Syrian War Shows That Some International Problems Don’t Have Practical Solutions

Last week,  The Washington Post reported that President Trump was suspending covert aid to Syrian rebels in their efforts to topple President Bashar al-Assad. While the White House has provided no official comment on the matter, since it’s a classified program, this move had been several months in the making as removing Assad was no longer a priority for the administration. They recognized that continuing to arm the rebels was unlikely to yield any significant results. This is a rare moment of sanity in the American approach to the Middle East, where the government admitted to limitations on its ability to engineer a positive solution out of a highly complex and volatile problem. The harsh reality is that some geopolitical problems don’t have solutions––the Syrian Civil War is a prime example of this.

The move to stop aid to the rebels brought praise from some unusual sources for Trump, such as Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic Congresswoman from Hawaii. Gabbard and others insist that the weapons provided by the US ultimately fall into the hands of terrorist and extremist groups. Critics, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, charge that ending the program is a capitulation to both Russia and Iran.

The CIA conducted a study in 2013 and found that its many attempts to aid rebels throughout their history has rarely worked. But cutting off aid to the Syrian rebels is a minor issue in the grand scheme of what has been a brutal conflict, as the civil war has pushed the country past a breaking point where a return to normalcy and stability is unlikely. As Denis Dragovic and Richard Iron, an author and 40 year veteran of the British Army respectively, write in The National Interest, “regardless of which faction is eliminated or who is removed from their position of power, the likelihood of stabilizing Syria is low.” They further argue that the “limited capacity of the international community, the conflicting geopolitical interests, and the depth of animosity among people on the ground” means that whether it’s a world without ISIS or Assad, Syria will likely remain an unstable and volatile place.

As Dragovic and Iron emphasize, there is very little that the US and other actors can do to make Syria a fully functioning state again. As the failures of state-building in Iraq and Afghanistan show, building institutions of stable governance––particularly after a devastating war––is tricky business. Political economist Christopher Coyne has argued extensively that successfully importing institutions of governance requires they be designed to complement the existing social norms and informal institutions––habits, beliefs, and common practices––already present. The different groups of people have to figure out the high level art of association that allows them to interact peacefully. As Dragovic and Iron remind us, that goodwill likely doesn’t exist.

Dragovic and Iron recommend that Syria actually be broken up and the borders redrawn, carving out autonomous regions for involved parties to create states of their own. This presents its own challenges, as there is no science to drawing up borders, but they are right that any long term answer in Syria will need to be figured out by the people who live there. It will most likely be painful, and will take more time than anyone would probably like. But it will need to emerge from the people of Syria, not imposed from the outside.

It’s a natural tendency to want to problem solve, particularly when the scale of the problem reaches the level of civil war and humanitarian crisis. But that doesn’t mean that government has the tools to do anything meaningful about it. People fall hostage to what Duke University political science professor Michael Munger has called the “do something problem” – because something is undesirable, we need to do something about it, regardless of the ability to actually fix it or not. And when that prescription fails, it’s because of a lack of resources or political will.

While there are legitimate concerns about the influence of Russia and Iran, the ending of aid to Syrian rebels and the inability to influence the events in Syria more broadly doesn’t show a lack of imagination or political resolve. It highlights that in foreign affairs, much like in domestic issues, sometimes there are no easy, practical solutions to a problem as complex as Syria’s civil war.

Jerrod A. Laber is a writer, former classical singer, and non-profit program director living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @jerrodlaber.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South