Some Thoughts on Syria

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I won’t linger on this, but the Obama administration has made a real botch of Syria, misreading the Arab Spring from the start, empty threats, etc.

That said: where now? At this point, there is no side in Syria that we are “for”—a point well made by Fareed Zakaria. But unlike the Iran-Iraq war, Syria’s geography rules out “may both sides lose.” Too many refugees are too close to Europe.

But the U.S. and the West do have a big interest in stopping Putin intervention in Syria.

No Russian power in Mediterranean has been a U.S. goal since 1947. Given that we have no dog of our own in the Syrian fight, it seems reckless to risk outright conflict with Russia to get them out. In particular, the “declare a no-fly zone and dare Russians to violate it” seems at best another phony red line and at worse an invitation to outright military conflict with Russia, for no upside gain whatsoever. Seems utterly wrongheaded.

It’s one thing to tussle with Russia for a free, Western-oriented Ukraine. It’s very different to outright fight them on behalf of nobody at all. So if we want Russia out, maybe we should start by figuring out why Russia is “in”—and whether there’s an acceptable way to meet that goal. Maybe Russia’s goals are so maximal that there is no agreement possible. Given how large a role vanity plays in their policy, I’m biased to think we can find outcome that protects Russian prestige, safeguards U.S. (small) direct interests, and reduces refugee flow. Otherwise, Syria is mostly a horrific policing problem, not a prize.

In short: Deal with Russia over Syria, argue with them over Ukraine—where we do have friends who share our values and can use our help.