Syria: The foreign policy story of 2013

I caught a little bit of the end-of-the-year navel gazing — the exercise in which pundits list the “big stories” of the past year. Syria, easily one of the top three stories of 2013, along with Obamacare and Obamacapitulation (to Iran), is missing from the lists I’ve encountered.

In 2013 the Assad regime, the demise of which was once considered a given, made huge gains in the Syrian civil war and now seems very likely remain in power for the foreseeable future. Also in 2013, the extreme Islamist opposition to Assad crowded out the more moderate opposition and now seems very likely to control portions of Syria for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the death count in Syria continued to rise by as much as 5,000 per month according to some estimates.

The Assad regime’s comeback is a huge victory for Iran and Hezbollah. The ascendency of the most extreme forces within the rebellion is a huge victory for al Qaeda and its fellow travelers.

These victories for our worst enemies represent a huge defeat for the U.S. Max Boot argues that the defeat is self, i.e., Obama-inflicted:

There was nothing inevitable about this division of Syria between Shiite and Sunni extremists, as I have been arguing for some time. It came about because the Iranians went all-in and the U.S. didn’t. As the [Wall Street] Journal notes: “Through it all, U.S. intelligence and military officers watched the evolution with alarm from the sidelines, at least one step behind developments on the ground.” Thanks to this American hesitancy and confusion, the article notes, quoting “a longtime American diplomat in the region,” it now looks “like Messrs. Assad, Nasrallah and Soleimani have ‘won’.”

Boot may be overestimating U.S. ability to have made a difference even if we had gone “all-in.” Nor, I suspect, was going all-in ever a realistic option if, by that, Boot means American boots on the ground.

However, there is much American could have done, but that didn’t, that might have made a difference. The two obvious measures were robust support for the non-jihadist rebels and, relatedly, air strikes against the regime, especially after it used chemical weapons.

The failure robustly to support the non-jihadist opposition ensured that it would be the weak horse. The failure to deliver the air campaign Obama publicly promised rendered the non-jihadist opposition a non-horse. Now, the only horses in the field belong to our two worst enemies — Iran and al Qaeda-style jihadists.

The impact of this story will outlast that of most the stories rehashed by pundits at year’s end. As Boot concludes:

Obama’s defeat in Syria hasn’t been nearly as costly, at least so far, in American blood or treasure as President Bush’s temporary defeat in Iraq, from 2003 to 2007–but it is likely to prove more enduring and more damaging to American interests in the region because there is no “surge” on the horizon to save the day. In Syria the situation is likely to go from grim to grimmer, and drag down fragile neighboring states, notably Iraq and Lebanon, along with it into the vortex of sectarian bloodletting.

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