Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Trouble with Optimism: Syria in the Rear-View Mirror
The Trouble with Optimism: Syria in the Rear-View Mirror

The Trouble with Optimism: Syria in the Rear-View Mirror

It is a touching characteristic of the optimistic liberal soul that it perennially inclines to believe that bad situations cannot get worse. But of course they can and often do get worse. This would seem to make it hard to be an optimistic liberal for very long, but some people accomplish it for decades on end apparently without much effort. How do they do it?

A hint to the answer reposes in something Archie (the cockroach) once said to Mehitabel (the cat)—according to that suave literary bystander Don Marquis: “An optimist is a guy without much experience.” It may be tentatively inferred, therefore, that the longevity of liberal optimism, at least when it comes to the understanding and conduct of global affairs, relies on superficial experience, or none at all, over an extended period; and relies especially on the kind of memory that exhibits an aversion to anything particularly unpleasant, such that the dour images taken in never make it from the hippocampus to one of those soft folds in the frontal cortex.

Those with scant relevant experience and an aversion to the unpleasant are likely aided in building up a protectively poor memory when what they would remember is complicated. Americans in particular tend to prefer their stories about global conflicts in the shape of a secularized passion play. There can be only good guys who are morally right—and we know them because they look, speak, or act like us—and bad guys who are morally wrong. When there are more than two sides, and when none of the sides reminds us of ourselves, some become too confused to follow the action—sort of like a tennis match with six or seven players and three or four nets set about at various angles. They therefore flip their memories off, obliging themselves to recall as a little as they can manage, so that if and when the subject again barges into their consciousness they are as innocent of it as possible.

Case in point for all of this: U.S. policy toward Syria.

The Current State of the War

It almost had to seem to casual observers that after last year’s protracted “battle of Aleppo” the Syrian civil war could not get worse. It had not gotten obviously worse since the battle of Aleppo; indeed, until recently the war’s tempo had slowed significantly. That led some to think that the war was nearly over, petering out because either one side had all but won, or because a general fatigue had settled in, or some of both. That is how some wars do end, after all, in mutual exhaustion.

But no, the war did not end, but merely went into temporary remission. The relatively subdued pace of armed conflict in recent months has had more to do with the weather and with the need of government forces to consolidate, recuperate, and rearm for the next phase. The next phase is now upon us. About 687 Syrians died from unnatural warlike causes in January alone, and that number will seem small once the February data has been totaled up.

Anyone who has been following the conflict knows that the only major populated area of Syria not under the control of the Assad regime is the province of Idlib. Idlib governate is the area west of Aleppo toward the Lebanese border, reaching north to the Turkish border. The entire district is reported to have a population of about 1.5 million, with the town of Idlib itself having a population of about 165,000. But the region is swelled with refugees, mostly Sunni Muslims like the majority of the local inhabitants. Most of these figures come from before the onset of violence in 2011, and Idlib has already been the scene of much fighting. The result is that some of the prewar population has left the area, but others have fled into it. The net gain or loss of population therefore comes down to a guess, but whatever the guess we are talking about a lot of people, far more than in the non-contiguous map blotches of rebel-held areas around Damascus and in the southernmost tip of the country near the Jordanian border.

As the regime, with its Russian allies and Iranian proxies (Hezbollah but increasingly a group of militias), ramps up the pace of the war, several areas in the country have come under new attack. In addition to Idlib, some suburbs of Damascus and parts of the province of Hama have also been hit—including with deadly chlorine gas. In Idlib, the air attacks have been following a familiar pattern already discernable in this early stage of the campaign.

One target is bakeries. The bakery is one of the sinews of an integral Levantine Arab neighborhood, because individual households take their risen sourdough goop to a central bakery to be baked. If you destroy the big ovens, people have no ready way of making bread; so there goes the neighborhood. A second related target set consists of hospitals and clinics, and a third consists of schools and mosques. The purpose of this target set is to destroy communities, and create refugees. It can also be seen, when directed against Sunni Arab communities, as a preliminary form of not ethnic but sectarian cleansing conducted by the Alawi regime. 

It could be that these tactics were devised by the Syrian regime without any assistance, but they follow uncannily the tactics used by the Russian military in its onslaught against Chechnya. Draw your own conclusions.

In the past, refugee flows created in this manner have not remained always in Syria. There have been heavy flows of people northward out of the country into Turkey, and for a while some years ago from Turkey into Europe—particularly Germany. These refugee flows accelerated dramatically after the Russian intervention in September 2015. It was my view at the time that this was a deliberate if second-order aim of Russian policy: To weaponize the refugee flows in order to harm Western political order within and among nations.[1]

Heavy refugee flows will likely start up again soon, and again, Turkey will be an obvious attempted destination. Really the only other possibility is for those who are fleeing violence is to try to enter Lebanon. But that is not an attractive option for a country at the mercy of Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy and Syrian regime ally.

Meanwhile, the Turkish role in the Syrian civil war has changed significantly, such that the Turkish attitude toward new flows of refugees is unclear. Turkey has inserted military forces into Syria on several occasions, but most recently and most seriously in Afrin, where combat operations are ongoing. The purpose of the Turkish deployment is to prevent Kurdish-controlled cantons from linking up to form a contiguous zone of Kurdish control adjacent to the Turkish border. A good deal of what the Turkish government is up to is a wag-the-dog phenomenon attuned to Turkish domestic politics—specifically a potentially portentous election in 2019. But the rhetorical tones aside, any Turkish government of any party make-up would probably be doing something similar. 

The reason is that the Turkish leadership believes that the Kurdish organizations in northern Syria, notably the Democratic Union Party (PYD)  and various auxiliaries, are aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish military organization inside Turkey against which the government has been waging an on-and-off counterinsurgency campaign for many years. And they would be correct, for the Kurdish groups in Syria are a vestige of Soviet Cold War efforts to harm Turkey, as a NATO ally, by stoking the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey from what was then a bordering Soviet ally in Syria using Syria’s own Kurdish population as a conduit. This history partly explains why the Turkish government has been able to establish reasonably cordial and mutually useful relationships with the Kurdish rump regime in northern Iraq since the early 1990s, but not with groups like the PYD in Syria.

Fighting has been raging recently in the Afrin sector not just between the Turks and the PYD, but also between Arab Free Syrian Army rebel groups and the Kurds. In other words, the Free Syrian Army groups have been acting as objective allies of the Turkish invaders, because they have a common adversary in the Kurds, whom both fear—and because the Turks are materially helping them, since the United States really no longer is. As those who follow the news know, there have been some grisly scenes from this fighting, including the recent mutilation and abuse of the corpse of a female Kurdish soldier—all captured on video by jubilant, if quite sick, Arab fighters. Thus did a war within a war become not only bloody and gut wrenching, but also disgusting and perverse.

And the Assad regime’s view of this? It can hardly welcome a Turkish invasion of its territory, even though the target is a Kurdish group that constitutes a problem for it. But the Free Syrian Army is a bigger problem, so the regime’s attitude has been one of tacit support for the Kurds. It hasn’t done much of anything, however, because in that part of the country it isn’t able to do much of anything.

Russia’s Calculations

It was not difficult for anyone paying attention to understand the Russian attitude toward the Turkish intervention: The Russians were for it, whatever the equivocations and calculations of their Syrian client. Why? There are so many reasons that the Russian attitude was over-determined.

First, the Turks seemed interested in weakening an enemy of the Assad regime, and that aligns with Russian interest in protecting that regime. If both Kurds and Free Syrian Army soldiers die in the fight, restful sleep at night in Moscow will not be hampered.

Second, Russian support for the Turks would contrast with necessary American ambivalence occasioned by two of its allies fighting one another. Support is thus useful for driving a wedge between United States and a NATO ally—not that U.S. relations with Turkey have not been troubled for a variety of reasons already: It’s easy to shove a wedge into a rotting log.

Third, less important but not unimportant, the Turks are pro-Qatari in the Arab Gulf standoff, having even sent some troops there. So Russian support for Turkey works as indirect vexation of the Saudis, who are opposing (what has become) an Iranian proxy in Yemen.

And fourth, Russian verbal support for Turkey amounts to a chit for a favor to be returned. That returned favor could take any of several forms, including Turkish obstructionism within NATO councils should Russia ever try to muscle one of the Baltic States, for example. Not that Turkey could thereby stop a NATO response to such Russian bullying, but it could mightily complicate it given NATO’s decision protocols.

Did Russia lose anything by supporting the Turks? Not much. The Russians had established relations with the Kurdish groups in Syria, or perhaps it is more accurate to say re-established them from of old. Doubtless, the Syrian Kurds are not very fond of the Russians right now. But affinities are not as important as interests, and interests shift. It would not therefore be wildly out of whack with reality for the Russians and the Syrian Kurdish groups to make amends one day if the two sides have good enough in-the-moment reasons to do so.

American Calculations

This contrasts sharply with the mess facing U.S. policy. The Obama administration chose to use the Syrian Kurds as proxies to fight against the Islamic State. The Kurds did so with distinction, but the choice was bound to alienate Turkey. And it did. The Trump administration inherited this choice and its consequence for U.S.-Turkish relations, and instead of rethinking, it doubled down on it. By focusing U.S. policy almost exclusively on the Islamic State, and not really figuring in the larger consequences with respect to Syria itself, U.S. policy boxed itself into an impossible future problem. At some point the Islamic State was going to be deprived of real estate, and at that point some decisions would have to be made about the Kurds. It was never in the cards that U.S. policy could please both the Kurds and the Turks for very long, and the attempt to do so has predictably persuaded no one.

Insofar as the Obama administration had a policy with regard to Syria, it was to keep clear of opposing the Assad regime too vigorously, lest it befoul the high-priority effort to get a nuclear deal with Iran. Indeed, at one point the administration terminated a small interagency group whose task it was to put a strategy behind the President’s ill-considered declaration that President Assad must step aside. Otherwise, it responded to congressional pressure by reluctantly agreeing to support the “free,” which is to say the non-Islamist, Syrian opposition to the regime, but the effort was always too small, in part because it was deliberately halfhearted (but not also thereby cheap). Eventually it too was terminated.

One result of this process is that the so-called Free Syrian Army is still around to fight the Kurds in and near Afrin. So consider the situation: Three U.S. allies or proxies are engaged in a triangular fight among each other. It is the Turks against the Kurds, and the Arabs of the Free Syrian Army against the Kurds, but the Arabs would as soon fight the Turks on Syrian soil if the Kurds were not a temporary common enemy in that border zone.

Now amid this nasty confusion note that something like 3,000 to 4,000 Kurdish militiamen who had just finished, pretty much, vanquishing the Islamic State, found themselves in northeastern Syria, just across from the Turkish border in the general vicinity north of Manbij—north of the road headed northeast from Aleppo to Kobane. The Kurds have a much larger military presence and hence a firmer grasp over this area than they do over the area around Afrin. So it happened that a mid-level U. S. military decision figured on turning these seasoned troops into a vehicle for a cordon sanitaire along the border. No U.S. military officer on the ground decided to consult Washington about this, but the Turks figured that this was a directive taken from on high, and they did not like it.

What was the thinking behind this impromptu plan? Well, you would have to ask the officers who thought this up to get a definitive answer. But in the meantime, logic suggests a couple of possibilities. First, we had this friendly force on hand, standing around with pretty much nothing to do except some mop-up operations against ISIS further to the east, near the Iraqi border. It was a competent force as well as a friendly one, so you use it for something; you don’t just let it lie fallow or go to seed.

Second, it might be that the United States would wish to introduce more forces in the area in the context of a diplomatic effort to claim a seat at the table for a political solution to the Syrian conflict. If so, the U.S. military would need a place that qualifies as a reasonably permissive environment to take in and bivouac those troops. If the Kurds could vanquish the Islamic State, they could surely perform perimeter guard duty for any U.S. forces that might arrive. But did anyone think how this idea would play in Ankara, or how it might affect U.S. diplomacy? Apparently not. So some public affairs type spoke to an enterprising journalist out in the field, the story made front-page news the next day, and, not for the first time or the last, the city of Washington was perplexed.

The Future of Foreign Involvement in Syria

Of course this raises a larger and difficult point. The number of U.S. troops in the area of northeastern Syria right now is not large—something like 2,000, if you don’t count the occasional special-forces groups coming and going. That constitutes enough troops to die, but not enough to actually do anything successfully in a vast if scarcely populated expanse of land.

They are in a vulnerable spot, too. Iranian officials recently vowed publicly to kick the Americans out of eastern Syria, and their militias would be the obvious instrument of choice. Clashes have already occurred, back in May of last year. But never mind those militias for a moment: Suppose some enterprising Kurdish militiamen go behind the backs of U.S. forces and fire rockets over their heads into Turkish territory; what do we think the Turks would do in response? Clearly, the Turks intervened in Afrin, where there are no U.S. forces, in order to avoid the possibility of a direct clash between American and Turkish troops. But such clashes could take place anyway, even though neither side wants them. Things like that just happen sometimes in confused combat situations, especially when someone wants to make them happen.

The larger and difficult point is not about an accidental clash breaking out, but about what those U.S. troops are doing there in the first place. They were there initially to support our Kurdish proxies in fighting the Islamic State, largely but not entirely with air power—so the truth is that the small number of U.S. soldiers on the ground does not really give an accurate sense of the larger U.S. resources that are focused on Syria. The Islamic State is all but defeated in terms of territorial control, but U.S. forces are still there. Why, and insofar as it matters, under what legal dispensation? Well, as noted, there is mopping up to do. But the real reason is that the White House believes we need “skin in the game” to play a role in the future of Syria. We don’t have much skin in the game right now compared to either Russia or Iran; but we could have more. The question is, should we?

Needless to say, expert opinion differs. Some contend that the U.S. government should insist on a role in the future of Syria lest it defer to its enemies, namely Russia and Iran, and sully its leadership reputation. If it takes the introduction of more muscle to establish that position, so be it.

But others see only trouble ahead with such a course. What exactly is to be gained in Syria anyway? It is not as though a reconstituted Syrian government after Assad is going to be a compliant American ally. It is not as though the Russians will just leave. A new Syrian government is not going to waltz into a peace settlement with Israel. There is almost no oil, or any other natural resource worth a damn.

And it is not entirely obvious in the first place just what kind of settlement is even possible that can accommodate the interests, and the wounds, of the various sectarian groups in the country after all the bloodletting of recent years. Moreover, if there is some kind of agreement to create the new Syria, it would have to be phased in over time, and external forces would need to police that settlement, and to pay for it. It is not entirely obvious that doing either is a vital American interest.

Note too that we and the Russians support different constituent groups in Syria, pursuing a political settlement—with all the minor and perhaps major battlefield pushing and shoving likely to go along with it—is more likely to further aggravate U.S.-Russian relations than it is to improve them. That might be a price worth paying if something really valuable were at stake, but it isn’t because there isn’t.

We do have a general security interest in the war coming to an end, for the soul-searing of a civil war, especially among young people liable to be psychologically traumatized by what they have experienced, is bound to produce human tinder for political violence and terrorism into the future. But most of that damage is probably already done, or certainly enough of it has been done to pass the threshold of concern. So if the Russians want to herd Levantine cats for the next two or three decades, and turn to pet the Iranian lion from time to time as well—so this line of argument goes—let them: They all deserve each other.

It is true that the U.S. government needs to make sure that neither Syria nor Iraq nor any other country in the region—or any part of a country not under some government’s control—becomes a gray zone that could host terrorist forces, as was the case in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. It would be best if that objective could be accomplished in the context of a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, but it can still be accomplished short of that by other means. Those “other means” imply a use for some U.S. forces on the ground long into the future.

And there is perhaps a different reason, as well, to expand the U.S. position: to head off a wider war that might spin out of control.

There has been a creeping change in the situation in Syria in recent months growing into a year or two. There are now four outside powers with troops on Syrian soil:  Russian, Iranian, American, and Turkish. And Israel is close and concerned enough that it needs to be counted in as well, even though its military reach into Syria is mainly by air.  Each outside power (except Israel) has its clients and associated armed forces in country, so that the potential for an outside power to get dragged into a fight, or to be the target of an attack, is much higher now than it was three or four years ago. In this month alone already a Russian jet has been shot down by Kurdish rebels (February 3), U.S. and Syrian government forces clashed near Deir ez-Zour (February 8), a Turkish helicopter, an Iranian drone, and an Israeli jet were all downed (on February 10). In the Deir ez-Zour battle at least four and possibly many more Russia soldiers—excuse me, “contractors”—were killed, a vivid example of the aforementioned fact that we and the Russians support different constituent groups in Syria, and of the “accidental” dangers of the war as it has come to be shaped.

By far the largest change among the outside powers since the Russian intervention of September 2015 has been the dramatic increase of the Iranian presence in Syria. Aside from Hezbollah, which was there from nearly the start of the civil war on the regime’s side, Iranian-supported militias backed on the ground by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) cadres have proliferated significantly. That is the backdrop for the Iranian drone that ventured from its T-4 airbase in Homs province into Israeli territory on February 10, which was followed by the downing of the Israeli jet amid the Israeli pulverization of 15 Syrian air defense targets just a few hours later.

Now this is dangerous. Israeli and Russian officials, with backing from the top, have strained to make sure that Israeli and Russian forces do not clash directly in Syria. Iranian behavior threatens that understanding. The hope is that the Russians, having saved the Assad regime, will now see it as being in their interest to calm things down and limit Iranian mischief making. That’s logical, even rationale—but alas, it is also optimistic. Will it happen? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the Russians instead prefer to help the regime finish off the opposition first, in Idlib and elsewhere. Can the Russians control the Syrians and Iranians to the extent necessary? Can the Iranian regime control what the IRGC is doing in Syria even if it wants to? No one knows the answers to all these questions right now.

Until the situation becomes clearer, having some U.S. power in theater functions as a kind of insurance policy against worst-case developments. So far, the Trump administration has left the Israelis pretty much on their own in dealing with Iranian probes. But knowing that the Americans have their back might make it more likely that the Israelis will not overreact and, say, stimulate a Hezbollah missile attack from Lebanese territory. So there is a good reason not to pull all U.S. power out of Syria right now, but it is not the same reason as looking to the “day after” of some supposedly negotiated “new” Syria.

Three Key American Decisions and their Ramifications

There is a variety of optimist, called a Panglossian after the famous Candide character, who thinks that this is the best of all possible worlds. It’s the only possible world we have right now, and therefore by a philosophical process of elimination it is also the best. That is no cause for merriment, but philosophical processes rarely are. We have the best/only possible world right now only because other possible worlds have been obviated by decisions either taken or avoided in the past that reeked of bad, optimism-infused judgment.

Over the course of the past nearly seven years there have been a great many decisions taken in the U.S. government regarding Syria. Let us not get down into the weeds, however. Only three of those decisions have been truly generative of the outcome so far: a decision taken in the March 2012, on the occasion of the visit to Washington of the Turkish Foreign Minister, to do nothing militarily about what was happening in Syria; the decision taken in September 2014, after the seizure of Mosul by the Islamic State the previous June, to start bombing ISIS without any strategy connecting that military action to the future of either Syria or Iraq; and the aforementioned decision to deploy and support Kurdish proxies to fight on the ground against the Islamic state in Syria and in proximity to Iraq.

To truly exhaust the analysis of these three decisions would require a book, and we certainly are not about to write or read a book just now. So let’s review these three decisions only in brief.

In the early months of the violence in Syria many observers believed that the Syrian regime would not survive the fight, anymore than other Arab dictatorships (in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya) survived earlier eruptions of the so-called Arab Spring. So U.S. efforts were limited to public relations designed to put the President on “the right side of history,” but otherwise to do essentially nothing. In other words, a media and public relations strategy substituted for an actual strategy. This was tragic, both because it misread what was happening in Syria, and because there was perhaps a way to staunch the violence without a major introduction of U.S. forces before it spun into mass murder.

There was a moment, before the vast number of victims of the war had become victims, when U.S. and NATO support for a limited Turkish incursion into Syria, designed to stimulate a coup in the palace and take a piece of territory as escrow against a future negotiation, might have worked.[2] But the White House, leery of doing stupid things, concerned about cluttering the politics of the upcoming presidential election, and afraid to derail budding negotiations with the Iran, decided to do nothing. It turned out that Assad was not toast after all, that Russian efforts to save him would not turn into a quagmire as later posited, that the nuclear deal would not moderate Iranian behavior but accelerate its aggressive probes, and that before very long something like 450,000 innocent and mostly unarmed civilians would be killed.

The decision to start bombing the Islamic State on Syrian and Iraqi territory after two American journalists were telegenically beheaded was above all a decision driven by domestic politics. While there were some who fantasized morbidly that the Islamic State represented an existential threat to the United States, anybody with a little knowledge of history, and an understanding of what an order-of-battle is, knew that the Islamic State would become no such thing and probably would not last very long.[3]

The verdict is out, and may remain out forever, as to whether the initial American bombing harmed or helped ISIS recruiting. Obviously, someone had to go after these murderous lunatics. Not so obvious was that it had to be the United States Air Force and Navy directly, and more or less alone for all practical purposes. There is no way to prove a counterfactual, of course, but if the United States government had been a bit more reticent and multilateral about its approach to ISIS, there is at least some possibility that the regional Sunni Arab states would have figured out a way to do at least a hefty part of the work for themselves. We’ll never know, and of course their general fecklessness cannot be denied. Still, if the Saudis can fight in Yemen (never mind if they’re fighting well), and if the United Arab Emirates can bomb there, they both could have done more directly against the Islamic State. Maybe they could have rented Egyptian expeditionary forces for the purpose as well.

The main problem with the U.S. policy, however, was that it was connected to no discernible American regional strategy. It was as if the phenomenon of the Islamic State never intersected, or would ever intersect, with the messes going on side by side in Syria and Iraq.[4] How could anyone imagine that introducing American military force into the region, and engaging an array of proxies to do one thing or another under its aegis, would not end up affecting these struggles and relations with nearby countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, not to speak of generating implications for countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel? You really have to be an optimist to imagine such a thing, though “optimist” is not the only word that comes to mind.

So here we are, with the Islamic State bereft of nearly all its real estate, but with a host of noisome consequences flowing from American policy—including the aforementioned U.S. soldiers on the ground in Syria whose purpose is now indeterminate and legally near-naked, and the impossible mess we are in over the fighting in Afrin.

None of this is the fault of the Trump administration. Had the November 2016 election gone the other way, a Clinton administration would be facing more or less the same dilemmas, because they were baked into U.S. policy errors from the start. It is just like the Trump administration to claim credit for defeating the Islamic State, when all it did was to inherit a policy and tweak the rules of engagement a bit.

But it was the third decision, the decision to rely on Kurdish proxies in fighting ISIS, that has perhaps done the most harm. When the decision was made in 2016 foul consequences did not seem inevitable, for Turkish attitudes themselves were in flux about the Kurds. But it did not take long for the fault lines to form, and when they did the decision needed revisiting—but it was not revisited. That is what has unnecessarily roiled relations with Turkey, making it seem that the Turkish government is otherwise pure and innocent all this—quite a feat. And that is the decision which has left a small U.S. force on the ground vulnerable to the vicissitudes of counterinsurgency warfare.

If the Islamic State were really such a serious security threat to the United States, the proper way to have dealt with it would have been directly. Even if we thought at the time that the threat was really not very serious, that it was something that even the LAPD, properly armed, could have handled, it still should have been handled directly in order to avoid future complications that were completely predictable even two to three years ago. This is what excessive risk aversion and cheap hawkery will get you every time—gratuitous problems, smaller mistakes later piled on top of them, and so altogether a crapulation of unanticipated vexations that could have and should have been avoided.

An Optimistic Future after Years of Mistakes?

Lord Vansittart, lately my favorite long-deceased diplomatic mastermind, once wrote, “It is usually sound to do at once what you have to do ultimately.” By the autumn of 2014 it was clear that, whatever came before, we were going to have to make some difficult decisions about Syria, and we were going to have to do something about the plague of the Islamic State; and we should have known that those issues could not be kept in separate policy baskets forever. But the Obama White House, with liberal optimists skittering around all over the place, thought that a form of Micawberism—waiting for something to turn up—would suit just fine.

What would turn up? The fall of Assad without our having to do anything; the transformation of the region with the Iran deal; the successful no-fault use of proxies against ISIS set within a multisided fight thought by all local parties to have existential implications for them. They should have worked on inventing a dietetic deep-fried twinkie while they were at it. So here we are, and you have to look really hard to find any optimists left in the diplomatic trenches of the moment.

There is of course a place for optimism. Optimism, as a former boss of mine used to say, is a force multiplier. It certainly can be, and it is certainly the case that pessimism is its own worst enemy. But for optimism to be a force multiplier it must be tethered to reality in one way or another. But as soon as you try honestly to do that in a Middle Eastern context, optimism tends to take an extended Viennese lunch break.

In the Middle East, it seems to me, we would be wiser to set our course by less buoyant sentiments. I offer for consideration this fictional 17th-century exchange from John Barth’s 1960 novel The Sotweed Factor, wherein the serving man Bertrand engages in some speculation with our hero Ebenezer. The exchange speaks for itself, and needs no further interpretation from me:

Bertrand: “There’s a lot goes on behind the scenes, if ye but knew it. More history’s made by secret handshakes than by battles, bills, and proclamations.

Ebenezer: “And are all human motives really so despicable?”

Bertrand: “Aye, sir. Why do you ask?”


[1] Garfinkle, “Russian Motives in Syria and the Implications for US Policy,” in The Kremlin’s Actions in Syria: Origins, Timing, and Prospects, John Herbst, ed.  (Atlantic Council, Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, March 2016). My claims were greeted initially by some skepticism; there is little skepticism anymore.

[2] See, my “The Wisdom of Sheik Zubar: A U.S.-Turkish Option for Syria,” The American Interest Online, March 6, 2012.

[3] See my “To Strike or Not to Strike, That Is the Question,” The American Interest Online, June 26, 2014.

[4] See my “Do We Have a Strategy Now?” The American Interest Online, September 11, 2014.

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