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Syria's 10 years of crisis offer little optimism and fewer lessons

There's no clear choice —or choices — that would have made Syria's civil war less devastating.
Photo collage of Syrian men carrying babies through the rubble of destroyed buildings, a child in a mask and the Syrian flag painted on his forehead and a women and her daughter sit outside a refugee camp.
The "what ifs" of Syria have stacked up over the last decade.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; AP; Getty Images

On March 15, 2011, the people of Syria began marching in the streets demanding an end to the government's oppression. Three days later, President Bashar al-Assad's regime killed five protesters at a march in Daraa. Nobody knows how many have been killed since then. The most recent estimate from a U.N. official was 400,000. It was a number that Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, had come up with on his own — it was a guesstimate. That was five years ago.

The story of Syria has been one in which everything that could have gone wrong did. Hindsight is meant to be 20/20; with enough distance, it's supposed to be easy to see the path that should have been taken or the wisdom of the choices that were made. Looking back at just a small sample of the "what ifs" of Syria doesn't lend much credence to that idea.

For example, what if the NATO air campaign that would help oust Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi hadn't begun four days after the first Syrian protest? Maybe the Russians wouldn't have dug in their heels so hard to defend Assad. And maybe the U.S. wouldn't have hesitated to turn its military attention to stopping Syria's atrocities — including forced disappearances, rape and torture — had it not still been defending the intervention in Libya domestically.

Or what if the Gulf states hadn't sent money and guns to jihadi groups? Would there have been less concern about what Syria post-Assad would look like? And then maybe if the rise of ISIS hadn't provided the perfect cover, the Russians wouldn't have militarily intervened in 2015 against the militants and the remaining Syrian protesters.

What if the U.S. had armed the rebels sooner, rather than give space for the Assad government to wipe out any moderate opposition? Maybe Assad would have been forced to resign. Or then again, what if the U.S. had never tried to arm them at all? Assad still would have remained in power but without so high a death toll, as the hope of intervention may have prolonged the fighting.

Looking back at just a small sample of the "what ifs" of Syria doesn't lend much credence to the idea of hindsight being 20/20.

What if the Obama administration had followed through on its threats after a chemical weapons attack killed 1,400 men, women and children in Ghouta? Could Assad have been cowed into ending his war on his own people? Or was there really no combination of diplomatic pressure and military force that the U.S. would have been willing to exert in the name of protecting civilians?

The only thing that's clear is that there have been no winners after all these years, only those who have lost less. And nobody has lost more than the Syrian people. The U.N. may have stopped counting the dead, but it still keeps track of the living. And as of today, 5.5 million Syrians are refugees, decamped to neighboring countries like Turkey and Lebanon. Another 6.2 million Syrians are internally displaced within Syria. Together, that's over half of Syria's 2011 population, scattered and driven from their homes. And of those still in the country, 80 percent live in poverty. Over 12.4 million Syrians are food insecure, and a further 1.8 million are at risk.

As the war seems nearly won, the question is turning to what to do with the next 10 years. I spoke with Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps' country director for Syria, about how the NGO is looking to that future. While previously the focus has been on providing immediate humanitarian needs, Barnes told me, now the question will be how to help local partners get the economy back up and running so Syrians can provide for themselves and their families.

Barnes lavished praise on the Syrians whom Mercy Corps works with — "'you give us the chance, we will then deliver,' and I've seen that proven time and time again" — while still being clear about the difficulties that remain, given the pandemic and the global economic downturn it has caused.

Despite that cautious optimism, it's hard not to feel cynical as we hit this milestone year. I've been covering this war since before it was a war — my early days of blogging in 2011 were spent tracking the U.N. Security Council's movements on Syria, parsing draft resolutions in hope of finding the key to the end of the crisis. That day never came, not through years of declining interest, not after Ghouta, not after ISIS's rise and fall.

Maybe this isn't the darkest timeline — maybe the alternative choices, the other possible futures for Syria, were worse. Maybe the U.S. would be struggling with another occupation, like in Iraq and Afghanistan. Maybe skirmishes with the Russians would have escalated into a full-on war. Maybe ISIS would still be in control of Syrian territory.

But there's no way to know that for sure. It's the not knowing that's going to eat at me.