“Syria: Towards the Endgame” was the headline the Economist splashed across one of its most recent covers. But as we’ve seen with this week’s assault on Aleppo, the end of the Assad regime is, in all likelihood, not even close. Let’s unpack why and enumerate the ways:
1. China’s and Russia’s vetoes
The two countries vetoed the most recent U.N. Security Council resolution, which would have authorized sanctions against Assad’s government as a result of its repeated failures to adhere to promises to bring peace to the nation. While the result is disappointing for the Syrian people, the effect of the vetoes of China and Russia is twofold. First, the U.N. obviously has been robbed of one of the tools it uses to protect citizens of oppressive regimes. But second, the impact of the veto, coming from two countries that have up-and-down relationships with the U.S., serves to turn any American interventionism into an international incident.
Let’s be clear: This is playing politics on a global, humanitarian scale. We always knew that Russia and China would not support a U.S. intervention in Syria, not even in the way they grudgingly did when it came to Libya. But ultimately, the bloodshed there is not just on their hands. While Obama has cover for his hands-off foreign policy thanks to the veto, U.N. resolutions have hardly stopped or even influenced U.S. foreign policy in the past, especially when it mattered.
2. Even without vetoes, the U.S. has no stomach for intervention
It’s messy. It’s expensive. There’s no domestic constituency for it. The U.S. is still reeling from the price tag of the Iraq war, and still extricating itself from Afghanistan. But more important than whether we have the stomach for an overseas campaign is our lack of a solution or an exit strategy. It’s not clear at all who could successfully replace the Assad regime. We don’t know what would come after him. There’s always the possibility that some internal assassination or bombing could take him out. But as long as he has his military apparatus, he’s going to be able to smash any attempt by opposition forces to gain strength against him. There’s simply nothing rising up in Syria that might take Assad’s place. So, the question of freedom for Syrians turns very sadly pragmatic indeed: What, exactly, would we be fighting for?
3. The civil war in Syria has begun, and it’s dragging the region with it.
As in countries across the Middle East, the civil war here is rooted in ethnic identity: Shiite vs. Sunni Muslims. The Shiite minority holds power. The Sunni population has been oppressed. The answer to the question of who should be running Syria, other than that it should not be a murderous dictator, is entirely unclear. What is clear is that other countries are experiencing tensions and internal strife thanks to the bloodshed there. Turkey and Qatar have interests in the outcome. China and Russia, and the United States, have investments and interests in the area. By proxy, U.S. relationships could also face further deterioration as the Syria conflict drags on.