How President Obama Made Syria An Unfixable Quagmire

With nearly half a million dead and U.S. proxies fighting each other, Syria represents a failure of U.S. strategy and a lack of presidential leadership.

It didn’t have to be like this.

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Syrian opposition forces backed by the CIA and the Pentagon are now fighting each other. (Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio actually wrote this story more than a month ago, with the simple but true headline: “America Is In A Proxy War With Itself In Syria.”) The Syrian conflagration has entered the phase where pretty much everyone shoots at everyone else: “Any faction that attacks us,” an officer from the one of the CIA-supported groups told the LA Times, “regardless from where it gets its support, we will fight it.”

Well, of course they will. Every group in Syria is now in a Hobbesian free-for-all. The death toll is now climbing toward the half-million mark. No one has any incentive to do anything but kill or be killed.

There will be no settlement. The recent “cease-fire” is the Russian variant of that term—used the same way by the Russians in Ukraine these days—meaning “a period of combat in which the Russians help the Americans pretend that no one is fighting.” The Russians, of course, claim they’ve left Syria, when they mean they’ve flexed enough muscle and killed enough of Bashar Assad’s enemies that they can now leave a smaller force in place. Assad remains in power, and likely will stay there.

It’s easy to read about this situation—best described by a compound noun that includes the word “cluster”—and reach the conclusion that the U.S. intelligence and military establishments have no idea what they’re doing. The problem, however, is not with American tactical and operational excellence: we have that in abundance. Rather, Syria represents a failure of U.S. strategy and a lack of presidential leadership.

Failing to Act Is to Act

Of course, this kind of story fuels the critics who believe President Obama made the right decision to stay out of the Syrian conflict. This, however, represents a fundamental error of logic. The situation in Syria today is not a vindication of President Obama’s decision, it is the result of that decision.

Or, more accurately, it is the result of the president’s lack of a decision. Remember, Syria looks as it does in 2016 because the Obama administration’s response to the use of chemical weapons was to outsource U.S. security management to Vladimir Putin. We will never know if Assad could have been toppled, or by whom; the Russians rendered those questions moot when they intervened.

They continue to do so at will, and Assad will now exterminate every rebel of any stripe. (Killing anyone involved in ISIS is just a coincidence at this point, at least for Assad and the Russians.)

Meanwhile, in the absence of a clear strategy, U.S. national security institutions are doing what they think they’re supposed to be doing. What we’re seeing in Syria is what happens when large organizations, lacking direction from a strategic center, continue with their organizational priorities. They will do what they’re good at, whether it makes strategic sense or not. Without coordination and an imposed strategy, they will default to trying to keep alive the people they know and to protect the assets they have in place.

This is what happens in a strategic vacuum: operations take the place of strategy.

We’ll Allow a Disaster, Then Use It to Justify Our Inaction

Critics of any proposed intervention ask: “Well, what would you do now,” always posing the question as if the previous three years didn’t happen. As I note regularly, this is like driving a car off a cliff and then handing the steering wheel to your screaming passenger and saying: “Fine, you drive.”

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