Staying Out of Syria

Why the United States Shouldn't Enter the Civil War—But Why It Might Anyway

A boy sits on a wheel in front of the bullet-riddled facade of a mosque in Damascus, October 4, 2014. Bassam Khabieh / Courtesy Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama has taken pains to avoid being drawn into Syria’s civil war. He does not appear convinced that the United States has sufficient strategic interests in Syria to warrant—let alone sustain—another long-term commitment of military force to shape the outcome of what is a complicated and many-sided struggle. Even as Obama has expanded the U.S. war against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to include targets in Syria, then, he has tried to circumscribe the mission.  The aim is to battle ISIS without either aiding or fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But the balancing act is proving difficult. The United States could soon face a choice between appearing to provide tacit support to Syrian government forces and joining the fight against them. 

The United States has long faced pressure to intervene in Syria’s civil war; it dates back to 2011, even before early skirmishes turned into high-intensity combat. Then as now, the administration’s stance was cautious. At that stage, it looked as though Assad might go the way of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Given the brittleness of the Assad regime, the use of force seemed unnecessary. And in any case, there was no appetite for a bidding war with Iran for Syria.

Yet the Assad regime proved more resilient than many expected. Interest in arming and training the Syrian rebels only grew, despite Washington’s evident inability to wield influence over the hundreds of partially radicalized armed groups already proliferating in Syria, let alone mold them into a unified opposition army. As we now know from multiple memoirs, Obama overruled his secretaries of defense and state, who urged him to do more to arm those rebels in late 2012.

Calls to help overthrow Assad grew louder after his regime used chemical weapons against civilian populations in August 2013. Again, Obama declined to strike once the United Kingdom opted out of military involvement

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