The Syrian civil war that began more than seven years ago has resulted in the deaths of countless innocents: estimates range from a few hundred thousand to well over half a million lives lost. Many civilians have fled to neighboring countries and to Europe, while millions of others have remained stuck in the country without access to food, money, and shelter. The world blamed the Assad regime at the beginning of the conflict, but increasingly shifts the blame towards terrorist groups operating across the country and foreign actors that have supported the regime. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Iraq, and others have provided direct military support in the form of troops and hardware including tanks, bombs, planes, money, and even missile defense systems to buffer the Assad regime’s military power and protect it against Israeli and American airstrikes. But very few in the West acknowledge America’s own role in not only failing to extinguish the war, but also in actively extending the duration and scale of violence.
The Assad regime complains that the West continues to violate Syrian sovereignty, and not without some basis. Since 2013, the US has deployed more than 2,000 American troops to the southeast Syrian desert, the northeastern swathes of Syria, and the western side of the Euphrates—in and around the city of Manbij. Yet America’s presence in the region follows only the presence of ISIS, not the regime’s forces. This seems to point to a segmented American approach to the conflict in Syria, one of specific interventions but not outright war.
While the limited direct US military engagement has in part allowed the war to continue unabated, American hesitancy at the war’s onset enabled a rapid upsurge in violence. When large-scale fighting broke out across Syria, Assad’s forces, from generals to recruits, began deserting the Syrian military in large numbers to form the Free Syrian Army. If the US had declared its intention to support the rebellion and provide for its revolutionaries, many more Syrians may have joined in the calls for regime change knowing one of the world’s superpowers was backing them. Furthermore, given higher numbers of desertions and material support, rebels may have been able to topple the regime in rapid fashion. This change of policy wasn’t far fetched at the onset of war, with Senator John McCain and multiple Free Syrian Army generals calling for support against Assad. American support in the form of a no-fly zone coupled with the likely increase in defections would’ve almost certainly ended the conflict quickly and minimized casualties. On the opposite end of the spectrum was the stand-off approach that many Americans wanted after multiple wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This lack of involvement would have likely led to a rapid collapse of rebel groups, especially with the introduction of Russian airpower in Syria. The influence of Russian and other outside involvement in support of Assad is blatant when one realizes the regime regained a majority of the country’s land with their support, a figure that sat around 10 percent in the summer of 2015. Hence, the two potential positions presented to the US at the start of the war were no intervention at all and a policy of US support against the Assad regime. Ultimately, however, neither of these were adopted by the Obama administration, a choice with devastating consequences.
Instead, the United States followed a paradigm of unsteady military support that only exacerbated the conflict. US aid to Syrian rebels is not insignificant, with 994 tons of weapons shipped over in just one trip in December of 2015, not to mention various other weapons shipments. Much of US support, including training, was focussed on rebels in Daraa province, with the hope of keeping pressure on Syria’s southern region for a potential offensive near Damascus. But while this support maintained the war effort and sustained many groups fighting against the regime, it was never enough to outright topple the Assad regime. While forced stalemates all over Syria could have reduced civilian casualties by limiting the number of active engagements and precipitating a meaningful ceasefire, such an approach was not possible without an effective no fly-zone and a crippling of the regime’s air power. The US’s failure was founded on a miscalculation of the degree to which the regime utilized air power in the conflict, one which has not changed to this day, notwithstanding the cruise missiles President Trump lobbed into Syria that did little in the way of significant damage. Obama constantly reiterated “There is the possibility of a diplomatic solution …. I asked Congress to postpone a vote on the use of military force. That’s what we’re doing.” Through this strategy, the US government tried and failed to negotiate Bashar al-Assad out of office for years, given that the Syrian government now has control over most of the populated areas of Syria. Many argue that a stronger stance was needed in Syria to stop the bloodshed that, following the outbreak of full-scale civil war, was perpetuated by outside actors pouring money and weapons to their preferred side. Still others say that a complete lack of foreign intervention in Syria could have led to a quicker resolution of the conflict, but it’s unlikely all parties would’ve stopped supporting their side. The US didn’t want another war in the Middle East, but the action it did take perpetuated the demolition of the Syrian nation and the carnage and displacement that come with endless war.
In a convincing summary, the BBC described Obama’s legacy on Syria as follows: “Obama did grudgingly approve some covert military aid to moderate Syrian rebels to diffuse the power of Islamist fighters. But it wasn’t enough to shape them into a force that could defeat Assad.” The US government and military officials knew they could either overthrow Assad, stay out of Syria, or infuse enough military aid to different groups fighting in Syria to keep American interests alive in the conflict. Consequently, Syria has been entirely consumed by the war, with a population reduced from around 23 million to 18 million, with approximately 5.6 million Syrians fleeing the country, approximately 6.1 million Syrians displaced inside the country, and over half a million killed. This is in addition to the more than 300,000 fighters in the Syrian Armed Forces, approximately 70,000 rebel fighters in Idlib, and around 50,000 Kurdish fighters in Syria’s east—a sizable chunk of Syria’s remaining military-age males. These figures tell us that the war took just about the worst course possible over these 7 years and truly dragged Syrian society down with it.
These strategies have unmeasurable human cost, as highlighted by the reduction of refugee admittance into the US. In the period from January to October 2018, the US accepted a paltry 62 Syrian refugees, a practically insignificant sum when compared to the scale of the Syrian crisis. Besides the economic boons provided by refugees and their love for American liberty and freedom, the US has an obligation to accept refugees from Syria. US involvement is serving to extend the Syrian conflict, so why do we continue to reject refugees fleeing from the flames of war which we fan?
Increasingly, US engagement in Syria has morphed from negotiating Assad out of office to trying to destabilize a hostile government and its significant Russian ally. No American actions in Syria have pointed to the importance of saving lives and reducing conflict, thereby contributing to the present-day death and destruction associated with a once-beautiful land.