Syria is embroiled in a complex internal struggle, amid a divided opposition, regional players with diverse agendas, and competing great powers. There is no single force on the ground — or constellation of outside powers — that can impose order. For the United States to enter the fray as a quasi-combatant would make matters more complicated, not less.
Sure, President Obama could take down the Assads by force, but he would do an enormous amount of damage in the process and end up being forced to rebuild the country. Remember the Pottery Barn rule? That result is the last thing America needs.
Coalition of the unwilling
Still, some seem determined to lay the blame for the Syrian mess at America's doorstep. The crisis would never have come to this had the United States not been so passive, the Wall Street Journal opined last week.
The arrogance of the argument is as breathtaking as it is reckless. The notion that the United States could ever have fixed Syria uses the same twisted logic that produced the Iraq debacle.
It also flies in the face of the spirit of self-reliance that has made the popular revolts in the Arab world so genuine and authentic. If the Arab Spring does produce better governance, it will be precisely because the United States kept its distance, and citizens took responsibility for their political future. It is a cruel irony that the one country where America intervened heavily, Iraq, is the one that still has an arbitrary, heavy-handed Arab strongman.
Some still believe a coalition can be assembled to save the day by supplying weapons and air cover to the opposition. Who all would be in this coalition, and what precisely would they be willing to do? What we've witnessed over the past six months is a coalition of the unwilling, the opposed, and the vacillating. No amount of American leadership would have pushed the Europeans to consider risky military options, particularly after the NATO-led Libya operation demonstrated how stretched their resources were. And the Kremlin seems willing to defend Assad to the last drop of Syrian blood.
Wing and a prayer
As for Turkey, on which the pro-intervention crowd is banking much of its hopes, there is a reason it has been all bark and no bite: its own public's wariness of war and complications with Iran and Russia. Remember Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's "zero problems" policy? He wants to be loved by everybody.
Being cautious on Syria is still the best approach for the Obama administration, and here's why: It's working.
The Assads are going down, though not nearly as quickly as one might have hoped. The opposition has now put both Damascus and Aleppo in play, testing the military's control of the country's two major cities. The Assads' already small circle of key advisers has been reduced as a result of the July 18 bombing in Damascus that killed four top security officials. A grave sense of vulnerability and pervasive suspicion will continue to take its toll on the rest of the family's circle.
The regime's crackdown, meanwhile, is only deepening the rebels' determination to resist and is enlarging their pool of potential recruits. Meanwhile, the Syrian army continues to become fatigued and demoralized by endless guerrilla warfare against an enemy that appears to be simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
This process will not be quick or painless. But nobody has made a compelling case that half-measures — such as more arms for the opposition, no-fly zones, or havens — will bring the Assads down. To give these ideas the old college try because we feel compelled to "do something" isn't a strategy; it's a wing and a prayer. And after Iraq and Afghanistan, it's just not good enough to pass the threshold for putting American lives, money, and credibility on the line.
A real coalition of the willing will indeed be required to mend Syria — but only after the main battle to defeat the Assads has concluded. An international monitoring and stabilization force could preempt civil war and create the basis for a political transition. International donor conferences will have to be launched to raise billions of dollars to get Syria moving economically and deal with the broken bodies and minds left in the wake of the violence. It is this second struggle for Syria that is worth the multilateral effort.
International intervention still might come. It could be prompted by a large-scale massacre by the regime or the prospect of Assad's losing control of his chemical weapons. But for now, the United States' current approach will have to do.
It should come as no surprise to observers that Syria has come to this. There was no way the Assads were going down without a brutal, bloody fight and a messy, complex transition. And the odds that the post-Assad era will go as smoothly — relatively speaking — as the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Yemen are slim to none.
But the idea that the United States — in the grip of an economic crisis, already strained militarily by a decade of foreign wars, and in the middle of an election season — would be able to make that transition substantially easier strains the bounds of credulity. After the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and billions of dollars expended, only a willfully delusional observer would argue that the American adventures in those countries were worth the price. Nor should those countries' current conditions provide inspiration for additional military expeditions.
Retiring U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said it best in his exit interview with the New York Times. We should heed his three lessons: Remember the laws of unintended consequences; recognize the limits of U.S. capacity; and understand that a foreign power's exit from a conflict can be as dangerous for the country as the original conflict.
Syria today is a mess — but it's a Syrian mess. Afghanistan and Iraq should teach us that America can't control the world. It's time for the United States to focus on fixing its own broken house instead of chasing the illusion that it can always help repair somebody else's.
Aaron David Miller is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He wrote this for Foreign Policy.