The debate about the role played by the United States in Syria is polarised between two views, though both attribute to the US a high degree of blame for the butchery.
On one side, some see the conflict in Syria as an extension of the American invasion of Iraq, and the current war as part of a master-plan conceived in Washington to destroy the last remaining Arab nationalist regime in the Middle East. Syria is thus viewed in the context of past military interventions that sought to control the region's oil resources. This outlook also allows criticism of US aid (including the provision of anti-tank missiles) to Syrian rebel groups accused of committing crimes against humanity.
On the opposite side, the US (and specifically Barack Obama's administration) are likewise seen as largely responsible for the escalating tragedy - but Washington is accused less for its actions than for its refusal to intervene directly to stop the suffering.
Steven Heydemann explains the US's relative passivity as the result of “a deep cognitive bias against risk”, which limited its actions to, for example, the aerial campaign against ISIS in order to contain this emerging threat. His approach presupposes that a more active US policy in Syria could have led to a positive outcome: by empowering Syrian moderates, and by confining the criminal behaviour of the Assad regime. The US had a choice to intervene in Syria, says Heydemann in his Washington Post article, but it simply had no interest in doing so: “Syria just isn’t worth it.”
"The US has no interest in Syria"
From the perspective of US foreign policy as a whole, It can be accepted that Syria does not represent a major interest. Yet it's still worth asking the question: in principle, what kind of difference could a direct US military intervention have made in Syria?
Those who argue that the US missed the chance to be effective have two basic arguments. The first involves the general policy of supplying the moderate opposition, and by extension large sections of the Syrian population targeted by the Assad military, with the weapons necessary for self-defence. The second is a specific moment linked with Obama's “red line”: the chemical attack against eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, in August 2013, which claimed hundreds of civilian lives. Let us start with the latter case.
In the aftermath of the chemical attacks on opposition-held territory to the east of Damascus, Obama could have indeed launched a bombing campaign against Assad's forces and changed the course of the Syrian war. With direct US intervention, the Assad regime could have been weakened, and may even have fallen. That would have spelt, not the end of the war, but a situation where multiple militias ostensibly divided by ideology vowed to conquer Damascus and political power. Instead of the much predicted conflict between largely Sunni fighters and an Alawi-held regime, it would have been a fight between competing Islamist groups for hegemony.
A US military intervention thus would have made Syria resemble Libya today. The difference is that Obama’s responsibility towards the fate of Syria would have been much greater. Instead, the American president preferred to make a deal (mainly with Russia) to dismantle the Assad regime's chemical arsenal, in line with US strategic interests regarding the non-proliferation of chemical weapons. What Obama could have done, and did not do, is to use that moment of threat and receive further concessions form the ruler of Damascus, namely the protection of civilian populations from starvation or barrel-bombs.
In general, the initial US demand that “Assad must go” could have been rearticulated as “no crimes against humanity” and thus focus more on saving civilian lives rather than aim at a regime change on which Washington has no leverage.
The second assumption is that by providing “quality armaments” to the moderate opposition the Syrian problem could have been solved. This has several glitches. Opposition fighting groups, which do include moderates and other non-jihadi groups, have chronic structural weaknesses such as lack of centralised command and leadership. Throughout the Syrian conflict, fighters have moved from one formation to the other. Major rebel groups that made part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) such as the Farouk Brigades or Liwae’ al-Tawheed, which were dominant in 2012 yet had all but disappeared by 2014.
When western support tried to reorganise remnants of the FSA by providing them with training and arms, they fell easy prey to the radicals. The story of the ‘Hazm Movement - supplied with advanced TOW missiles in 2014, and later attacked and destroyed by al-Nusra - clearly illustrates this fact. In March 2016, al-Nusra continued its elimination of yet another FSA group, the “13th Division” based in Ma’arat al-Nu’maan, taking over its arms and ammunition and arresting its fighters. Clearly, the US can launch strikes on the regime or on ISIS, yet it does not have partners within Syria on which it could count to hold and keep territory.
"The US has no allies in the Middle East"
Syrian opposition activists like to blame the Assad regime for the rise of radical jihadis. Their evidence is that the Syrian regime released dozens of hardline Islamists in 2011 while it was arresting and torturing peaceful demonstrators. That the regime chose early on to paint the revolt as a violent salafist uprising is clear, yet this is not sufficient to explain the emergence of radical groups within the Syrian rebellion. The entire opposition milieu, political as well as military, has remained largely ambiguous towards the jihadis. Although relations with ISIS deteriorated following the latter's takeover of Raqqa and the elimination of other rebel groups in August 2013, links with the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria remain ambiguous. In 2015 a number of rebel groups formed the Army of Conquest (Jaysh ul-Fath’) and rapidly conquered territory in Idlib and Latakya provinces, thanks to massive help from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Here the other US dilemma arises. The FSA groups which US agencies have trained and supported have in turn been attacked and destroyed by units funded and armed by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two traditional US allies in the region. The unanswered question remains: why did the US tolerate a situation where its Nato ally in the region provides arms and various types of logistical support to jihadi groups, against which it has been waging a “global war on terror” for two decades? Moreover, how can the US run an efficient anti-ISIS war while its major regional ally, Turkey, has at least ambiguous relations with ISIS and al-Qaeda, or even supports them? And these are not the only contradictions the US has with its allies.
But to appreciate the US's wider strategic dilemma, a critical factor is the game of alliances on the regional level, which is largely a legacy of the catastrophic US invasion of Iraq in 2003. While in Syria the US is supporting those opposed to Assad-Iran, in neighbouring Iraq it is effectively on the other side. By providing material and political support to the Baghdad regime, the US is allied to the Iran axis in Iraq and opposed to the Sunni opposition embodied by the ISIS revolt. In fighting ISIS, the closest US allies are the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq and the Kurdish YPG (“People's Protection Units”) in Syria – the local branch of the PKK. Both receive US aerial support, arms and logistics. Yet, while the US supports YPG in Syria, it considers the PKK across the border in Turkey a terrorist organisation.
US policy in the Middle East is a Catch-22. The US is full of contradictions, does not have an overall strategy, and is attempting to manage the several volcanoes exploding day by day. And airstrikes against ISIS or the Assad regime will not change that fact.