For those of us who research and write on U.S. foreign policy, the Syrian civil war brought to the fore, in a way few other things could, the dilemmas of our work. One of the goals of the policy community is to, of course, influence the policymaking process. What happens, though, when that process, and the people who lead it, have little interest in outside counsel?
This wasn’t a problem of a lack of knowledge or the willful disregard of facts, as is sometimes the case in government. Officials in the Barack Obama administration were not oblivious to what was going on in Syria. It was more a question of “ideology,” that dreaded word, and not one normally associated with the Obama administration.
President Obama styled himself a technocratic pragmatist, always interested in what “worked.” But the evolution of U.S. policy toward Syria seemed to bely this characterization. Obama’s “defensive minimalism” on Syria and the broader Middle East, to use David Rothkopf’s phrase, was not incidental;1 it was a product of a deeply held conviction that the use of American power in Syria would only make matters worse. A focus on the president – just one man, however powerful, in a massive bureaucracy – might seem odd, tiresome even. But this was an unusual presidency: American foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, was dependent on this one man to an exceptional degree. Whether it was President Obama’s last-minute decision in August 2013 to back off from airstrikes against the Assad regime or his unwillingness to focus more attention on Syria after ISIS’s rise became all too obvious, Obama has rejected the advice of allies abroad as well as senior officials in his own administration.
What did this mean for the policy community? The basic thrust of President Obama’s approach to Syria was basically immovable. From 2011 onwards, the context on the ground changed dramatically, yet the administration’s overarching objective remained more or less the same: minimize u.s. involvement as much as possible. In 2011, the Syrian civil war was not yet a civil war; it was a largely peaceful uprising. As the Assad regime insisted on using brute force against protesters, massacring thousands, the opposition gradually militarized. By early 2012, mainstream rebel forces – extremists were yet to play a dominant role – were making significant gains, marching ever closer to Damascus. In the absence of meaningful international support, however, rebels were unable to maintain momentum and suffered from growing internal divisions. With a growing political and power vacuum, hardliners and extremists, who gradually established themselves as the best equipped and resourced on the battlefield, gained at the expense of mainstream rebels. What has changed the most – and we should never lose sight of this part of it – was the sheer number of those who perished.