I think it is foolish to insist upon labeling something as complicated as U.S. policy toward Syria since 2011 as simply a "success" or "failure." For anything that complex there will rarely be a clear verdict, and except in the extreme cases, the any policy will be a mix of successful and unsuccessful elements. But this successful element of Obama's Syria policy, I think, gets too little attention:
Judis: What’s your assessment of the Obama administration’s intervention in Syria. How has it gone? Is it a success or a failure?
Landis: You know, I think that in one important respect, it’s a success. That’s because he kept his foot on the brakes and resisted what he has called “the playbook” of foreign policy circles in Washington, which is to get sucked into these civil wars in the Middle East. There is no way that the United States was going to solve the Syria Problem in any constructive way – and just keeping us out of it to the extent he did was a boon.
Everyone wanted us to solve their Syria problem, whether it was Lebanon or Israel or Turkey or Iraq, because they couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, they all had different visions of who we should be helping and what kind of Syria would come out of the other end of the meat grinder. And had the United States gotten in there, it would not have made a better sausage. We’ve seen that regime change has been a bad idea.
Americans (and even some non-Americans) seem to have this unshakable belief that the U.S. military is inherently a force for good and they assume that any time the U.S. military gets involved in a problem it will necessarily improve the situation. For the past 50 years there have been numerous instances of U.S. military intervention around the world and almost none of those examples support this belief. However noble our intentions, it seems clear to me that sending the U.S. military into an ongoing conflict rarely solves the problem and often makes it worse.
The fact that Obama repeatedly resisted calls for greater intervention in the Syrian civil war is really to his credit. Very few foreign policy wonks view that as an accomplishment, but that is because they are comparing the current horrible state of Syria with their fantasy of what they imagine might have been if the U.S. went in and did everything exactly right this time. There really is no reason to believe that is how things would have gone down. And there are plenty of recent historical examples that suggest that the outcome would probably not be so rosy.