U.S. Power Reaches Limits in Syria

Three years after an anti-Assad rebellion broke out in the Syrian city of Daraa the armed insurgency has increased its location more broadly to an assortment of provinces that include Hama, Homs, and Aleppo. What the rebellion has not been able to do is disassociate its chief opponent, Bashar-al Assad, from the state apparatus or from the loyalty of his clan and a collection of  ethnic and religious minorities fearful of the implications of a post-Assad society.


The underestimation of Assad’s resilience at home by his opponents, abroad by western governments, by neighborhood proxy powers, and even international news outlets who spent the past three years covering the uprising has become apparent.

The miscalculation of the revolutionary forces, unwilling to show flexibility on their preeminent condition, the claim for an Assad-free Syria, shows a doctrinal unwillingness to recognize that their moral claims have outrun their material position. The rebels do not posses the power to overthrow the government without aid, and those who could give aid are reluctant to empower the opposition with heavy weaponry that’s capable of shifting from one battalions hands to another. No real mechanisms of oversight exist in the chaotic country. Arms may begin in one groups hands, but due to the proximity of those fighting the regime, its not clear those arms wouldn’t shift hands at some point (most likely to the fiercest fighters, the Islamic state of Iraq, and Al-Nusra).

The Assad clan has recognized the limits of its own power and acted accordingly. Instead of crusading for the outright repression of the rebellion byway of COIN policy that aims to recapture all of Syria, the regime has dug into its strongholds, focuses on recapturing strategic or tactical positions, and maintaining pressure and dissension among the rebels while fostering continued ties to its regional and international allies. Syria as a state-entity suffers yes, but Assad holds firm.

Under these conditions the U.S. has undertaken its campaign against the bloodshed in Syria with caution. Rather then drawing U.S. power into a bloody civil war, which would likely include a no-fly zone, billions in reconstruction, and a flood of weapons into a state in which we have little knowledge of the actors on the ground, a recognition of the limits of U.S. power has up until this moment spared America a costly endeavor where there’s little sense in thinking U.S. military power would be a helpful factor. “In Washington politics, it is easy to confuse limits with impotence. Accepting limits is equated with weakness. It is considered virtually un-American to argue that the United States might be incapable of doing whatever it wants” (Gelb. Power Rules, p.22). The Obama administration has coolly handled its precarious hand.

“Moderation in an hour of triumph is appreciated only by posterity, rarely by contemporaries to whom it tends to appear as a needles surrender.” (Kissinger. A World Restored, p.111)

If the U.S is to commit to a diplomatic or political solution in Syria, then beginning to play a greater role in alleviating the effects of the conflict is imperative for the stability of the region.

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