By Christopher Phillips for Yale Books, 3 October 2016
Many Syria watchers and US commentators have attributed the US’ relative caution in the conflict as the result of Barack Obama’s personal choices, and hope that a new president would take a more active role. However, President Obama has intervened considerably in the Syria conflict already. He called for Assad’s departure impacting the behaviour of others, supported the armed and political opposition, and sent the US air force into Syria against ISIS. Those who complain about a lack of US intervention, actually mean that Obama has not sent US forces directly against Assad, either to topple him or provide humanitarian relief for civilians attacked in rebel-held areas. Though it has frustrated his critics, both regional allies like Saudi Arabia and members of the US foreign policy establishment, Obama has taken a cold calculated look at how much the Syria conflict impacts US vital interests and concluded that further intervention is not worth the cost.
Would another president have acted differently? In the wake of the failure in Iraq, public appetite in the US for large scale military deployments in the Middle East seems very low, as seen by Obama needing to constantly reassure that the ISIS campaign would not involve ‘boots on the ground’ in any great number. The 2008 financial crisis has also increased the unpopularity of expensive wars for the electorate. Indeed, there is little public support for more military action in Syria outside of the DC Beltway. Moreover, the dynamics of the Middle East have changed, with powers such as Russia and Iran, but also the US’ allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey more willing to challenge US designs on the region and pursue their own policies. Structurally, it is therefore more difficult to take further action in Syria than it was in Iraq in 2003 and the chances of success – elusive in Iraq even with a huge military deployment – are even more limited. This combined with the complex specifics of the Syrian war deterred Obama, and will likely deter the next president as well.
Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas. However, to escalate the US presence sufficiently to pressure Russia and Iran enough to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources and would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US does not see as in its vital interest. Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, following on from John Kerry’s recent negotiations, possibly even ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump to entertain such a potentially humiliating climb down, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war as he still lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria.
Importantly, both Clinton and Trump would face the same structural restraints, domestic and international, faced by Obama. A few cosmetic shifts might occur, especially if Clinton is elected, but US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their re-election prospects. Indeed, neither has made Syria a major campaign issue. Continuing a cautious approach and hoping that the conflict can slowly be reduced and contained by a range of limited military action and diplomacy rather than a dramatic new intervention therefore seems the most probable outcome, whoever is elected.