Whenever someone says it's "too late" to deal with a policy crisis, it's a sure indication that they are fundamentally comfortable with the status quo. Now that the United States has finally announced that it is going to get involved in directly aiding rebel groups in Syria, the siren song of "too late" is being heard loudly and clearly. "Too little"—or even "don't do anything at all"—might be a fair criticism, but "it's too late" is almost never true of any ongoing policy challenge.
Many Americans have opposed direct involvement in Syria from the outset. A new strand of neo-isolationism, uniting factions on the left and the right, has become very fashionable in Washington, post-Afghanistan, Iraq and the fiscal crisis. There are others who genuinely can't see any major interests at stake or reasonable outcomes available. And there are some who are essentially comfortable with the Damascus regime anyway.
On cue, many of these voices—none of which ever wanted any direct American engagement in Syria at all—are repeating their conviction that this is a bad idea and, above all, that it is "too late."
Of course there's some truth to these complaints. Relative American inaction has helped to promote all the things the United States said it wanted to avoid in Syria from the outset. And, had it acted sooner, it probably could have helped avoid the situation deteriorating as badly as it has, and in such an uncontrolled manner.
It's been almost two years since many of us began pointing out that there is an armed conflict in Syria, that its outcome is very important to American foreign policy, and that in order to influence its nature and the outcome some kind of direct engagement is required. So it’s certainly "too late" to prevent a parade of horribles from having emerged: the country is in flames, 100,000 people dead, millions displaced, and sectarian barbarism raging on both sides of the battlefield. But it's not too late to reverse the trends or start to have a positive impact.
The "too late" argument rests on a series of bizarre counterfactuals. True, Syria might not have fallen into the grip of a gangster regime run by a criminal family and associated mafia. True, there might not have been an uprising. True, the government might not have crushed the peaceful uprising with overwhelming violence. True, the opposition might have been more united politically and militarily, internally and externally, more effective and more wise. And, true, had patriotic rebel groups been provided with sufficient material and political support, the extreme Salafist-Jihadists funded by wealthy fanatics in the Gulf would not have become as powerful and dangerous as they are. But all of this, and so much more, did indeed happen.
Let us concede, therefore, that if things were not the way they are, they would be different. But history moves on regardless. The war is not decided and the outcome totally unresolved. There has already been a massive external intervention on behalf of the regime involving thousands of elite fighters from Hezbollah and, increasingly, Iran, and intense military, diplomatic and political support from Russia. The only thing we can really conclude from the way the Syrian war has developed so far is that the external supporters of the Damascus regime care more about the outcome of the conflict than its external opponents and the supporters of the rebels.
Unfortunately, it seems that's still the case, at least as far as the United States is concerned. Even though the U.S. is crossing a Rubicon by agreeing to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict, administration officials are not coy that the intention is not to promote a rebel victory. It is rather intended to change the strategic equation on the ground, which has recently shifted in favor of the government, especially following a series of Hezbollah-supported victories. According to the Washington Post, "An outright rebel win is seen [by Washington] as both unlikely and less desirable than a negotiated settlement that leaves Syrian institutions intact."
We can be sure that Hezbollah and Iran, for whom this is an existential battle, and indeed Russia, which has decided to stake its international reputation on the preservation of the Damascus dictatorship, take the opposite perspective. They are throwing everything they possibly can into this battle and fully intend their side to win. For all their talk about the importance of negotiations, the Syrian dictatorship and its supporters are clearly fully committed to a decisive military victory, and changing that is going to require a full-fledged effort.
So, even if it is a halfhearted and belated effort to change the strategic equation on the ground, and even though the original intention may be something as presently fanciful as "setting the stage for successful negotiations," it is by no means "too late." But it may be "too little." The stated aim of creating conditions for a deal is de minimis. It will be difficult to prove effective because the other side is all in for the big victory. As long as they think they can win, or even hope they can, they'll never be interested in a serious conversation about any real conflict-ending agreement. And the United States needs to begin to take seriously the prospect that a negotiated agreement may actually never prove to be the way this war ends.
So, for once, "mission creep" provides the hope of a successful outcome rather than a terrifying threat to a major foreign policy initiative. Typically, American hubris has meant overreaching, and "mission creep" has historically been synonymous with disaster. In this case, a new and uncharacteristic American risk-aversion has been crippling. And, with the utmost historical irony, only some good old-fashioned American "mission creep" holds out much hope for ultimate success for the evolving Syria policy.