does exist. Moreover, in the open-ended global war on terror, the US has managed to create and motivate more terrorists than have been killed and captured, by several factor-fold. The post-intervention countries have been prime incubators and breeding grounds.
The Syrian crisis began with a peaceful uprising in March 2011. It quickly descended into a vicious civil war: first with a savage crackdown by Assad, secondly with the influx of freedom fighters, jihadists and mercenaries from all over, and thirdly with the growing involvement of regional and global powers on rival sides, each with its own agenda: (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, US, France, UK – and Australia as a ‘me-too’ hanger-on). The Sunni/Shia and Arab/non-Arab divisions also intersect in Syria’s civil war.
The anti-regime opposition rapidly morphed and fragmented into increasingly radicalised groups fighting to establish an Islamist regime after ousting Assad. The laws of war were violated by all sides. Western publics lost the stomach for yet another Middle Eastern quagmire where liberators become occupiers, initially grateful natives turn on them as jihadist influence takes deep root, anarchy is let loose and the centre folds.
Russia’s air intervention in Syria in 2015 in support of the Assad regime – its first military intervention since 1989 outside the borders of the former Soviet Union – marked the breakout of Moscow from the post-Cold War international order constructed by the West and imposed on Russia. As in Ukraine and Crimea, Moscow was no longer prepared to submit to norms and conventions of statecraft set, policed and enforced by the West.
The Syrian war has cost half a million lives (plus two million wounded), and produced the biggest mass population shift of internally displaced persons (7.6mn) and refugees (5.1mn) – about half Syria’s pre-2011 total population – in recent decades. Millions have grown to adulthood without experiencing childhood. Physical, social and health infrastructures have been gutted and many priceless historical treasures deserving of the ‘common heritage of mankind’ label vandalised.
The US policy was to encourage anti-Assad forces, give them arms, money and training, back them diplomatically, and launch periodic airstrikes to punish specific alleged misdeeds like chemical weapons attacks, but without crossing the line into taking part in ground offensives. The returns on this form of investment in ‘moderate’ rebel forces were risible. Western governments could not distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ rebels. As the ranks of the former thinned while the latter swelled and disillusionment grew in Western publics and governments, the policy gradually changed to trying to defeat IS rather than to overthrow Assad.
Thus Washington gave false hope through limited backing to the rebels that was sufficient to sustain the armed conflict on life support, but not enough to secure a decisive victory. Tragically, external interference prolonged, intensified and widened the conflict, and civilian casualties and agony, without in the end dislodging Assad from power. That is, far from fixing, Western interference has worsened the pathology of broken, corrupt and dysfunctional politics across the region from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa. Hence the cautionary conclusion: there is no humanitarian crisis so grave that outside interference cannot make it worse.
What if the US-led West had stayed completely out of involvement in the Syrian civil war, limiting expressions of abhorrence to strong diplomatic protests? The numbers killed and displaced as the price of Assad prevailing would have been considerably fewer and the scale of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe would have been significantly lower as well. Does the West then bear any moral responsibility – not the primary, but partial responsibility – for the higher humanitarian toll? Or is virtuous intent proof against such tough self-questioning?
Ramesh Thakur is Emeritus Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.