The debate over America’s Middle East policy has reached a new level of surreality. In the wake of President Obama’s West Point commencement address last month in which he pledged to “ramp up” U.S. support for Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad Washington elites are exhorting the Obama administration to do much more. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford urges intensified training and more advanced weapons for “moderate” opposition fighters; others argue for direct U.S. military involvement. At the same time, Washington has been stunned by the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and several other strategic targets, and is drawing close to Baghdad.
Washington elites are effectively compartmentalizing these stories but, in fact, they are intimately related, and policymakers need to understand the connection to avoid another disaster in the heart of the Middle East.
In Iraq, the resurgence of sectarian violence stems not from the 2011 American withdrawal. It is, rather, the fruit of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq, the subsequent U.S. occupation, and the much vaunted “surge” of 2007-2008. The U.S. invasion and occupation destroyed the Iraqi state and ignited tensions among Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic communities. The surge sought to empower certain Sunni militias while paying them (temporarily) not to kill American soldiers; this ended up giving Sunni militants the means to press their grievances through escalating violence once U.S. forces were no longer around.
Unfortunately, Washington seems determined to compound its appalling policy choices in Iraq with equally grievous choices regarding Syria. For over three years, America has provided Syrian oppositionists with “nonlethal” aid, trained opposition fighters, coordinated with others openly providing lethal aid for U.S.-vetted recipients, and extended high-level political backing to the anti-Assad campaign including serially reiterated public demands from Obama that Assad “must go.” Yet, from the conflict’s start it has been clear that opposition fighters would not dislodge Assad, no matter how much external help they received because, from the beginning, the constituencies supporting Assad and his government have added up to well over half of Syrian society.
Objective measures of public opinion in Syria are not as robust as any serious analyst would like. Nevertheless, for over three years, every piece of relevant data including multiple polls, participation in the February 2012 constitutional referendum and the May 2012 parliamentary elections, participation in this month’s presidential election (including by thousands of refugees), and other evidence indicates that a majority of Syrians continues to back Assad. Conversely, there is not a scrap of objective evidence suggesting that anywhere close to a majority of Syrians wants Assad replaced by some part of the opposition.
These realities were readily observable in spring 2011; we have been writing and speaking about them for over three years. Yet the Obama administration decided, within weeks after the outbreak unrest in parts of Syria in March 2011, to support oppositionists seeking to overthrow Assad. It did so as administration officials told the New York Times in April 2011 because it calculated that destabilizing Assad’s government would undermine Iran’s regional position.
This was a colossally irresponsible exercise in policymaking-by-wishful-thinking, for two reasons. First, outside support for opposition fighters a sizable percentage of whom are not even Syrian has taken what began as small-scale, indigenously generated protests over particular grievances and turned them into a heavily militarized insurgency that could sustain high levels of violence but could not actually win. The Obama administration prides itself on overthrowing Libya’s Muammar al-Qadhafi in 2011 without putting U.S. boots on the ground (though the results are comparable to those in Iraq: the destruction of a functioning state and the arming of militias that kill with impunity including the U.S. ambassador in 2012). Assad is a vastly tougher target. Stepped up support for anti-Assad fighters will not accomplish anything positive strategically; it will, however, perpetuate conditions in which even more Syrians die.
Second, it was utterly foreseeable that backing an armed challenge to Assad would worsen the threat of jihadi militancy in Syria, in neighboring countries like Iraq, and beyond. Well before March 2011, it was evident that, among Syria’s Sunni Islamist constituencies, the Muslim Brotherhood whose Syrian branch was historically more radical than most Brotherhood cells was being displaced by more extreme, al Qaeda-like groups. External support for anti-Assad forces after March 2011 accelerated the trend and reinforced it with an infusion of foreign fighters, including organ-eating extremists. Many of these jihadis, according to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, are now working not just to bring down Assad but also to mount attacks against the United States.
The Obama administration’s transformation of Syria into a magnet-cum-training ground for transnational jihadi fighters has directly fed the resurgence of jihadi extremism we are witnessing in Iraq. Three years ago, at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the Islamic State of Iraq formed in 2006 from Abu Musab Az-Zarqawi’s “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” movement was on the ropes. Reinvigorated through the creation of an externally supported insurgency in Syria by the United States and America’s European and regional partners, it rebranded itself in 2013 as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and, like the Taliban in Afghanistan before 9/11, has taken over swaths of both Syria and Iraq with lightning speed.
Washington has only itself and its collaborators in the anti-Assad crusade to blame for such an outcome. As ISIS captures more cities and territory in Iraq, it is also capturing stockpiles of weapons and military equipment that America supplied to the post-Saddam government weapons and equipment that will enable further gains by ISIS fighters. Against this backdrop, calls to increase the flow of weapons into neighboring Syria are a case study in Einstein’s (apocryphal) definition of insanity “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Calls for the United States to “go back” to Iraq, to undo the horrific damage it has already done there, are equally delusional.
The Syrian conflict will ultimately end with negotiated power-sharing between the Syrian government, still headed by President Assad, and those elements of the opposition with some popular base inside Syria. This can happen relatively sooner, if America begins basing its Syria policy in on-the-ground reality. Or the process can be protracted by open-ended external backing for opposition fighters with no meaningful popular base. Neither the interests of ordinary Syrians and Iraqis nor the interests of ordinary Americans will be served by Washington doubling down on its ill-considered arming of brutal and unrepresentative militias.
Flynt Leverett is professor of international affairs at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs. Hillary Mann Leverett teaches U.S. foreign policy at American University and is CEO of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy. They are both retired national security professionals, Flynt of the CIA, State Department and National Security Council; Hillary of the State Department, National Security Council and U.S. mission to the United Nations. They are co-authors of Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Visit their website.