Too Late To Intervene in Syria
Bashar Al Assad is an animalistic brute. He is one of the most revolting global leaders and has demonstrated that he has nothing but contempt for basic human rights. With his fanatical war against his people, he has killed hundreds of civilians in gas attacks, including an attack in Ghouta which resulted in the death of 72.
However, foreign policy is ultimately decided by reality. No matter what the interests are - morals, national interests, supporting allies, etc - the policy taken by the United States must align with the reality on the ground in Syria.
Currently, the reality heavily favors Bashar al Assad. Assad managed to defeat most of ISIS in 2017 and recaptured Aleppo in 2016. Currently, 55% of Syria's territory is under his control, with the Kurds holding 27% and the rebels holding 11%. And, while the Syrian Army largely fell apart in 2011, it has been supplanted by pro-Assad militias, comprised of thousands of well-armed fighters. More importantly, Assad's military effort has been greatly aided by Hezbollah, Russia, and Iran. Hezbollah is the most powerful non-state actor in the world, and essentially functions as a regional power in the Middle East. Russia is the second or third most powerful country in the world, and Russian fighter jets have bombed rebel forces and challenged Israeli air superiority over Syria. Iran has also actively aided the Assad regime, with the Revolutionary Guard setting up bases in Syria.
As a quick note, this situation stands in heavy contrast to an earlier article which I wrote on Syria (which was written about a year ago). Back then, Assad was still a very defeatable opponent, and Turkey was not as active in its fight against the Kurds. Now, however, Turkey is launching an all-out invasion of Syrian Kurdish territory, which has resulted in the interesting alliance between the Kurds and Assad against Turkey. Assad has also crushed the Syrian rebels and ISIS, and has essentially cemented his rule.
If the United States attempted to intervene in Syria, it would face a number of challenges. Firstly, it is unlikely that NATO joins the war in full force - Libya was an obvious blunder, and France and Germany both opposed the Iraq war. This means that the primary allies of the US would be Saudi Arabia and Turkey - two authoritarian states who barely have any moral standing over Assad. Then comes the obvious issue of actually destroying Assad's forces. Assad demonstrated in 2015 that he is capable of digging in and entrenching himself, yielding some territory but still holding onto key cities such as Damascus or Homs. The US would have two options - either completely level government-held cities through strategic bombing, or wage an urban warfare campaign throughout major cities. Neither of these options are appealing, and both will simply result in more death, destruction, and bloodshed, with more soldiers and civilians being left dead. Assad would also become more brutal during this phase, and the US would risk outright war with Russia and Iran.
Then comes the question of what to do after the removal of Assad. Multiple parties are involved in Syria - the Kurds in the north, Islamist rebels, various terrorist groups, pro-democracy factions, as well as foreign countries - Turkey, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia come to mind. Achieving compromise between these various groups is an impossibility - a foreign policy equivalent to dividing by zero. For example, an independent Kurdish state would be vehemently opposed by Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, as it would encourage Kurdish separatist movements in those countries. An Islamist state would contradict the west, while a democracy would be extremely unstable. Meanwhile, the US would have to deal with a costly military occupation.
The US must ask itself whether it really wants to deal with the problems in Syria, and whether the situation in Syria would even get better without Assad. Ultimately, there are too many complications, difficulties, and points of failure when it comes to an intervention in Syria.