Frederic C. Hof writes: Geneva II was an attempt to fill that which nature abhors: a vacuum. Yet the vast emptiness of US policy toward Syria swallowed the effort itself, making it seem tiny, silly, and futile. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime calculated that it could treat the initiative with contempt. Although the opposition delegation in Geneva acted with competence and dignity, it could not alter or avoid facts on the ground; it could not dispel the belief on the part of the regime, Tehran, and Moscow that there is indeed a military solution for the Syrian crisis, a solution that is very much a work in progress.
The supposed absence of a military remedy to Syria’s travails has been the central talking point of a strategy-free approach to the crisis by the West, led—if that is the proper word—by the United States. The regime, Russia, and Iran may well be wrong that the uprising against crime family rule can be beaten by force of arms. Yet the West’s incantation to the contrary is by no means the product of rigorous, dispassionate analysis. Rather the United States and its allies simply have no appetite for trying seriously to affect the military situation inside Syria. The West has offered no meaningful counter to those who supply strategic arms, inject foreign fighters, and facilitate war crimes and crimes against humanity, all in an attempt to win a war outright. Ergo there is no military solution. It is as if the fact that one chooses not to play somehow means that the game itself does not exist.
That one side thinks it can win a battlefield decision gives it a perfectly logical sense of what a diplomatic outcome should entail: the other (losing) side suing for peace. The West, going into Geneva II, aimed to break new ground in the theory and practice of diplomacy: the party prevailing on the battlefield should do the decent thing and yield power. The self-serving doctrine of no military solution for Syria was even projected onto Russia in the hope that Moscow would prevail on its murderous client to stop shooting and graciously step aside. US leaders now voice disappointment in Russia’s Geneva II performance, suggesting a degree of surprise. One might just as usefully express shock over the dietary habits of the hyena.
Rather than speciously proclaiming the impossibility of a military decision in Syria, the administration might instead argue that US interests are not engaged by what happens in Syria; at least not to the extent that a serious effort to affect the military situation would be merited. One could argue that although regime atrocities against civilians easily represent the premier human rights abomination of the twenty-first century, there are similar (albeit smaller scale) abuses around the globe, so on what basis would one intervene in one place and not others? One could maintain that the only sort of military gesture that would really matter in Syria would be the Iraq-like invasion and occupation of the country. One could warn that even a military mission aimed precisely at killing the delivery systems that drop barrel bombs and other explosives on the defenseless would put the United States on a slippery slope to yet another Middle Eastern war.
Indeed, all of these arguments—or excuses for inaction—have already been made, some quite explicitly by President Barack Obama. One of his top aides reportedly even advanced the argument that Syria would be a wonderful place for Iran to have a bloody, drawn-out, Vietnam-like experience: a morality-free proposition offering Syrians a twist on the Will Rogers observation that, “Anything’s funny as long as it’s happening to someone else.” Perversely, however, the hand-wringing and excuse-making—the transformation of “never again” to “well, maybe just this once”—has made a bad situation incalculably worse and is now forcing the administration to reconsider the “no military solution” cop-out and its corollaries. [Continue reading…]