Economics may be the dismal science, but international relations is right up there. Even in the wake of that stomach-churning picture of the shell-shocked Syrian boy, ask an international security specialist what he or she thinks about the Syrian civil war, and you’re likely to end up with a list of general research findings like this one, from almost two and a half years ago:
- civil wars last really long;
- the more factions participating, the longer they take;
- most civil wars don’t end with the vaunted “political solution,” but rather a battlefield victory; and
- the ones that do end with political solutions hold better when the settlements reflect the military balance of power and get enforced by interested third parties.
In other words, when it comes to Syria, we’re probably doomed, at least for the short term.
Even the UN Special Envoy for Syria, whose job is to be idealistic, cashiered a humanitarian meeting on Syria after all of eight minutes last week. Why? Because
in Syria what we are hearing and seeing is only fighting, offensives, counter-offensives, rockets, barrel bombs, mortars, hellfire cannons, napalm, chlorine, snipers, air strikes, suicide bombers.
Not one single convoy has so far reached any of the humanitarian besieged areas this month, not one single convoy, and why? Because of one thing: fighting.
The priority clearly at the moment, at least from what we see, is fighting.
The grim truth, gleaned from scholarship and events on the battlefield, is that this terrible war probably is going to end when one side wins it. Not when, after hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions displaced, the sides just sort of shrug and conclude that it was all a big mistake. Enmities are hardening, deepening, as the brutality continues.
It’s into this reality that almost-certain Hillary SecDef Michele Fluornoy growled this to NPR:
I don’t think the Russians or the Iranians or Assad are going to seriously come to the table until they’re convinced that they can’t win this militarily, and that means ensuring that the opposition holds its own.
In this construction, our war aim is to ensure that the Russians and the Iranians and Assad do not win the war. To that end, the opposition doesn’t need to win, which it almost certainly cannot do, but merely “hold its own” such that Assad and Co. feel “they can’t win this militarily.”
What you’ve heard there is a recipe for ensuring that the war wears on even longer.
If our interest in Syria is about high politics: about our, or Russia’s, or Iran’s, position in the Middle East, then the humanitarian disaster in the country is simply an unhappy consequence of our pursuit of the national interest. We’re prolonging a civil war in pursuit of a worse outcome for our adversaries.
If our interest in Syria is humanitarian, you’d like to hear a prospective Secretary of Defense saying something other than that we’re aiming at building up–and bleeding out–the opposition just enough to make the settlement terms a bit more unfavorable for Vladimir Putin.