U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Tom Friedman Is Calling for a Partition of Syria: Trump Should Run the Other Way

April 07, 2017
Stephen M. Walt

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy magazine with the subheading: "You’d think by now the New York Times columnist would have learned that putting U.S. boots on the ground in the Middle East doesn’t end well."

In many ways, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman personifies the glib id of the American foreign-policy establishment. Like most members of the foreign-policy “Blob,” he thinks almost everything that happens anywhere is a vital interest of the United States, and is therefore something for which American blood and treasure should be spilled if necessary. Like most Americans, he thinks our country always acts from noble motives, even if the results are (repeatedly) ignoble. Like many U.S. leaders, he rarely acknowledges his own mistakes. If his advice gets followed and things go wrong, then somebody else must have screwed up (like those incompetent Bushies who bungled the occupation of Iraq, or those ungrateful Iraqis who didn’t realize what a wonderful gift we had given them). And instead of learning from experience, he makes the same analytical mistakes over and over again. Hmm. Sounds like some very powerful countries I know.

Case in point: his column in Wednesday’s New York Times discussing the dilemmas President Donald Trump faces in Syria. Friedman correctly points out that a chemical attack by forces allied with President Bashar al-Assad has exposed Trump’s naiveté about the Syrian conflict. And he may even be right in suggesting that the Trump administration’s poorly orchestrated statements about tolerating the Assad regime — made devoid of any diplomatic context or as part of a genuine quid pro quo — may have encouraged Assad to think he could escalate the war with impunity. In criticizing Trump, Friedman is on firm ground.

Now that Trump has ordered cruise missile strikes on the airbase from which the chemical strikes were launched, you might think the president has learned quickly and shown how “flexible” he is (a point Trump emphasized in his own remarks to the press on Thursday). The problem is that these attacks are a purely symbolic act devoid of real strategic significance. 

They are the Trumpian equivalent of Bill Clinton’s cruise missiles strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. They might deter Assad from further chemical weapons use, but they don’t alter the situation on the ground, don’t make Syrian civilians significantly safer, and don’t move us closer to a solution.

Friedman, however, has the answer. His advice — surprise, surprise! — is straight from the same Establishment playbook that has done so much to screw up the Middle East over the past two-plus decades. Typically, Friedman blames Russia and Iran for all the trouble, including the emergence of the Islamic State, conveniently omitting the far more important role played by the 2003 Iraq War that he helped sell to the American public. He also ignores the destructive part the United States has played in the Syrian tragedy: by prematurely demanding “Assad must go,” excluding Iran from the early diplomatic efforts to stop the war, and backing assorted proxy forces and client states whose arms shipments have helped keep the war going and contributed to the ever-deepening morass. The United States is hardly the only outside power that bears responsibility here, but suggesting it has not been involved is simply false.

Having whitewashed the U.S. role in helping create this mess, Friedman then writes:

The least bad solution is a partition of Syria and the creation of a primarily Sunni protected area — protected by an international force, including, if necessary, some U.S. troops. That should at least stop the killing — and the refugee flows that are fueling a populist-nationalist backlash all across the European Union.

It won’t be pretty or easy. But in the Cold War we put 400,000 troops in Europe to keep the sectarian peace there and to keep Europe on a democracy track. Having NATO and the Arab League establish a safe zone in Syria for the same purpose is worth a try.

To be clear: Friedman is telling Trump to send a substantial body of U.S. ground troops into Syria for the purposes of “keeping the sectarian peace.” To his credit, he’s not offering bogus solutions like “no-fly zones,” but he is telling Trump that the only way to solve the problem is for the United States to invade Syria.

The temptation to embrace this proposal is obvious. 

What is happening in Syria is awful to behold (even without the use of chemical weapons), and we would all like to wave a magic wand and make it stop. It seems wimpy and irresponsible for the world’s most powerful country to be mostly (but not entirely) on the sidelines, while Russia or Iran are working hard on behalf of Assad. Unfortunately, many of the groups fighting Assad are no better than he is and deeply hostile to the United States. Every time we try to back Syrian “moderates” we end up unwittingly funneling more arms to dangerous jihadis.

What else is wrong with his idea? Let me count the ways. For starters, Friedman never explains why fixing Syria is a vital U.S. interest (that is, something worth for which one would send U.S. troops to fight and die). The best he can do is link it to the refugee problem that has roiled European politics over the past couple of years, but Europe’s political malaise goes well beyond the refugee issue and won’t end when the Syrian crisis finally comes to a close. And at the risk of sounding Trumpian, is it America’s responsibility to send troops to Syria in order to preserve European liberalism?

One can argue for intervention on purely humanitarian grounds, of course, but that justification will rarely, if ever, carry the day in American politics. Indeed, it’s hard to find any case where the United States expended significant amounts of blood or treasure for purely humanitarian reasons. Friedman approvingly quotes his friend and co-author Michael Mandelbaum, who thinks intervention would help but says, “The American public simply does not want to spend the blood and treasure to produce what would probably be a less awful but still not good outcome in Syria.” Yet it is hardly a failure of democracy when the government declines to do something the population strongly opposes. Or is Friedman (and Mandelbaum) telling Trump to ignore what the American people want? Nor is there any guarantee that intervention would make things better.

Second, the catalyst for this latest episode (and Trump’s apparent change of heart about Assad) was the regime’s latest use of chemical weapons. As I wrote back when the original red line was crossed, our obsession with this particular means of killing people makes little sense. The vast majority of Syrian deaths are the result of conventional high explosives, barrel bombs, bullets, famine, etc. — yet publics, presidents, and pundits obsess about this one particular category. Assad didn’t need to use chemical weapons to convince me he was a brutal dictator who was willing to do just about anything to retain power. The fact that his forces have used them on several occasions shouldn’t alter our calculus about the pros and cons of intervention in the slightest.

Third, Friedman’s proposal assumes that the United States can quickly assemble a militarily effective coalition of NATO and/or Arab forces to enter Syrian territory and enforce peace. “If necessary,” he writes, we might have to send “some U.S. troops.” Who is he kidding? Does he seriously believe NATO and some Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, or Turks are ready and willing to enter the Syrian maelstrom, operate effectively there, and stay the course? Their collective temptation to shirk and pass the buck will be enormous, and Uncle Sucker will end up holding the bag in Syria, just as it has in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Once the peacekeepers arrive, what then? Friedman writes vaguely of a “primarily Sunni” safe zone, but where does that leave Syria’s non-Sunni population and where exactly does he propose to locate it? Does Friedman believe the various anti-Assad forces — including the Islamic State, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and other assorted jihadi groups, many of whom are Sunni — will welcome the occupiers with open arms? Will Russia and Iran simply fold their hands and cut a deal, and what might that deal be? If Assad falls, what would prevent a retributory bloodbath against innocent Alawis who were not complicit in Assad’s crimes? How will the occupying force figure out whom to support, whom to oppose, and who should be entrusted with the long-term future of Syria?

Let’s not mince words. What Friedman is really proposing is a foreign invasion of Syria. Isn’t such an action more likely to deepen the Hobbesian state of anarchy that already exists there, with the intervening force arrayed on one side? Putting an effective lid on the sectarian conflict in Syria would require a massive military occupation involving several hundred thousand troops (at least), and even that might not be enough. We’ve seen this movie several times in recent years, and the results have been uniformly disappointing.

Oh, one more thing: What’s the exit strategy? Friedman never offers one, or gives any indication of his anticipated timeline. How long does he expect the United States and its coalition partners to be bogged down in Syria? If Iraq and Afghanistan are any guide, the answer is approximately forever.

Make no mistake. In the guise of benevolent humanitarian intervention, Friedman is calling — yet again! — for the United States to wage another war in the Greater Middle East. It has done so five times since 1990: in Iraq (twice), in Afghanistan (still underway), in Libya, in Somalia, and we’ve intervened on a smaller scale in Syria and Yemen. With the exception of the first Iraq War in 1991, none of these interventions has ended well. Or as former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen put it last year, “We’re zero for a lot.” It is also worth remembering that the first Iraq War was successful because it was a purely conventional war (i.e., the kind we are good at fighting), did not involve seizing foreign territory, and did not lead to regime change, an American occupation, or the kind of elaborate social engineering that nation-building necessarily entails.

Syria remains a tragedy because there are no good options. Friedman knows that, I suspect, but he judges his proposal to be the “least bad” and says it is “worth a try.”

Ask yourself: Would you want to tell that to a young U.S. soldier about to deploy, or to a foreign government whose help you were trying to enlist? “Hey, it’s worth a try.” I’m sure Winston Churchill told his associates the disastrous assault on Gallipoli was “worth a try,” and I’ll bet German naval officials said the same thing about the unrestricted submarine warfare campaign that brought the United States into the war in 1917. Gen. Hideki Tojo probably thought the attack on Pearl Harbor was “worth a try,” and that’s what Friedman thought about invading Iraq back in 2003. By now, you’d think he’d know better.


Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. He is also a member of the board at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the faculty chair of its International Security Program. Twitter handle: @stephenwalt.

Photo by the U.S. Army shared as a U.S. government work in the public domain.