In 2010, Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, published a book titled “How Wars End”, in which he chronicled consecutive wars that the United States has been involved in since Vietnam, and showed how US foreign policy blunders in each case resulted in those wars’ having messy endings. Rose attributed the repetition of similar mistakes by the United States partly to two factors: growing ego and overconfidence, which caused the US to engage in military behavior that became increasingly risky; and the lack of internal or external checks on this behavior.

Lina Khatib
Khatib was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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Looking at Syria today four years into the conflict, it becomes clear that a variety of stakeholders in the Syrian conflict have been making the same mistakes that Rose has warned about, with devastating consequences. Interestingly enough, the United States’ determination not to repeat past mistakes eventually led the Syrian conflict towards a similar fate to that of past wars witnessing messy American intervention.

According to Rose, in the context of a given war, growing ego is the result of increased ambition, which leads to engaging in wars without a long-term plan for ending them. When this behavior happens to yield military results, this leads to the repetition of the same behavior in future wars on the basis that it’s a formula that “works”. Political entities become overconfident and take further risks without paying adequate attention to the specificities of the circumstances of each war. Growing ego leads political entities to ignore internal criticism and to only listen to voices affirming their behavior. This is exacerbated in the cases in which political entities have either overwhelmed or ignored external actors who might have otherwise kept their behavior in check.

The convergence of those factors can lead political entities to engage in acts that backfire. Rose cites the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since 2003 as the last examples in his book to show how the ego and lack of external checks on the world’s only superpower combined to result in disastrous outcomes both for the countries harboring the wars and for the United States.

Gideon Rose’s book is pertinent in the context of the current Syrian conflict because its premise underlines several cases of overconfidence and unchecked power by a number of stakeholders in the conflict, which has led to negative outcomes both for them and for Syria. Now entering its fifth year, the Syrian conflict has changed from a simple popular uprising against an authoritarian regime to becoming one of the bloodiest and most complex wars witnessed in the modern history of the Middle East. 

Throughout this trajectory, the conflict has witnessed consecutive and overlapping cases of overestimation of unchecked power. In the early days of the uprising, both Iran and the Assad regime overestimated their power over the Syrian opposition. Driven by Iran’s experience in crushing the Green Movement in 2009 and Hafez al-Assad’s in crushing the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, the two allies used brutal force to try to quell the Syrian revolution. But the strength of the non-violent activists was remarkable, managing to keep the revolution peaceful for several months.

This caused the regime to try a different tactic to crush the opposition. Assad released several jihadists from prison in an attempt at discrediting the non-violence of the revolution. His calculation was that he would be able to overwhelm those jihadists easily once the world became convinced that he was indeed defending Syria against the onslaught of violent extremists. This quickly proved to be a miscalculation, leading to the rise of the Islamic State organization (ISIS) that came to challenge the regime.

Even when ISIS began to rapidly expand in Syria, Assad still thought he could eventually overwhelm it. The regime let ISIS grow because it was seen as a convenient tool of eradicating the moderate opposition. But today the regime has realized that it cannot overcome ISIS singlehandedly and has therefore become dependent on Assad’s foreign patrons—Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—for survival. The Syrian conflict became an existential battle for the regime at the expense of Syria itself.

But Assad’s patrons themselves also overestimated their power. Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah thought that their cash, weapons, and fighters would overwhelm the Free Syrian Army as well as the myriad Sunni jihadist groups that sprung up in Syria throughout the conflict. This was another miscalculation that caused those foreign patrons to incur significant losses, which have, in turn, resulted in them relying on mercenaries to sustain themselves in battle.

Today, Syrian mercenaries in the form of the National Defense Forces (the “citizen militias” supported by the regime) and foreign ones from Afghanistan and elsewhere have become indispensable for the regime and its allies. But Assad, Iran, and Russia have begun to lose their grip on those mercenaries, as the latter are producing warlords with their own independent ambitions and agendas. Once the dust settles, those mercenaries are likely to remain a source of instability in Syria. 

Sunni jihadism in Syria is also a product of miscalculation by regional actors opposed to Assad. Gulf actors and Turkey overestimated the potential success of jihadists in toppling the Assad regime, and supported or facilitated the creation of jihadist cells thinking that this would be the quickest way to weaken Assad. But the Syrian regime proved to be more resilient, leading to an escalation of violence by the Assad regime and jihadists alike. 

The non-violent activists became almost extinct, limited to pockets of peaceful resistance that continue in Syria to this day, but which have sadly become an exception in the dynamics of the conflict. Meanwhile, jihadists like the Nusra Front and ISIS came to pose a threat to the Free Syrian Army, which found itself fighting them as well as the Assad regime, resulting in its weakening.   

But even jihadist groups engaged in miscalculations. ISIS overestimated its power over the Assad regime, not attacking the Syrian army throughout its initial period of expansion because it thought that it could easily take on the regime when it wanted. When the regime finally confronted ISIS following the latter’s advance in Mosul in June 2014, ISIS found itself unable to crush the Syrian army. It also thought that its military successes against the Nusra Front would eliminate this key rival. But the Nusra Front is on the rise again in Syria, becoming a serious challenge for the regime, the Free Syrian Army, ISIS, and other jihadists.

Looking at the overlapping miscalculations above, it becomes clear that what all the players listed have in common, despite their rivalries, are the characteristics mentioned by Rose: growing ego and overconfidence, and lack of internal and external checks. The first two characteristics are not surprising because all of those players are ambitious, de facto authoritarian entities with no tolerance for internal dissent.

What would have formed a viable external check on the authority of those actors is the “international community”, whether the United States and European countries or the United Nations. But the Syrian conflict has been characterized by notable inaction and inertia on part of the very entities that could have played a role in changing the course of the conflict, and crucially, in preventing it from becoming a conflict in the first place. Part of this inaction stems from previous war blunders, which has led international actors to seek to avoid getting involved in yet another Middle East crisis, although the dynamics of the Syrian uprising were different from those of Iraq and Afghanistan during the “war on terror” and also from those of Libya during the 2011 uprising.

In other words, just because it’s the “Middle East” does not mean that the context does not differ across time and space. The blunders of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were not the result of their connection with the Middle East per se but of combinations of short-sighted policies, overconfidence, and unchecked power. And just because action led to disaster in certain cases does not mean that the correct way to handle the next case is through inaction. Inaction escalated the Syrian conflict, and ended up dragging the West into a messy war without having a long-term plan for ending it.

The West’s worst nightmare has come back to haunt it. Far from learning from the past, the international community in the case of Syria is inadvertently repeating previous blunders, and both the West and Syria are paying a hefty price for both action and inaction. For John Kerry’s statement about the necessity of negotiating with Assad in the end is but the heftiest price that Syria is paying for American shortsightedness. 

This article was originally published in Arabic by Al-Hayat.