The United States wants to do a lot of things in Syria. There are pulls in differing directions that make our policy confusing and unfocused. Americans on the whole would surely like to crush ISIS, placate the Turks, contain the Iranians, advance the cause of Kurdish autonomy, protect innocent civilians, and remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, ideally by a “political settlement” without U.S. Army boots on the ground or the like.
That combination of goals is almost certainly unrealistic. To take just one example of why, consider the words of the magazine Foreign Affairs, “There’s just no way to protect innocent lives without putting professional militaries into the fight.”
U.S. ambassador, Nikki Haley, delivered carefully considered remarks at the United Nations on February 24. She praised the newly enacted resolution 2401, which called for a cease fire. Haley said that the United States hopes it “will be a turning point, where Russia will join us in pushing for the political settlement to this conflict and take action to re-establish real accountability for the use of chemical weapons in Syria.”
But the Syrian government had violated that UN peace fire within hours.
Things don’t break down well along left/right lines here. Both left and right in the U.S. context especially have both interventionist and non-interventionist voices.
Right Wing View
Donald Trump, as a candidate (and still as a private citizen) took the position that the US should “let Syria and ISIS fight.” He said that when he looks at Assad’s government and ISIS, “Assad looks better than the other side.” So he had no interest in intervening in the situation to help ISIS, even if only indirectly, by hitting Assad.
John McCain complains that the Trump administration is not adequately interventionist. He tweets, “#Assad’s continued slaughter in Syria – backed by #Russia and #Iran – is appalling, yet unsurprising given years of brutality. What’s shocking is the [US] administration has no strategy to change course … We must do better.”
Jonathan S. Tobin, at National Review, makes the customary case that somebody ought to do something, and the U.S. is by default generally that somebody. He writes that “the mayhem being carried out by the Assad regime and its Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian allies is deliberately and avowedly aimed at killing civilians and anyone trying to help them, and that it is all an “indiscriminate murder [that] fits the classic definition of a war crime.”
Left Wing View
The left is no more unified on Syria than the right. The non-interventionist left says the White House is all too eager to “maintain neocon war lobbying in #Syria.”
It also points to the ways in which interventions can and do backfire. In this line, one twitter denizen says that a certain Armenian church in Raqqa “was safe before moderate jihadists took over the city [and] lost it to ISIS, after which it was liberated from its existence by U.S. air strikes.”
But there is also an interventionist left, represented for example by Wendy Pearlman, a professor at Northwestern University. Pearlman calls the revolution in Syria – the struggle against Assad by a polyglot alliance – a struggle for “freedom, dignity, and human rights.” She wants direct military intervention by the United States in favor of this alliance/revolution, and she expresses dismay that the Obama administration “backed away” from that idea.
A fellow named “Colm,” about whom I could discover nothing else, replied to Pearlman that the anti-Assad forces don’t constitute a revolution at all. The fighting is “an attempt by sponsored Jihadi extremists to destroy secular Syria.” Colm is confident that it will fail “thanks to the Syrian people who provide the soldiers to defeat them.”
As Colm’s example shows us, Assad has his admirers. Even his attack on Eastern Ghouta has its defenders, such as Ali Ornek, who writes, “Eastern Ghouta jihadists are being used by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to terrorize the capital #Damascus.”