Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the United States has rejected deep involvement, hoping that the conflict would work itself out or at least remain limited to Syria itself. These hopes are now bankrupt. Syria’s humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis is only growing, with tragic consequences for the Syrian people. It is destabilizing neighboring nations and threatening Europe. Containment of the conflict has failed. Yet there is no movement toward a resolution that reflects American interests. There is only stalemate and chaos.
From the American perspective, the core problem is that U.S. strategy has been based on three myths. Abandoning these myths and pursuing the path of hard-headed realism is the only way out—or at least the only chance of forestalling greater disaster.
One of these myths is that with enough U.S. leadership and will, “victory” in Syria is possible. While Americans inherently try to “win” at anything they undertake, statecraft is often more about avoiding disaster than winning outright. In Syria, nothing that could be construed as victory is attainable at an acceptable cost in U.S. money, blood and effort. However unpleasant, this means that American strategy must focus on more limited objectives like relative success and advantage, rather than absolute victory. Like it or not, Syria is what the military calls an “economy of force” challenge. The strategic resources needed to win would have to be pulled from some other region, some other problem or some other spending commitment that is even more vital to U.S. national interests.