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Should the Obama administration have made different decisions about Syria? This is what a controversial study found.

- April 2, 2018
Civilians flee from reported regime airstrikes on Feb. 8, 2018, in the rebel-held town of Jisreen, in the besieged Eastern Ghouta region on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus. (Abdulmonam Eassa/AFP/Getty Images)

The war in Syria recently entered its seventh year with no end to the suffering in sight. The Syrian regime’s recent massive bombing and displacement of civilians in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta — some of the worst violence since the start of the war — underscore the enduring brutality.

The recent anniversary offers an important moment for reflection on lessons learned from Syria’s horrific conflict, particularly in its earlier years. Could different policy decisions by the Obama administration have prevented or reduced the high level of atrocities against civilians in Syria?

A contentious study by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, to which I contributed, explored this question using a variety of methods: interviews with government officials and Syria experts, conflict modeling, expert surveys and an in-depth literature review. We wrestled with essentially unanswerable questions that sought to assess the outcome if the Obama administration had adopted different policies at critical junctures in the conflict.

By definition, “counterfactual analysis” is speculative, not definitive. Given the chaotic complexity of the Syrian conflict, assessing these counterfactuals demanded more than a little dose of humility and nuance. Critics of the study contended that it did not give fair play to the merits of military intervention, echoing the broader debate on military intervention for civilian protection.

Assad regime and its allies

Lost in the controversy were some important insights generated by the study, including significant errors in analysis regarding Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its partners. At the onset of the Syrian crisis, U.S. policymakers failed to appreciate the Assad regime’s durability when bolstered by the willingness of its allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Russia — to double down on their support.

For Assad, hailing from the minority Alawite sect, the stakes were existential: win or die. For Hezbollah and Iran, Assad’s fall would spell the demise of Hezbollah’s lifeline and deprive Iran of its power projection into the Levant. For Russia, foreign intervention leading to the fall of another Middle Eastern dictator — coming on the heels of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s bloody end — was not to be tolerated. All three would stop at nothing to prop up Assad.

This foundational analytic failing paved the way for ill-fated policy decisions regarding the use of force that either squandered potential opportunities to de-escalate the conflict when paired with diplomacy, or even worse, may have deepened and prolonged the conflict.

Crossing the ‘red line’: A watershed moment

In the first instance, President Barack Obama decided against military intervention to enforce his “red line” against the use of chemical weapons after the Syrian regime’s large-scale sarin gas attack in August 2013. That decision point was a watershed moment. Undertaking missile strikes could have been game-changing if they were accompanied by intensive diplomacy that engaged Russia and Iran, peeling them away from the Assad regime. The strikes would have had to sufficiently shake the regime and unnerve its allies, forcing a shift in their calculus without drawing the United States deeper into the conflict — no easy feat, with significant downsides if there were miscalculations.

Deepening and prolonging the conflict

In the second case, if news reports are correct, the Obama administration opted to arm Syrian rebels covertly in April 2013 to ratchet up pressure on the Assad regime and bring it to the negotiating table. The Assad regime’s existential stakes and its “win at all costs” strategy, including the commission of atrocities, destined this incremental and indirect use of force to fail.

The policy’s net effect was to “encourage the rebels to be intransigent without actually producing significant concessions from the government side,” notes Andrew Kydd in his paper for the Holocaust Museum study. Instead, the policy accelerated a cycle of escalation and counter-escalation, deepening and prolonging the conflict.

Lessons for North Korea and Iran

The inability of the United States, along with the international community, to prevent or at least mitigate atrocities against civilians in Syria, let alone bring the conflict to a close, exposes a deeper failing. Finding the “sweet spot” for the use of force demands greater effort. These lessons could offer valuable insights as the United States confronts two impending crises with existential stakes: North Korea and Iran.

First, Syria’s catastrophic conflict should motivate the development of creative and innovative strategies on the use of force both to undergird diplomacy and to deter the commission of atrocities. Marrying the credible threat and potential use of force with the pursuit of diplomatic objectives requires more rigorous thinking. Just as force without vigorous diplomacy is unlikely to yield lasting success, diplomacy that is not backed by the credible threat of force could also meet with failure.

Second, and related, new approaches to the use of force for civilian protection are essential. This still underdeveloped doctrine would entail a measured military intervention that deters atrocities yet does not escalate conflict. Such a response would shift the offending party’s calculus away from conflict and ideally open the path toward diplomacy.

Fostering an appropriate option for the use of force has been elusive and yet will be critical to an effective humanitarian intervention doctrine. The Syrian conflict’s horrific civilian suffering will leave an indelible mark for generations to come. Cultivating a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the use of force and how to channel it for diplomatic and humanitarian ends might allow this suffering not to be completely in vain.

Mona Yacoubian is the author of “Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria: An Assessment of the Counterfactuals,” published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.