The Interpreter: What would be different if Obama had struck Syria in 2013?

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Friday, April 14, 2017

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Welcome to the Interpreter newsletter, by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, who write a column by the same name.
It is the foreign policy debate that will never die: Should President Barack Obama have launched limited strikes against Syria in 2013 — as he’d threatened to do but never did — to punish its use of chemical weapons?
People will be debating this question for years to come, but the discussion was especially brisk this past week as President Trump launched his own strikes.
In a special two-part newsletter extravaganza, we explore two questions. First, to the extent we can know, what would’ve happened differently had Mr. Obama launched the strikes in 2013, rather than striking a deal with Russia to remove most of Syria’s chemical weapons?
And, second, why does this relatively narrow policy question continue to generate such furious debate years later?
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Mr. Obama in 2015.
Mr. Obama in 2015. Jim Lo Scalzo/European Pressphoto Agency
What If Obama Had Struck Syria in 2013?
The option on the table in 2013 looked broadly like Mr. Trump’s strikes last week: limited strikes against Syrian government targets. The goal was also the same: to hurt the Syrian government enough to deter it from using chemical weapons again.
Both plans avoided anything that could turn the tide of the war or topple the Syrian government. This is by design: either outcome would require far greater action, bring undesired knock-on consequences and risk sucking the United States into a protracted conflict that could potentially include Iran or Russia. (Mr. Obama feared even limited strikes carried these risks, which is part of why he backed down.)
For the purposes of this hypothetical, let’s imagine the best-case outcome: that Mr. Obama’s fears proved wrong and that his strike plans proceeded perfectly and with no unintended consequences.
Syria, chastened by Mr. Obama’s strikes, would have concluded that using chemical weapons against its own people would no longer be worth the risks. This could have prevented the hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries caused by chemical weapons in Syria, though it would not have prevented the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths by other means.
The war’s larger trajectory would probably not have changed. Syria has proven capable of targeting civilians with conventional weapons. Neither Syria nor Russia would have any obvious reason to change strategy.
Then there’s this: Syria would have retained most or all of its sizable chemical-weapons stockpile. It would not have given up the 1,300 tons of chemical weapons that were removed under Mr. Obama’s diplomatic agreement, because there never would have been an agreement.
And the weapons wouldn’t have been destroyed by airstrikes, either. Chemical weapons are relatively easy to hide across a large number of sites, so no imaginable set of strikes could have taken out every cache.
This is why strike plans were designed to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons, rather than to erode the country’s ability to use them. (This was also the rationale behind Mr. Trump’s strikes. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, told Fox News the strikes were not “meant to take out the Syrian regime's capacity or ability to commit mass murder of its own people.”)
So in the Obama-strikes-in-2013 scenario, Syria’s weapons would remain usable, as would the production and research facilities that developed them. Syria could still choose to use them, say, in a war with Israel, against a rebel advance on the capital or against any other threat that it saw as worse than punitive American airstrikes.
So, with hindsight being 20/20 and assuming that strikes would have yielded the best anticipated outcome, we have a choice between:
  • Striking Syria, and imposing a cost on chemical weapons usage that changes its calculus, but leaving its arsenal and capability in place.
  • Cutting the deal, and slashing Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities, but leaving its calculus unaltered such that it is still willing to use any small amount it kept.
These options both strike us as requiring some tough trade-offs and we can imagine persuasive arguments for either. But neither seems like it would have radically transformed the war. So why have four years of heated debate treated this decision, between two comparably uninspiring outcomes, as one that defined Mr. Obama’s tenure.
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How Are We Doing?

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Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo in 2013.
Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo in 2013. Andoni Lubaki/Associated Press
Why We Will Always Argue About 2013
It helps to transport yourself back to the months when this was all unfolding.
Debate over Mr. Obama’s strike plan occurred as Americans were wrestling with a similar but ultimately distinct question: Should the United States intervene to end the Syrian war itself?
Two months later, in November 2013, the United States and other world powers announced an interim nuclear deal with Iran, setting off a two-year negotiating process that stirred yet another set of debates.
Could adversarial, authoritarian states be trusted? Was compromise worth the risk and, arguably, the humiliation? Was Mr. Obama’s foreign policy too conciliatory and too focused on diplomacy? Was he himself, perhaps, too averse to risk or skeptical of American power?
These concurrent debates, over time, seem to have coalesced around that single question of striking Syria in 2013, which has become a way of debating them all.
It has also become a shorthand for questioning broader American policy on Syria, and whether an alternate path could have produced something less terrible than the current humanitarian and geopolitical catastrophe.
We’ve noticed that, for as long as this debate has been raging, when you ask people who think Mr. Obama should’ve struck in 2013 to explain why, their responses are just as often about values as about outcomes.
Common answers are that Bashar al-Assad had gone too far and needed to be punished. Or that Syria’s humanitarian toll demanded action. Or that strikes would have asserted American global leadership. Or that harming Mr. Assad would have been innately moral, whereas striking a deal with him would have been immoral.
These are all fine values, but they are a matter of subjective perception rather than concrete outcomes. It is possible to estimate the impact of Mr. Assad disavowing the use of chemical weapons or of slashing his stockpile. But it is difficult to prove the presence or absence of morality in the world, much less measure how many civilian deaths it prevents in, say, Idlib Province.
This may help to explain why the debate is never settled. If you feel that moral justice or American leadership are important, and that striking Syria would express those values whereas not striking Syria would betray them, then measurable outcomes are secondary.
Consider a recent Washington Post-ABC poll. In 2013, only 22 percent of Republicans said they supported striking Syria, whereas now 81 percent support it.
For Republicans in 2013, Mr. Obama’s strike plan was likely seen as the embodiment of negative values they associated with the president. The same plan, in 2017, can be seen as the embodiment of the positive values they see expressed in Mr. Trump.
This has played out elsewhere. Broadly speaking, analysts say that the strikes — which hit an evacuated airfield that was back in use the next day — made little difference in Mr. Assad’s capabilities or, because they caused him so little harm, his strategic calculus. (They also tend to see relatively little downside or risk.)
But from other quarters, the response has been rapturous — though, again, typically couched in terms of values rather than outcomes. Mr. Trump showed leadership and compassion for Syrian victims, Mr. Assad’s cruelty was punished, the moral order was restored, and so on.
So far, performing those values seems to have mostly affected the Americans who craved action and now get to feel better. In Syria itself, the war wages on with no evident sign of change.
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What We’re Reading
• Why do voters re-elect leaders who subvert democracy? In a recent working paper, Milan Svolik of Yale University finds that the answer is political polarization: when there is a large partisan divide, voters find it too costly to punish their leaders by voting for the opposition, even if they’re unhappy. (This paper makes Amanda’s recent piece on US polarization extra-worrying.)
• On a related note, this new special issue of the journal Government and Opposition focusing on democratic dysfunction looks very interesting.
• Our friend and former colleague Dylan Matthews donated a kidney to a stranger and documented his fascinating experience in an article and video for Vox. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll reconsider all your moral choices.
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