Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Lessons and Challenges of Syria

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

May 23, 2014

The bloody conflagration in Syria is now in its third year with over 150,000 dead, more than two million refugees, an estimated nine million internally displaced people, and catastrophic destruction of the physical environment. The city of Homs, the rebel “capital,” is now in government hands, and the Assad regime seems to be winning the war. The international community remains at a loss as to what to do. The effort to negotiate an end to the conflict collapsed almost as soon as it started and Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, has resigned after two years of failed efforts at resolution.

Syria is a perpetual topic for conferences, editorials, newscasts. In one recent roundtable discussion sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, a group of foreign policy experts discussed what to do about Syria. Former US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, normally a friend of military intervention, preached caution. Essentially, Crocker confessed that there was little that could be done by outsiders, a position that was confirmed by others in the group. He said that establishing a Sunni government (in place of the current Alawite regime) would be counter-productive; rather, we need to prepare for a post-Assad government and strengthen allies in the region. But, even in his reluctance for direct US involvement, Crocker could not get past a default “super power” mentality that assumes we could establish a Sunni government if we wanted to or that, when all is said and done, Assad will be gone. In actuality, we have no power to ensure either eventuality, and it is unclear what “strengthening our allies in the region” really means.

Almost no one is recommending US or Western military intervention—not even President Obama’s severest critics. When pressed, most of them essentially would do no more than he is now doing. Many policy experts see the failures of Iraq and Afghanistan writ even larger: enormous American casualties, a huge financial cost, and no guarantee of success (or even how to define success.) The Syrian conflict has become another poster child for post-Cold war conflict: religious, clan, and ideological organizations fighting for supremacy, embattled governments, non-uniformed combatants, high civilian casualties, hit and run tactics, long term conflict, and splintered states.

So how should we think about resolving the conflict in Syria?  The Center for Public Justice’s guiding principles dealing with government and international affairs advocate a law-centered approach. Accordingly, a law-bound government is charged with protecting citizens. The state needs to be based on “legitimate authority” and should have a monopoly on the use of force. The United States, as the world’s leading military power, needs to strengthen international law and counter terrorism with the cooperation of like-minded alliances and international organizations. It must remain involved (what does involved mean?) and all of this needs to be undergirded by just war doctrine. This sounds great, but how realistic is it? Can we really do this?

It seems to me that there are two major, interconnected problems. First, CPJ’s principles, especially concerning international cooperation and international law, are state-centric in an environment that is becoming less so. The region of the hoped-for “Arab Spring” has moved more quickly toward a post-state reality than almost anywhere in the world. Sadly, American leadership’s understanding of the international environment today is rooted in the same late twentieth century (pre-Iraq) model as CPJ’s prescriptions when the old norms still had some meaning. Certainly the state is and will be important, but it is now merely one player on a much broader international stage.

Second, how can the United States lead in this environment of multiple political and military forces in Syria and, indeed, throughout the Middles East? Our leaders establish “red lines,” declare certain actions “unacceptable,” and wag their fingers in righteous indignation. But no concrete action follows. American policy toward Syria and the rest of the region is a paradox between leaders’ self-perception of American power and the reality that our ability to influence events is considerably diminished from what it was just as few years ago. We do not have the money or sufficient military manpower to determine outcomes, and the American public is unwilling to sustain the high cost in lives and treasure that would be needed to intervene in Syria or elsewhere. 

None of this means that American involvement, international law, just war, and alliances per se are obsolete. But it does mean that all of this has to be redefined for the twenty-first century to include non-state actors, including Muslim organizations that we might define as terrorist entities. Anything less not only defies international reality, it perpetuates violence. This reorientation is not surrender, but a recognition that the world has changed fundamentally and permanently. It is an endeavor in which CPJ can and should be involved.

-  Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”