The breakup of Yugoslavia took about a decade, killed roughly 120,000 people, and displaced nearly 3 million. In the fifth year of Syria’s civil war, “we’ve already blown past those numbers,” said Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. To date, that war has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced 11 million people—meaning half the country’s people have had to leave home.
Corker was speaking at the Washington Ideas Forum on Wednesday, and he cited one moment—more specifically 10 hours—that in his view would have made the biggest difference. “Obviously we’ve missed opportunities,” he said. But the most important, in his view, came in the fall of 2013, following an August 21 chemical-weapons attack outside Damascus, which was described by an administration official at the time as “an indiscriminate, inconceivable horror,” and which killed nearly 1,500 civilians. In the aftermath of that attack, said Corker, there was “bipartisan support” for airstrikes against the Assad regime to enforce President Obama’s declared “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Corker said the operation would have been quick and would have involved “no boots on the ground.”
In the event, that bipartisan support didn’t translate to the authorization Obama sought for airstrikes; less than two weeks after asking lawmakers to approve the operation, he then asked them to postpone that vote in favor of a diplomatic deal with Russia to get Assad to give up his chemical weapons, a move Corker called akin to jumping “into Putin’s lap to deal with the chemical-weapons issue.” Not bombing Syria then, he said, “took the wind out of the sails” of the Free Syrian Army—the “moderate opposition” to Assad—which in Corker’s view “had real momentum at that point.”
The idea that the rise of ISIS, and the horrifying depredations of the Assad regime, could have been stopped in the length of a workday is a tantalizing one, and one to which the recent history of the Middle East lends little credence. Hillary Clinton has instead blamed the current chaos on the Obama administration’s early failure to arm rebels in Syria. The counterfactuals are just that, and meanwhile people keep dying and fleeing. But politicians’ ideas of what went wrong gives a rough idea of what they will try to put in practice to make it right. As the U.S. considers its next moves, decision-makers’ hierarchies of the most important missed opportunities in the past is an instructive guide to the shape of America’s inevitably increased involvement in the future.