War has consequences. Callous incompetence has consequences. The world is watching those consequences unfold in Syria today. No one can look at images of children dead from gas attacks and not be moved.
Let’s stipulate two things: First, there were never any easy American choices in Syria. Second, the Obama administration got virtually every hard choice wrong. Or, to be more precise, the choices it did make did nothing to either stop the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the new century or block our enemies and rivals, Iran and Russia, from exerting their will in Syria.
The result is the Syria we have today, a patchwork quilt of competing zones of control that in some ways looks more complicated than it is. Let’s make sense of the map below:
The red, government-controlled areas represent the most populated and economically consequential sections of the country. This is where Russia and Iran have asserted their will, and this is where Assad is spilling the blood of innocents to expand and maintain his grip on power. Yes, he’s still opposed by rebel groups, but they’ve been decimated, and many of the groups that remain are dominated by jihadists.
In the north, our Kurdish allies are on the move, but not against the regime — against ISIS. In other words, Assad has beaten his main foe and is leaving the United States, the Kurds, and assorted other allies to deal with our main foe, ISIS. After the battle for Raqqa, Syria is likely to be effectively partitioned, with American-backed forces controlling the north, the Russian-backed regime controlling the west, and some small forces still battling it out on the borders.
As we confront the Assad regime’s gas attack — which is just one of its countless violations of the law of war, and hardly its most deadly — we also have to confront this core reality: Our leading geopolitical rival — a traditional great power and a nuclear superpower — has quite obviously decided that the survival of a friendly regime in Damascus is a core national interest. It acted decisively while we dithered, and it has boots on the ground.
Thus, we now face a quandary. Retaliate against Syria so strongly that it truly punishes and weakens Assad, and you risk threatening Russia’s vital interests. Respond with a pinprick strike that Russia effectively “permits,” and you do nothing important. Assad has demonstrated that he cares little about his own casualties and may (like many other American enemies before him) actually feel emboldened after “surviving” an American strike.