Syria and the Saratoga Moment

| May 31, 2014
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In his address at West Point earlier this week, President Barack Obama reaffirmed that the United States will continue to provide assistance to those parts of the armed opposition to the rule of Bashar al-Assad that are not affiliated with pro-Al-Qaeda or other such radical elements. One of the criticisms of U.S. efforts has been and remains that the United States is offering only limited amount of help, enough to assuage its own conscience, but is not prepared to do the things that would bring the conflict to an end either by forcing Assad to the negotiating table or to terminate his regime altogether.

Two years ago, the president declared that “Assad must go” and his administration seems loath to repudiate that stance by countenancing a settlement to Syria’s civil war that would leave Assad in power–a solution that has been proposed, at various times, by the Russians. Yet many analysts now conclude that the likelihood of the opposition triumphing on the battlefield is very remote.

The “Saratoga moment” I allude to in the title of this post refers to the impact of the 1777 Battle of Saratoga in the American War of Independence. This was the first time that the American rebels against the British Crown had defeated and then captured a British army, and it convinced the government of King Louis in Paris, which up to this point had only given covert, limited support to the colonies in their struggle for independence, to move to overt support. Saratoga was the first indication that the colonists, given sufficient French assistance, might actually win their struggle. In other words, it was worth the risk of providing open assistance now that the rebel colonists had shown they possessed the possibility of victory.

French calculations were based on cold-hearted assessments of strategic chances, but there is also an ethical component: should a struggle be prolonged if the chances for success are limited at best? If the opposition to Assad is fated to be defeated, is it ethical to provide aid that bears no chance of changing that calculus but will make the conflict more destructive and costly in terms of lives? One could perhaps argue that aid is in fact ethical even if the opposition has no chance of winning if it forces a negotiated settlement on better terms. Certainly, the Kurds of Syria, who have now achieved de facto autonomy for their region, have improved their situation as a result of the conflict. But it is not clear that U.S. aid is designed to win for the opposition better surrender terms, but it also remains insufficient to make a major change to the calculus on the battlefield–thus only prolonging the conflict.

It could also be that U.S. aid is designed not to force a quick termination of the conflict but to continue Syria’s role as the “flypaper” for extremists: a place where Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fight each other (and drain each other) so that they cannot turn their attention elsewhere, in which case the civilians of Syria are paying a price in the destruction of their lives and property for the safety and security of the larger world. That is another, but┬áseparate ethical discussion, worth having.

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  1. JC says:

    Doyle McManus’ column in the Los Angeles Times (at on the Obama administration and its calculations on Syria is something you should read for what it says about the thinking inside Washington.