For the community of analysts that have focused on Syria’s civil war over the past decade, the images of bombed out Ukrainian cities, civilian casualties and refugees flooding across the border over the past month are bitterly familiar. As a policy problem, too, the war in Ukraine invites obvious comparisons to the Syrian conflict. Both raise questions about the costs and benefits of U.S. intervention. Both, of course, involve Russia. And in both cases, “realism” has somehow become synonymous with non-interventionism in the U.S. policy discourse.
In fact, those that make a career out of non-interventionism while casting themselves as enlightened guardians of realism are misusing the term. So too, however, are interventionists who have turned realism into a pejorative. Realism is fully compatible with aggressive U.S. military intervention, but as the cases of Ukraine and Syria demonstrate, the realist argument for intervention is clearer in some cases—and places—than others.
The Syrian civil war began in 2011, pitting a coalition comprising the governments of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran and Russia against a broad spectrum of armed opposition groups. In 2015, Russia fully entered the war to save Assad from military defeat, bringing massive firepower to bear against civilian population zones, infrastructure and facilities, as well as against various rebel groups. Over the course of the conflict’s messy, meandering trajectory, endless arguments erupted in the U.S. policy community over whether Assad could hope to win the war, and at times whether in fact he had already lost it. But by 2016, it became clear that Russia had secured its basic objectives in Syria: ensuring the survival of an allied regime or, absent that, preventing the emergence of a hostile and/or pro-American government there.