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Syria, Hindsight, and Difficult Choices

By Taylor Marvin

As I have before, today I wrote the weekly discussion question feature at Political Violence @ a Glance: given what we know today about the costs of the Syrian conflict, imagine you could advise President Obama at the outset of the conflict. What would your advice be? How would this differ from the policy options you favor today?

I think this is an interesting question, and one I can offer no real answer too. If policymakers in 2011 knew the Syrian war would eventually kill at least 100,000 people, there would likely have been a much stronger push for an international intervention to stop the violence. But today, with neither side apparently capable of gaining control over the entire country, it appears likely that the war will kill many more people before it is over, and there is still little real international desire to intervene.

Alternatively, the optimal strategies for ending the violence could have shifted between 2011 and now. It’s arguable that opportunities for a diplomatic solution existed then, before the conflict radicalized into the general sectarian war it increasingly resembles today. But then again, it’s very unlikely that the Assad government and its sectarian power base would have ever accepted any form of power-sharing agreement. Similarly, it is also arguable that arming the rebels with the heavy weapons necessary to make them competitive with regime forces was more politically feasible early in the conflict, before the ideological fracture of the opposition and overt entry of al Qaeda, Iran, and Hezbollah into the conflict. The same logic applies to an international military intervention — but again, the Syrian opposition never appeared to be a united force able to serve as a military partner to Western airpower as in Libya.


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