This article on the Syrian civil war just seems like an exercise in excusing the refusal of the Obama administration to decisively support one side in the civil war:
There is a basic fact about Syria’s civil war that never seems to change: It frustrates any attempt at resolution.
Despite many offensives, peace conferences and foreign interventions, including this week’s Turkish incursion into a border town, the only needle that ever seems to move is the one measuring the suffering of Syrians — which only worsens.
Academic research on civil wars, taken together, reveals why. The average such conflict now lasts about a decade, twice as long as Syria’s so far. But there are a handful of factors that can make them longer, more violent and harder to stop. Virtually all are present in Syria.
So what are the factors?
The author says one factor is that the war is "a conflict immune to exhaustion" because outside powers make sure arms never run out and because outside powers are immune to the costs of fighting.
But Syrians are bearing the costs. If they don't want to fight, the war will end. Outside powers can only override locals if Syria becomes the battlefield for foreign forces marching across the country. In a sense ISIL is such a force, drawn from the global Sunni Moslem population. Iran is doing this, too, with a Shia foreign legion drawn from Shia Moslems outside of Syria. But the Hezbollah forces brought in to fight for Assad certainly have experienced the costs of intervention and are not immune to the losses--and have pulled back from operations. Russia has intervened with air power and special forces. So has America. But both superpowers are hardly immune to the problem of casualties. Indeed, both take pains to avoid casualties--or in Russia's case to make the losses public. And these forces are a minority of the combatants in the field. These foreign forces support local Syrian forces rather than replace them.
The author says outside forces bolster local sides that are losing and restore their ability to fight. He says it is a factor that "no one can lose, and no one can win."
Why? I won't argue that outside powers can make a civil war longer and bloodier. But this is a far cry from saying no one can lose and no one can win.
Hell, the Colombian civil war finally is ending with the victory of the government over the main rebel/drug gang after about 50 years of war. We can be glad the government won even though the length of the war is tragic.
We should want the better side to win in Syria, too. We should want Assad to lose just because of the American blood on that regime's hands.
ISIL will lose. I have no doubt of that.
And if ISIL loses without having another anti-Assad rebel force supplant it in the territory ISIL now controls, Assad will be able to focus on rebels in the northwest and southwest to make them lose, too.
And if ISIL and other rebels in the west lose, the Kurds who are trying to carve out an autonomous region in the northeast will face the full force of Assad's forces. So the Kurds will lose.
If all the foes of Assad lose, Assad survives. I suppose you can say nobody can really win given the casualties, but that ignores that Assad's minority-based Alawite regime will have survived and will in fact have won despite the cost.
The author says the "war’s structure encourages atrocities" is another factor. What? Yes, the regime in particular attacks and starves the majority population viewing them as the base of support for the rebellion. And ISIL kills civilians as a natural impulse.
But is this really a function of civil wars supported by outside powers? This is more from the lack of troops on the government side to control people (so they kill and starve them instead) and the natural impulse of the jihadi groups to kill civilians, rather than being the result of outside support.
Remember too that "hearts and minds" isn't exclusively an effort to get people to like your side. Yes, being nice and restrained can persuade people to back your side and shun the other side. But so too can inflicting atrocities if atrocities make your heart fearful of angering the side committing atrocities and make your mind conclude that the possibility of death argues for supporting that side. Just because America tries to move hearts and minds with soccer balls and development doesn't mean everyone uses those methods. Some operate on the theory that if you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow. Apart from the morality of such tactics and the long-range value of that approach, it can work.
Outside support doesn't create that pro-atrocity outlook. Indeed, it was our presence in Iraq War 1.0 that restrained Iraqi government forces from committing atrocities even as the insurgents and terrorists escalated atrocities in 2006.
So I have serious reservations about this claim. Civil wars are generally brutal from the simple fact that both sides have nowhere to go. In interstate wars, one side fighting in another country can go home. Where do the factions in a civil war go?
This is related to the next factor that "fear of defeat entrenches the status quo." I'm not even sure what to make of this claim. Of course fear of what the enemy might do if they win encourages you to fight even if you don't know how you'd win the war.
Do you think German forces retreating from Russian offensives from 1942-1945 fought less hard from fear of losing to the Soviets just because defeating the USSR didn't seem likely? Winning must meant surviving and hoping the costs of totally defeating the Germans would prove too high.
Then we get this factor: "Syrian parties are built to fight, not win."
Okay. There is at least a point here. Most of the forces in the civil war are trying to defend what they have and don't have the mobile forces or logistics to make major offensives. Most forces--including the government's--are local defense forces tied to defending their homes. That factor does encourage fighting without hope of victory engineered by going on the offensive.
But that was the situation in Iraq in June 2014 when ISIL was largely confined to Sunni Arab areas, Kurds were in the Kurdish areas, the the Iraqi government was in the Shia areas. Since then I've argued we needed mobile forces on the government side to spearhead offensives. We've been trying to do that for two years now and have finally seen Iraqi and Shia forces claw back territory over the last 9 months. The pending Mosul offensive perhaps promises to be a more rapid advance if my suspicions are correct.
Yet when the writer says that multiple factions make it harder to settle the war, you have to forget the early part of the article where the author says:
The ground battles also include Kurdish militias, who have some foreign backing, and the Islamic State, which does not. But pro-government and opposition forces are focused on one another, making them and their sponsors the war’s central dynamic.
The Assad regime and anti-Assad Sunni Arabs (who are divided) are the central actors. So the other factions are minor by comparison. So it really isn't mostly a multi-polar civil war.
And I don't get this factor: "This is why multisided oppositions tend to fail. Even if they overthrow the government, they often end up in a second war among themselves."
One, the Assad-anti-Assad fight is the central dynamic. But even if the fact that the opposition is fractured, so what? That's normal. So after beating Assad, then that civil war among the victorious factions is fought and somebody wins that fight. We fought World War II. Then the West and the USSR fought a Cold War. Yes, it is long. But one side can win. Multiple sides can certainly lose.
Or the victors might negotiate among themselves. That's possible, too. Perhaps it doesn't mean peace but maybe it means the best of the victors isolate and defeat the worst.
And this claim neglects what "winning" means for factions.
Assad wins if he controls a core Syria running from Damascus through an arc to the coast. Hell, Assad wins if he loses Damascus and just holds the coast and an inland buffer.
Assad's patron Iran wins if Assad controls even that minimal ground giving Iran overland access to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Russia wins if Assad controls that territory to provide Russia with airbases and ports on the eastern Mediterranean to project power from Russia's new and stronger position in Russian Occupied Crimea in the Black Sea. (It is interesting to ponder whether Russia would have intervened in Syria without owning all of Crimea, eh?)
The Kurds win if they control their home territory.
ISIL wins if they control their own territory as the start of the caliphate. Ultimately ISIL hopes for a caliphate that controls the entire Moslem world, but in the short run they don't need all of Syria to win the civil war.
Only the Sunni Arab factions arguably need to defeat Assad and occupy Assad's core Syria to win rather than just hold what they have. But if they do that, they could lose the Kurdish region and much of what ISIL controls and still be considered the winner.
Another factor says that even trying for victory is dangerous because it could escalate to inter-state war. I highly doubt either Russia or America would fight each other over Syria. America did not fight the USSR or China when those two surged support to help North Vietnam defeat South Vietnam. And Russia did not fight America when America escalated to defeat the USSR in Afghanistan.
Yes, China and America fought each other in the Korean War. But it remained localized to Korea. And Russia did not intervene to fight America directly when their side began to lose despite having started that war.
The factor that there are no peacekeepers willing to move in assumes that the civil war cannot be won by the combatants and that a deal is necessary to end the war.
This point also assumes that peacekeepers will keep the peace. How'd that work in the territory of the former Yugoslavia? How has that worked in Lebanon? Where has it worked?
Face it, counting on UN peacekeepers to make a peace is folly. All UN peacekeepers will do is suspend the war before it is resolved with a winner and a loser. And allow everyone to gear up to renew the war.
And the Syrians have to want to fight for this civil war to go on. Despite the title of the article that says the war only gets worse ("Syria’s Paradox: Why the War Only Ever Seems to Get Worse"), this is not true. The year 2014 was the peak year of casualties. People are getting exhausted and less willing to die to do more than defend their local areas.
But yes, total victory with control of territory changing hands in a major way could lead the victorious side to attempt genocide against losers.
This should be all the more reason for America to try to support (and influence) a reasonable rebel faction to defeat Assad. Remember that despite centuries of Sunni Arab dominance, decades of Saddam's Sunni Arab brutality, and years of Sunni Arab terrorism, American managed to restrain the Shia and Kurdish victors in Iraq War 1.0 from committing revenge atrocities in Iraq against the Sunni Arabs after we won that war on the battlefield.
Our absence after 2011 allowed the Shia-dominated government to discriminate against the Sunni Arabs enough for the latter to back ISIL for a while, but you must admit that we did prevent genocide against the Sunni Arabs of Iraq.
While outside sponsors can make the war longer and more costly in lives and material assets lost, the author does not explain why somebody won't win the war eventually. And why we can't help the best side (or at worse the least bad side) win.
And the author doesn't explain that our approach to the civil war hasn't been to win the war by defeating Assad but to pressure Assad into negotiations by offering minimal support to rebels while waging what we hope is a separate war against ISIL in Syria (which is fighting Assad, too). both of these approaches have the effect of lessening pressure on Assad.
All in all, the NYT article seems like a lengthy exercise in defending the weak efforts of the Obama administration in Syria and reassure Americans that rather than trying hard to defeat Assad back when Assad was weak and jihadis were few that this weak role was actually the wise thing to do because nothing can really work.
Excuse the length of this post. I really hate going on this much. Both for your sake who is confronted with a lot of scrolling and for my sake since writing this much risks losing focus and I'm not willing to fully treat this like an article being sent for publication.
But the article was nonsense masquerading as nuance.
Nuance is a wonder to behold.