Why the “Washington Playbook” Won’t Work in Syria

Avoiding military intervention is the best policy.

In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama talked about his resistance to the “Washington Playbook.”

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

The recent letter from State Department officials calling for U.S. military action in Syria against the Assad regime probably has its roots in that playbook. It is also behind the column by Anne Applebaum titled, “The disastrous nonintervention in Syria.” What is interesting to note is that Applebaum admits that military intervention might be a disaster.

Maybe a U.S.-British-French intervention would have ended in disaster. If so, we would today be mourning the consequences. But sometimes it’s important to mourn the consequences of nonintervention too.

First of all, notice the binary. The choice she presents is either military intervention or nonintervention. From what I’ve seen, that is quintessential Washington Playbook. But Applebaum is right when she goes on to document the “physical, human and political damage on an unprecedented scale; ongoing security threats; the renewed stirrings of fascism” that have resulted from the Syrian civil war.

That is why Max Fisher’s article in the New York Times titled, “Syria’s Paradox: Why the War Only Ever Seems to Get Worse” is so important for all of us to read and understand.

Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: The core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey — whose interventions have suspended the usual laws of nature. Forces that would normally slow the conflict’s inertia are absent, allowing it to continue far longer than it otherwise would.

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. These material and human costs are easy for the far richer foreign powers to bear.

This war began as part of the so-called “Arab Spring” when citizens rose up in protest against the dictatorial oppression of the Assad regime and he responded with violence against them. But it soon became a proxy war for various factions. Primarily that comes from Iranian Shiite backing of Assad and Saudi backing of the Sunni rebel groups. Russian involvement is mostly about holding onto the one regime in the Middle East in which they have influence. Turkey is concerned about the Kurdish forces who are fighting in Syria and also present a challenge to them at home. Finally, the U.S. has engaged in order to stop ISIS. As Fisher documents in further detail, it is precisely this kind of outside involvement in an otherwise civil war that makes peace almost impossible to obtain. When one group gains an advantage, the opposing side simply ramps up their engagement and the fighting intensifies.

That is why President Obama described Russia’s use of their own ground troops in Syria as a sign of weakness.

Keep in mind that for the last five years, the Russians have provided arms, provided financing, as have the Iranians, as has Hezbollah…And the fact that they had to do this [send in their own ground troops] is not an indication of strength, it’s an indication that their strategy did not work.

In a way, this is similar to how so many conflicts were perpetuated by the outside involvement of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. Neither side is willing to back out unilaterally. And so the war goes on with the human costs paid by those who are caught in the cross-hairs.

What Fisher doesn’t provide are any answers about how to end this conflict. That’s because they’re not easy to come by. But based on the data he presents, there is one thing we can know with some certainty: further military intervention by the U.S. will only make things worse and could lead to an escalating conflict with Russia/Iran. The only possible solution is the one that SoS John Kerry has been working at tirelessly on behalf of the Obama administration. Here’s the latest on that:

The United States and Russia are “close” to reaching an agreement to end the war in Syria, with both nations saying they will try and finalise a deal in the coming days.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said late on Friday that talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Swiss city of Geneva had “achieved clarity on the path forward”, but together they offered few details on how they planned to renew a February cessation of hostilities and improve humanitarian assistance.

“We don’t want to have a deal for the sake of the deal,” Kerry said. “We want to have something done that is effective and that works for the people of Syria, that makes the region more stable and secure, and that brings us to the table here in Geneva to find a political solution.”

For the folks like Applebaum who buy into the Washington Playbook, this is the Syrian civil war intervention that matters and the only one that has a chance to end the carnage that is so disturbing to watch.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.