Worse than Nothing: Why US Intervention Made Government Atrocities More Likely in Syria

Summary of Study

Bottom line: Washington's foreign policy in the Middle East has been based on wishful thinking, divorced from an analytical approach to civil war. By meddling in the region, American leaders have inadvertently incentivized mass killing and other forms of civilian atrocities. It's a myth that the U.S. didn't intervene in Syria, where U.S. mistakes likely worsened the suffering.

U.S. power and a desire to "do something" emboldens Washington to pursue foreign interventions to overthrow dictators or impose sanctions. This approach reflects a lack of imagination and analysis.

By aiding the Syrian rebels and imposing economic sanctions, the U.S. likely generated worse abuses by Assad, who reacted rationally in an attempt to maintain power. Washington is not morally responsible for his crimes, but it likely is to blame for the ensuing unintended consequences. The prevailing narrative that the U.S. didn't intervene in the country is bizarre.

The research on mass killing indicates that the US not only did little to help the Syrian people but also made atrocities more likely. The rising death toll after the U.S. intervened suggests that the country made a bad situation worse. Rather than continuing to support regime change in the face of human-rights abuses, the U.S. should seek diplomacy and try to end civil wars in a realistic fashion.

The madman theory -- the idea that foreign dictators are crazy and impervious to reason -- is one that the U.S. has long followed. In this narrative, little can be done to stop dictators besides regime change. This approach is flawed. In reality, dictators are rational and respond to incentives, encouragement, and diplomacy like everyone else.

Economic sanctions backfire because they make countries poorer and more likely to commit atrocities. After U.S. intervention in 2012, the death toll in Syria increased by more than six times to 49,361. In each of the two years after that, the number killed was more than nine times what it was in 2011, reaching a peak of more than 76,000 in 2014.

The U.S. should learn four lessons from Syria:

  1. Foreign leaders, even those who commit atrocities, should be presumed to be rational actors.
  2. The US should understand that regime change is not the antidote to government atrocities; rather, it is more likely to exacerbate mass violence.
  3. Washington should stop trying to economically debilitate regimes facing domestic uprisings.
  4. A policy of engagement is better than one of isolation. The U.S. policy of regime change in Syria doomed efforts to effectuate change. 

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Feature Charticle

Annual Deaths in the Syrian Civil War

Survival

Findings:

  • By meddling in the Middle East, American leaders have inadvertently incentivized mass killing and other forms of civilian atrocities.
  • After U.S. intervention in 2012, the death toll in Syria increased by more than six times to 49,361. 
  • In each of the two years after that, the number killed was more than nine times what it was in 2011, reaching a peak of more than 76,000 in 2014.
  • It's a myth that the U.S. didn't intervene in Syria, where U.S. mistakes likely worsened the suffering. 

Access the full article HERE