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The Fraudulent Case for a Syrian Escalation

Washington’s armchair warriors are pounding the drums for a major U.S. military escalation in Syria but a new report shows there’s little reason to think that would help

President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and other heads of state and delegations, observe a minute of silence for the Paris attack victims on Nov. 30, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The recent call by 51 dissenting State Department officials for U.S. military escalation in Syria is merely one of dozens of similar demands by neoconservatives and anguished liberals who accuse President Obama of moral failure for not dictating peace in Syria at the end of a gun.


At almost the same time as the dissent went public, in fact, the hawkish Center for New American Security issued similar recommendations under the auspices of Michele Flournoy, Hillary Clinton’s likely pick for Secretary of Defense. Its report called for more “arming and training” of anti-government rebels, launching of “limited military strikes” against the Assad regime, and eliminating “artificial manpower limitations” on military missions in the country.



Critics warn that such policies would violate international law, in the absence of any United Nations authorization for intervention, and risk a dangerous confrontation with Russia. But the slew of reports, speeches and columns calling for “limited” and “judicious” military escalation have an even bigger flaw: they never make even the slightest case for thinking such interventions could work.


Their claims reflect magical thinking. Champions of intervention cling to the wishful belief that if the world’s one superpower wants something badly enough, we must be able to attain it. But as our disastrous experiences in Iraq and Libya — not to mention Vietnam — should have made abundantly clear to any sentient being, America simply lacks the capability to find and empower suitable local partners and then dictate political outcomes.

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Our experience in Syria itself should have made the same lesson clear. President Obama ordered the Pentagon to spend $500 million to “train-and-equip” anti-regime “moderates.” The program graduated all of 54 recruits, most of whom were promptly kidnapped by the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (possibly at the instigation of Turkey). Similarly, U.S. arms for “moderate” rebels have consistently fallen into the hands of al-Nusra.


A Contradictory Report


But don’t take my word for it. Consider the spectacularly contradictory new report by the “progressive” Century Foundation, called “The Case for a More Robust U.S. Intervention in Syria.” Despite its conventional recommendations, author Thanassis Cambanis offers reason after reason to question how U.S. escalation could possibly make things better.


As Cambanis admits, the Obama administration has been “funding, training, and arming parts of the opposition” for several years now. And he acknowledges that “Most of the armed opposition has survived only because of foreign intervention — the exceptions being the most distressing elements: Islamic State and Nusra.”


Unfortunately, he adds, Washington’s favored allies are “disconnected from the most important groups doing the fighting and delivering services in rebel-controlled territory.”


Some Kurdish groups — bitterly opposed by Turkey — have shown great prowess in the field. But America’s favored local force, the Free Syrian Army, is a mish-mash of “citizens’ militias, local mafia and gangster groupings, and semi-professional forces” whose promise “never materialized,” Cambanis writes. “Free Syrian Army brigades remain as bitterly fragmented today as they were in 2011–12 — perhaps even more so. No amount of cajoling by the United States . . . has persuaded even the most minute brigades to submit to an umbrella command.”


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Worse yet, “Many Free Syrian Army groups have been guilty of corruption, brutality, torture, and other crimes,” Cambanis writes.


Moderates, it seems, make bad fighters. In contrast, Cambanis says our allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have funded “other more Islamist fighting forces, including the Army of Islam around Damascus and Ahrar al-Sham, a group with both jihadist and nationalist pedigrees that is probably the single most powerful militant rebel force in northern Syria, outside of Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State group. Few of these groups . . . can be described as ‘moderate.’ . . . The only unitary actors with discernible chains of command are the Islamist-jihadist hardline groups: Islamic State, Nusra, and Ahrar el Sham.”


Dominant Islamists


In fact, Islamists are so dominant, Cambanis acknowledges, that “In most of rebel-held northern Syria, the Free Syrian Army groups exist largely at the pleasure of Ahrar or Nusra, and in some areas face the specter of destruction by Islamic State.”


Bottom line, he admits, “There is no sizable ‘moderate,’ nationalist, or secular faction that could lead a military offensive, much less claim to represent the opposition in a negotiating setting. Any anti-Assad intervention will, in the short-term, benefit the most powerful factions on the ground — the extremists and the jihadists.”


The typical proponent of more U.S. military intervention is as oblivious to the realities of the regime as to those of its opposition. Unlike them, Cambanis concedes that Assad does not simply rule through terror.


Assad’s government “possesses significant wells of legitimacy,” Cambanis writes, “his rule has maintained some degree of buy-in from millions of Sunni Arabs, as well as thousands of Kurds. . . .


“Conversations suggest there are plenty more, perhaps numbering in the millions, who do not like the way Assad runs Syria but prefer his secular, pluralistic dictatorship to the alternative they believe the rebellion offers: violence, anarchy, or a Sunni theocracy. . . . The alternative, in their view, is the kind of unchecked sectarianism they have heard about in areas controlled by Islamic State, Nusra, Ahrar, . . .  even supposedly moderate Free Syrian Army-branded groups.”


So here you have it: Millions of Syrian support Assad, or prefer him to the alternative. His armed opponents are mainly radical Islamists, varying only in their willingness to make tactical compromises. All previous U.S. efforts to rally an effective force of “moderates” have failed utterly.


So what exactly makes interventionists think that doubling down on a failed strategy will produce a different and better outcome? In light of these failures, how dare they claim the moral high ground? What gives them the right even to be taken seriously as foreign policy experts? It’s time to call most of these armchair warriors what they are: frauds.

Jonathan Marshall

Jonathan Marshall

Jonathan Marshall, an independent journalist and scholar, is author or co-author of five books related to national security or international relations, including, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America. He previously covered "The Honduran Coup's Ugly Aftermath" for

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