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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.