Recently there has been a fuss about a document entitled Critical Junctures in United States Policy toward Syria: An Assessment of the Counterfactuals. It says it is part of a 'research project':
The project seeks to conduct a systematic review of critical policy junctures in the Syrian conflict, identify alternative policies that the US government plausibly could have adopted at these junctures, and assess the likely effects of these counterfactual actions on the conflict and associated atrocities against civilians.
It was removed from the web site of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It essentially concluded that nothing could be done about Syria, so that Obama's policy decisions, while perhaps not optimal, would have made little difference.
Some have decided that this is a terrible blow to the serious study of Syria. For example New York Magazine did a probing piece on the takedown, and on Twitter, Zack Beauchamp of VOX comments on a Tablet article about the incident as follows:
Not a single quote in this piece contains a substantive critique of the Holocaust Museum's study
This seems like right-wing political correctness: The study was pulled due to political pressure, not scholarly missteps
The study is based on interviews with respected Syria analysts or former US government officials. It purports to deliver mature thinking on the situation, leading to, and I quote, "a deeper understanding". It seems that the contributors are serious intellectuals who raise important issues that needed to be debated. Well OK, I downloaded the piece before it was taken offline. I'll quote some of what it says, and then deliver some of that substantive criticism it's thought to deserve.
I'm not doing this just to carp. I'm doing it because the West's self-righteous but timid response to one of the greatest atrocities of our times has been, all along, diligently abetted and excused by these analysts. Their fateful opinions call for scrutiny.
The study is built around "Five critical junctures and associated counterfactuals". They are, in full:
1. Obama's August 2011 statement: Most interviewed for this paper identified Obama’s August 2011 statement that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” as the most consequential juncture, the so-to-speak original sin. A more nuanced statement developed via a thorough interagency process and accompanied by a well-conceived strategy might have led to fewer atrocities.
2. Clinton/Petraeus arming plan: The summer 2012 decision not to adopt the Clinton/Petraeus plan to vet and arm “moderate” rebels is among the most contentious and yet least significant of the critical junctures with respect to the issue of minimizing civilian deaths. Implementing the plan might have proven counterproductive by extending the duration of the conflict.
3. Chemical weapons "red line": Obama’s September 2013 decision not to undertake standoff strikes to enforce his “red line” against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons stands as his most controversial policy decision on Syria, and arguably of his entire presidency. Conducting limited stand-off strikes followed immediately by intensive diplomacy might have led to a reduction in the level of killing.
4. Prioritizing ISIL over the Assad regime: In the late summer 2014, following ISIL’s “blitzkrieg” across Iraq and parts of Syria, the Obama administration made a formal strategic shift prioritizing Iraq and the fight against ISIL over counter-regime objectives in Syria. Implementing a more muscular anti-regime policy as part of a broader counter-ISIL strategy in Syria in 2014 is unlikely to have led to a lower level of atrocities against civilians.
5. No-fly zone over all or part of Syria: The option to enforce a no-fly zone over all or part of Syria has been raised at various times throughout the conflict, specifically in 2012, 2013, and 2015. More creative options for enforcing a partial no-fly zone—perhaps over northern Syria using standoff weapons or employing different tools—should have been given greater consideration.
According to the document, once you consider the 'counterfactuals' associated with these 'junctures', you have to conclude the following:
No silver bullet: No single shift in policy options would have definitively led to a better outcome in terms of the level of atrocities in Syria.
The tone here evokes analytical rigor, but the content, not so much.
May I suppose that when you shift policy, you move from one option to another? 'No single shift' is quite a claim: it implies that you might move to any possible option. So when you say 'no single shift' would have definitely led to a better effect, you imply that no possible option would have done so. So apparently whoever came up with this 'study' thought that all possible options had been considered and found wanting.
Thought, or pretended to think. Did they really suppose they had considered all possible options? It's clear that there is one option they were dying to dismiss: removing Assad, which they occasionally mention under the now-pejorative label of 'regime change'. Yet this is the only option that seems a serious candidate for a silver bullet: it's hardly surprising that the others are found wanting, given they are carefully specified to have only limited objectives. 'Regime change' isn't even directly discussed, but introduced in the discussion of the first 'juncture'. And though the analysts seem to think 'regime change' is a single option, there are many possible ways to effect régime change: if you were out to change a régime, you would of course consider a number of alternative strategies. It is quite clear that the analysts were not inclined to do anything of the sort.
The possibility of régime change comes up only in the 'counterfactual' associated with 'juncture 1', Obama's statement that Assad should step aside. Here is what the document says:
Counterfactual 1: Make the statement, but back it up with a well-conceived and well-resourced strategy. Advocates of this counterfactual called for the development of a robust regime change strategy using a mixture of military and non-military measures. The assumption undergirding this counterfactual focuses on minimizing the killing by removing Assad as the key perpetrator behind Syria’s killing and atrocities, stressing the importance of aggressively pursuing regime change. Some assumed that in making the statement the President would commit to action. As one former senior State Department official noted, “Not necessarily invasion and occupation, but other means.” Proponents of this policy option favored an earlier and more intense use of indirect military intervention, primarily by arming the rebels, or direct action short of outright invasion.
It is hard to imagine the viability of this counterfactual given Obama’s antipathy toward regime change and his election vow to withdraw America from Middle East conflicts, not engage in a new one. Moreover, given the challenge and complexity of regime change in Syria, it is difficult to envision how this approach, to be successful, would not have required fairly massive military intervention, resulting in potentially far higher civilian deaths.
What does this tell us about the quality, intentions and scope of the analyses?
One of the reasons given for dismissing this option is that Obama didn't like it. But the claim was not that there was no silver bullet given Obama's tastes. It was that no shift, whether or not Obama liked it, would have done any good. So this objection is besides the point.
So what's left is: massive military intervention would be counterproductive. Elsewhere in the document support for this claim goes a little beyond this pronouncement that success can't be imagined. We hear that:
Given the fractiousness of the armed opposition at that point, regime change in Syria by 2014–2015 could have led to an even greater level of violence and killing as rival factions would compete for power. Moreover, the increased radicalization of armed groups by that time might have led to the “catastrophic success” scenario marked by the empowering of extremists who might have committed further atrocities.
The unintended consequences of this policy decision might have been significant, particularly with respect to the level of killing and the duration of the conflict. This type of intervention runs a much greater risk of escalation and a slide down the “slippery slope” of deepening US military involvement and intensification of conflict. This in turn might have led to greater killing.
Intensifying military efforts against the regime likely would have been met with counter-escalation by the regime and its allies, as well as broader destabilization across the region.
Does this amount to serious consideration of the options? We are told that certain bad things might have happened. This introduces possibilities without assessing their actual probability. Yet that's part of exploring the truth of a 'counterfactual'. Are these just fears, or real likelihoods?
Throughout the debate on Syria, the warning about bad outcomes have been amplified using two dubious techniques. The first is equivocation about the nature of military intervention. The second is the trick of dangling intervention when it seems to pose dangers, and yanking it away when it might counter the dangers.
Consider first what 'military intervention' means. The document makes it sound like America would be deeply involved, and in a way that is true. But that's not the same thing as 'deepening US military involvement', which I take it means the involvement of the US military. The one does not imply the other either in logic or in the realities of the situation. The US could be deeply involved, in a 'military intervention' if you like, without any US forces being deployed to Syria at all, and without even some US-run train-and-equip program in Turkey and Jordan.
With the exception of Lebanon, which Israel is deeply committed to keep hobbled, Syria has nothing but enemies in the region, notably the Gulf States and Turkey. (Jordan is at least no friend of Syria, but in any case will do exactly whatever the US wants it to do.) In the background lurks another enemy, Israel, with nuclear weapons. To effect régime change, the US did not have to send its armed forces into Syria. For the most part, what it had to do was simply drop all its opposition to regional efforts to remove Assad. His enemies were prepared to support the rebels with massive military aid; with US encouragement they would have been even more prepared to do so. At most, the US might have had to increase the air-to-air capacities in its numerous large bases in the region. It's not even clear that that would have been necessary. Israel, with far fewer resources at its disposal, has used stand-off weapons to make a mockery of the Syrian air force without even entering Syrian airspace. So it is, to use the document's phrase, 'difficult to imagine' how the US and regional powers could fail to reduce the régime's air power to negligible levels, again without even entering Syrian airspace. And in these circumstances, it is also difficult to imagine anything but rebel victory.
Here analysts jump in and speak of 'dangers'. Some of these are real, some are not. The idea that Assad could 'counter-escalate', as suggested elsewhere in the document, is ludicrous. How? With what? So it cannot be Assad who is going to 'intensify' the conflict. It can only be his allies, Russia and Iran/Hezbollah.
But suppose otherwise; suppose Russia was sufficiently committed to its place in Syria to take enormous risks and expend enormous resources. Since we're doing counterfactuals, it seems quite likely that Russia could be induced to abandon Assad instead. What Russia really wants in the region is its one naval base outside the borders of the former Soviet Union: Tartous. The anti-Assad coalition, including of course the US, could offer to guarantee Russia perpetual access to the base, and the right to expand it as it sees fit. And of course the US has much more to offer. It could back the lifting of sanctions on Russia, it could even accept the annexation of Crimea. It is 'difficult to imagine' that in the face of such inducements, Russia would prefer a hot war in Syria.
Given Russia's retirement from the stage, the case of Iran is simpler. With no air cover, Iran would not be in a position to do anything. It could make trouble elsewhere, but contrary to popular belief, Iran is not an agressive power: in modern times it hasn't made war on anyone, ever. Moreover Iran has a potentially more useful base for its ambitions than Lebanon: the US, unwilling to deploy the large ground forces it would need to run the place, has turned over virtually all of southern Iraq to Iran. But the US doesn't care that much if Iraq goes even further to hell, so it could move against Iranian proxies there and in Syria if it felt so inclined. So it is unlikely that Iran would have the means or inclination to create any massive destabilization of the situation, much less keep Assad in power.
No doubt these suggestions would be met with loud huffing and puffing from the analysts. But either you consider all options, or you don't get to say nothing would have helped. Please note, that is the issue: not whether the option would be wise or moral or in some other sense 'acceptable', not whether it would have led to a better world, not whether it would serve US or European interests, but whether it would have 'led to a better outcome in terms of level of atrocities in Syria'. And clearly the 'scholarly' enterprise fails here. It doesn't consider all the options, and nothing it does consider permits the conclusion that 'regime change' wouldn't have helped.
So the first danger, escalation, is far from established. The second danger is a more realistic prospect. It is that the 'fractured' rebels will nurture or drift towards 'extremists'. Then, it seems, infighting and revenge killing will produce "further atrocities'.
That's not just likely; it's almost certain. Very few wars end without 'further atrocities'. But it would be bizarre to suppose that the anti-Assad coalition couldn't keep these to a level orders of magnitude below what Assad has wrought.
For one thing, the coalition would continue to enjoy absolute air superiority: the sort of MANPADS the rebels possessed would not be any threat to the coalition's aircraft. So no indiscriminate air attacks, no barrel bombs. This alone makes it much less likely that the rebels could inflict civilian casualties at anything like the régime's scale. Air power and cutting off supplies could do only so much to contain the rebels, however; they would have plenty of weapons. Possibly fuel supplies would limit their range. But analysts manifest obtuseness or dishonesty when they suppose that, if the rebels wanted to commit massacres, well... one just has to throw up one's hands.
This is plain nonsense. Given a coalition-backed victory, for the first time there would be forces committed to preventing atrocities (though it must be admitted, the Russians seem to do this a bit). These would both be forces fully aligned with regional powers and under their supervision, and, if necessary, coalition troops. Some of them might even be Western troops. But the notion that this would inevitably lead to some quagmire or spiral of intensification is utterly implausible. Evacuations and safe zones do not fit into such that sort of disaster scenario. This is peace-keeping, not nation-building. There are many examples of peace-keeping in war zones that haven't had the slightest tendency to escalate.
In short here is a 'policy shift', an option, that the analysts never considered, and had to consider if the conclusion that no shift would help is to stand. Why didn't they? Since we are in the realm of speculation, I would like to suggest why.
These analysts do not shape their thinking out of concern for the level of atrocities. They are not concerned about Syrians, except in the sense that they are concerned about Arabs running wild. Even then, they are not concerned about what will happen in Syria. The analysts are concerned, and the record shows this, about terrorism against the West. They are concerned, despite many contrary considerations they ignore, about placing MANPADS in 'extremist' hands, and they are concerned that extremists would establish a base from which they would attack Western targets.
There are two problems with this. First, if that is the analysts’ dominant concern, they should say so. The document pretends, and specifies, that the only consideration for evaluating strategies is minimization of atrocities. If so, that some alternative raises the prospects of terror attacks on the West has no weight at all. So the document is undermined by dishonesty. In the second place, if terror attacks are their concern, they should at least consider the consequences of persisting in the strategy that has led to terrorism against the West in the first place: the toleration or, more often, strong support for every murdering, torturing, secularist tyrant that has ever oppressed the peoples of the Middle East. To pretend mature prudence without even exploring the ramifications of these allegedly prudent conclusions simply manifests the obliviously cruel attitudes that are a large part of the problem in the first place.
In other words, the suppressed document offers nothing but excuses for inaction we have heard many times before, enhanced with the effrontery of scholarly airs and pretentious sophistry. Perhaps, as an example of what is wrong with Western thinking about the Middle East, it was not such a good idea to take the document offline after all.
It remains only to offer suggestions as to what the document reveals about the mentality of the analysts.
It is telling that the document's measure of helpfulness is whether or not atrocities are reduced. This is to lower a veil of ignorance on the Syrian conflict from the word go. When three people were killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, that was an atrocity. When 10 or twenty or thirty or a hundred people have died in terrorist attacks in Europe, those were all atrocities. 9-11, which killed fewer that 3000, that was a massive, unforgettable atrocity. The West spares no efforts in its attempts to reduce these horrors. What then are the crimes of Assad, which involve the killing of perhaps 200,000 innocent people? What are fates of those he tortures to death in the tens of thousands - inserting rats in vaginas, castrating children, letting someone lie tied up in a hallway until dead of starvation?(*) What are the massacres he sponsored, including slitting babies' throats? To speak vaguely of 'atrocities' misses a distinction that the participants in this enterprise - given its sponsoring institution - ought to have grasped. Assad is the sponsor, not of mere atrocities, but of a full-scale holocaust. And to turn away from this realization is just what makes the analysts think it absurd, adolescent, extreme to do whatever it takes to destroy Assad and his régime, even bargains with Russia and Iran, even placing a few more weapons in the hands of radical Islamists.
Imagine if Assad was doing what he did to white Europeans, or Jews, or Afro-Americans. Would it then not seem a matter of the greatest urgency? But for these 'scholars', that would be yielding to adolescent hysteria. These were only Arabs. The matter - and the whole document could not make this plainer - was not urgent at all. This carnage isn't worth risky scenarios, that is, scenarios that offer even a slight, unproven, unquantified level of risk, even if letting the carnage continue might carry with it still greater risks. Such is the perspective of analysts who invest themselves with the moral radiance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
(*) For references, see the appendix to this.