Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Syria: Reflecting on the Past Year

by Steven A. Cook
January 14, 2013

Syrian refugees stand outside their tents after heavy rain at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).


Almost exactly a year ago, I published “It’s Time to Think Seriously About Intervening in Syria” on the  A lot has happened since then including an additional 55,000 deaths in what has become a full-blown civil war.  It is nothing short of tragic.  When I think about Syria today, I drift back sixteen and seventeen years ago to when I spent time there first as a tourist and then as a student studying Arabic.  As I explained to friends who invariably asked, “You are going where?” if you separate the brutality of the Assad regime from the people, the wonderful things to see, and the outstanding cuisine, Syria was a great place to visit.  By no means do I intend to whitewash the horrors of what Syria has become, which brings me back to the Atlantic piece.  I don’t think it was the time I spent in Damascus and traveling around the country that gave me some sort of insight, but I’ve never been so unhappy to say how correct I was about how Syria would unfold if nothing were done to stop Assad early last year.  The “it’s only a matter of time before Assad falls” argument that was going around Washington at the time was a matter of wishful thinking.  All of the talk of a diplomatic solution including the “Russia option” proved to be a chimera as Syrians were left to defend themselves against a leader who had every incentive and means to defend himself, his family, and his regime.  Is it any wonder that Syria has ended up the horrific war zone that it is?

When I penned the “It’s Time to Think Seriously About Intervening in Syria” article I was trying to stir a debate.  I also thought that an intervention was the best course if the international community was serious that “Assad must go.”  I still believe it was the correct course at the time.  It would not have been easy.  It would have cost lives, but it may have forestalled the maelstrom that Syria has become.  Now that the country has deteriorated to the depths that it has, it is difficult to maintain that position.  It is hard for me to see how an intervention can be helpful at this point.  The United States and its allies—principally Turkey—would be caught in the middle of someone else’s civil war, costing more lives and likely leading to a costly presence in Syria for years to come.  The best that the United States can do is help its allies in the region deal with the fallout of Syria’s civil war.  Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon all need more assistance to deal with the flood of refugees into their countries.  It’s good to know that the United States has contributed $200 million to refugee relief, but much more is needed.  By all accounts, the condition of Syria’s refugees, especially in Jordan—a country already burdened with displaced Iraqis and generations of Palestinian refugees—is appalling. Helping to relieve the suffering of the Syrians who were “fortunate” enough to escape is both the most and the least that the international community can do.

The most stunning thing about how American foreign policy experts and elites talk about Syria today is the one aspect of the country’s crisis that they won’t discuss. There is little to no actual debate about direct international intervention into an uprising and crackdown that has cost more than 5,000 Syrian lives. In response to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s violence against largely peaceful protesters, which leaves dozens of people dead every day, the international community has denounced Damascus “in the strongest possible terms,” as diplomats like to say, placed the country and its leadership under sanction, and searched for additional punitive measures short of the use of force. Oddly, at the same time that the United States, Europe, and the Arab League have apparently rejected meeting Bashar al-Assad’s violence with violence, there is an assumption in Washington that it is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime falls. It is largely a self-serving hunch that does not necessarily conform to what is actually happening in Syria, but nevertheless provides cover for doing nothing to protect people who are at the mercy of a government intent on using brutality to re-establish its authority. After all, if the many Syrians who have been in open revolt since March of last year are on the verge of bringing down Assad, then, as the conventional wisdom has it, there is no need for an international response and thus no need for an agonizing debate about whether to use force in Syria. But this logic seems less convincing every day, and it might be time to reconsider our assumptions about intervention.

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  • Posted by Aaron P

    You underestimate Syria’s order of battle and military capabilities.

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