In wake of Vladimir Putin annexing Crimea into the Russian Federation and supporting Eastern separatists against a Ukrainian government it perhaps rightly views as illegitimate, U.S. policy hawks argued the entire crisis could have been prevented: had President Obama followed through on his August 2013 commitment to bomb the Syrian government in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia would have been cowed by America’s resolve and therefore responded to subsequent events in neighboring Ukraine by more-or-less capitulating to Western demands.
These counterfactuals are empty, offered without any corroborating evidence that carrying out the strikes would have actually changed Putin’s calculus. In fact, the whole notion of deterrence has been greatly undermined by contemporary research in cognitive science and psychology. Unfortunately, beltway Washington hasn’t gotten the memo.
Russia’s response to Ukraine has nothing to do with Obama’s actions in Syria (something the critics would know that if they simply listened to Putin). If anything, the Ukrainian crisis was caused, not because Washington was too soft in Syria, but because it was far too aggressive everywhere else. Moscow was not responding to perceived American weakness, but instead attempting to defend its critical interests from what it viewed as Western expansionism.
Obama’s decision to back down from the precipice of another ill-fated direct military engagement in the Middle East was a rare and laudable moment of sanity. Following through on a threat simply because the president had previously committed to it doesn’t help U.S. credibility if the policies in question prove disastrous. Nonetheless, policy hawks insist that the Administration’s momentary pragmatism has undermined “U.S. credibility”—which, to their minds, is about the United States “standing by” its stated commitments (no matter what).
Succumbing to pressure from these critics, the White House has responded to Russia’s actions in Ukraine by striking an even more confrontational posture. A year into this new dynamic, the Obama Administration’s strategy has proven totally ineffective at changing Russia’s approach to Ukraine, and have been highly counterproductive in the broader geopolitical arena.
The current rift between the U.S. and Russia threatens critical initiatives, from the impending NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, to the ongoing negotiations with Iran and resolving the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has been aligning itself more closely with other emerging powers to act as a collective counterweight to Western hegemony—even as it enacts its own effective countermeasures to punish the Europeans who joined the U.S. efforts at isolating Moscow.
But instead of acknowledging its missteps and seeking reconciliation with the Kremlin, Washington is ramping up its provocative, irresponsible, and inaccurate rhetoric with regards to Russia (because, once again, backing down would supposedly jeopardize U.S. “credibility”). The hopefuls for the next U.S. administration are also jumping on board, with Hillary “reset-button” Clinton going so far as to compare Putin to Hitler. How these actions are supposed to promote American interests is totally unclear.
In fact, the critics have it precisely inverted: it wasn’t U.S. weakness in Syria that informed Putin’s thinking on Ukraine. Instead, the same pernicious psychology that the U.S. had brought to bear throughout the Syrian crisis also poisoned America’s response to Ukraine: doubling-down on strategies which were clearly failing in a misguided attempt to “preserve U.S. credibility.”
Syria’s Unlearned Lessons on “Credibility”
In August 2011, the White House demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down. Since Obama was unequivocal in calling for this resignation, the conventional wisdom suggested that any agreement short of Assad’s ouster would jeopardize Washington’s credibility. Hence, the U.S. and its allies refused to accept negotiated settlements that would have reformed the Syrian regime while leaving Assad in a prominent role to oversee the transition (the outcome still favored by Assad and his international supporters including Russia). Instead the U.S. vowed to keep the armed rebellion alive unless or until Syria’s president resigned or was overthrown, interfering with the diplomatic track in the interim.
Subsequent strategies to pressure Assad backfired. It began with ever-expanding sanctions. When they failed, as sanctions usually do, the U.S. began funding the nascent armed-insurgency against the government while appointing a council of proxies as the “legitimate” representative of the Syrian people. A recent report by the Central Intelligence Agency demonstrates that these tactics have virtually never succeeded in achieving America’s stated geopolitical ends. Syria proved no exception: Neither the armed forces nor the so-called Syrian government-in-exile ever garnered any meaningful control or legitimacy “on the ground.”
The widespread Syrian ambivalence to the insurrection was not tied to a lack of confidence in the opposition’s ability to prevail over the regime. With U.S. support, there was little doubt that the rebels could “win” the war. Syrians have first-hand knowledge of Washington’s prowess to engineer regime-change, as well as its inability to ensure good outcomes in the aftermath. A series of U.S.-backed coups in the 1950’s turned Syria into one of the least stable countries in the Middle East. It is not a history Syrians hope to repeat.
The 2011 Syrian uprising failed because the public lacked confidence in the opposition’s ability to provide a viable and superior alternative to the existing government. It was not a question of whether they could prevail on the battlefield, but of what would happen next. It remains painfully obvious that neither the opposition, nor their patrons in the U.S. government, have any cogent plan for the day after Assad (which is also likely why the U.S. has not yet deposed him). None of America’s orchestrated transitions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Libya or Yemen offer models that Syrians would want to emulate. These failures go to the heart of the “credibility gap” that the U.S. and its proxies face in Syria.
The White House has been offering the Syrian people the right to vote, but not necessarily the ability to feed their families or live in relative stability and security. Meanwhile, Assad’s regime has been highly focused on the latter: providing these benefits to government-held territories and depriving them to rebel-held areas. This is why his beleaguered government is more or less ”winning” the war. The Obama administration’s refrain that Assad has “lost all credibility” with the Syrian people is demonstrably false. For those who actually have to live with (and in) whatever becomes of Syria, the most credible actor will be whoever can, first and foremost, hold the state together and ensure its continued functioning. Questions about reforming the system, while important, will be secondary — one has to first preserve the state for reforms to be relevant.
Towards a more Sane, Pragmatic Foreign Policy
Over the last three years, as each component of the U.S. strategy began to backfire, the Obama Administration had chances to reconsider and perhaps radically reform their aspirations and tactics in Syria. Instead, they dumped ever-more resources into these doomed enterprises (continuing to the present) because they mistakenly believe credibility is about consistency rather than deliverables.
And so, the U.S.-led coalition has been sticking to the same basic formula in Syria, while Damascus continues to deftly adjust its approach — both on the political and military fronts. Assad’s willingness to change is not a sign of weakness, but strength: rather than causing more people to lose faith in the state, the Syrian public is overwhelmingly, and likely incontrovertibly, siding with the government (albeit begrudgingly in many quarters).
The U.S. must recognize these calcifying political dynamics in Syria and treat Assad as a legitimate interlocutor in negotiations. Similarly, the Obama administration needs to acknowledge that there is no good outcome for Ukraine without strong Russian support. Achieving stable transitions in Ukraine and Syria will require the cooperation of Assad and Putin. In accordance with these realities, the U.S. should be providing these leaders with guarantees and incentives in order to re-build trust, mitigate disagreements and ultimately arrive at a viable solution. This is not appeasement, but instead, projecting American influence in more subtle and productive ways.
Such a strategy may require compromising or altogether abandoning previous U.S. policy positions—so be it. The current regime of threats and coercion will continue to backfire because it alienates partners who are essential to resolving the respective crises in Ukraine and Syria.
Those pushing for a more aggressive U.S. response should ask themselves whether the 2003 invasion of Iraq bolstered America’s credibility. No. It dramatically undermined U.S. standing around the world because it was illegal, immoral, and disastrous. Relative to these facts, it didn’t matter that President Bush followed through on his commitment to depose Saddam Hussein. Did bombing Iraq deter Putin from invading Georgia in 2008? No. Because in Georgia, as in Ukraine today, Putin’s focus was on Russia’s critical interests rather than Washington’s “resolve” or the lack thereof. And so there is no reason to believe that bombing Damascus would have done anything to deter Moscow in Ukraine either.
Instead, it seems as though the “credibility issue” is both overstated and misstated. Credibility is not built by sticking dogmatically to one’s positions; people earn and maintain credibility by making good decisions (i.e. those which successfully lead to positive outcomes for the relevant stakeholders). Accordingly, a great way President Obama could help restore U.S. credibility would be to abandon, rather than doubling-down on, his failed strategies in Syria and Ukraine.