April 14, 2017
Syria: Thinking Strategically
By Frederic C. Hof
Senior officials of the previous administration have either endorsed the strike on Shayrat airbase or have maintained an appropriate silence. For the Obama administration, Syria was a public information challenge to be managed: not a fit subject for a national security strategy. True, Bashar al-Assad was a mass murderer who should step aside, respect chemical weapons red lines, and put an end to barrel bombs, torture, starvation, and sieges. But he was also the valued protégé of the partner (Iran) to a legacy-defining nuclear agreement. Therefore, he could really do as he wished: ideally without chemicals. He did exactly that, ultimately returning to the presumably forbidden and supposedly removed weapon.
The Trump administration will not blackmail itself in Syria for the sake of an agreement that Iran found to be very much in its own interests. But fair enough: what does it want from the Syrian crisis? And how does it intend to get what it wants?
The administration is now in the process of defining objectives and crafting a strategy. Since 2014 the main goal of the United States in Syria has been the degradation and destruction of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISISL, Daesh) in the eastern part of the country. By all accounts, this remains the top priority of the Trump administration with a strong emphasis on ‘destruction.’
Yet if the killed ISIS group is to remain dead, surely effective Syrian governance must be established and protected in liberated areas. And even though the Trump administration has no more interest than its predecessor did in invading and occupying Assad Syria and engaging in violent regime change, surely it must aim diplomatically for a complete Syrian political transition away from a mafia family that is destroying the Syrian state and making the country safe for other forms of violent extremism.
‘Effective Syrian governance’ in areas to be liberated from ISIS is, for starters, non-Assad governance. Assad’s decision in 2011 to save himself politically via collective punishment and mass murder cratered the Syrian state and permitted Islamist extremists—most notably ISIS—to fill the gaps. To turn areas liberated from ISIS over to Assad is to ensconce the arsonist in the fire department.
Clearing ISIS from eastern Syria, facilitating non-Assad governance, and protecting the liberated areas from Assad and Iranian-led foreign Shia militias is a tall order. Liberating booby-trapped cities from no-holds-barred terrorists is a job for suitably trained military professionals: not militiamen. Local governance in liberated areas must be in the hands of locals. Fortunately there is a history of American technical assistance for pre-ISIS local councils, and there are longstanding relationships with Syrian opposition figures who can help with post-combat governance. Failure to tap into these assets would be asking for trouble. If taking and securing eastern Syria properly requires a pause to get it right, so be it.
Liberating populated areas from ISIS should be the work of a professional, American-led, ground force coalition of the willing. Such a coalition will also be required to stabilize liberated areas and help defend them from regime and Iranian incursions. Ideally eastern Syria would be a huge safe zone with a Syrian administration that the United States and its partners can recognize as the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic. Why after all should such recognition be accorded to a mass murderer? Why should Washington continue to hamstring itself legally by continuing to recognize the Assad family business as a national government?
Notwithstanding the emphasis on ISIS, the essence of the Syrian crisis is the collective punishment and mass homicide survival strategy of the Assad regime. This strategy has given rise to ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. It has created the premier humanitarian catastrophe since World War II. It has flooded Syria's neighbors with refugees and roiled western European politics via a migrant crisis, all to the unbridled delight of Moscow. And the failure of the Obama administration to do anything, but talk about civilian slaughter in Syria encouraged Russian adventurism not only in Syria, but in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe. American passivity—often accompanied by rhetorical overload—was dangerously destabilizing on a global scale. Those days appear to be over.
But with invasion, occupation, and violent regime change not on, what is left to marginalize and ultimately eliminate the corrosive impact of Assad and his entourage?
Part of the answer lies in ensuring that the recent response to Assad's chemical atrocity is not a one-time, one-off event. Chemicals have killed a tiny proportion of the Syrian civilians set upon by the regime. In 2013, once the Russian-American chemical agreement was in place, Assad went on a mass murdering binge, using everything except chemicals. Surely he will test whether he can make history repeat itself. For Assad, mass homicide is the force multiplier of choice. It has been so from the beginning. He knows that he cannot reconquer all of Syria through legal and conventional military means. His army is broken, and relies on Iranian-led foreign fighters to do the heavy lifting.
Frustrating and complicating Assad's strategy of terror and mass homicide must be at the heart of an American strategy aimed at marginalizing and eventually neutralizing the regime. Obviously this is complicated by Russia's presence.
Clearly Russia should be urged to get its client out of the mass murder business and into serious political negotiations. And if Washington elects to re-apply the lesson of Shayrat airbase as often as needed to ground an air force that is principally an instrument of terror, Russia should not be subjected to surprises.
But if all the United States and its partners are going to do is to object to one particular weapon in the arsenal of a state-destroying, terrorism-inspiring mass murderer, the objective of marginalizing and neutralizing Assad will never be achieved. And if it is not, Syria will be an engine for global instability and an incubator for transnational terrorism indefinitely.
Denied the ability to implement his mass terror strategy, Assad may find it increasingly difficult to bind Syrian officers and officials beyond his immediate entourage to the political survival of the family. Washington should offer an alternative to the family by reinvigorating its role in the United Nations-supervised Geneva peace talks. And it should consult closely with Russia about a political outcome in Syria that respects Russian interests. If Moscow is willing and able to bind Assad to a ceremonial role during part of the transition period, while a transitional governing body exercises full executive power, such an outcome need not be ruled out. Iran, of course, will be a problem: it knows that no Syrian beyond Assad and the entourage will subordinate the country to the care and feeding of Hezbollah.
Getting eastern Syria right and taking the time to do it right are essential. But as the start of baseball season reminds us, keeping ones eye on the ball is essential. The Assad regime is the beating heart of the Syrian catastrophe. A strategy reverting to the practice of leaving him free to kill at will—provided he does so without chemicals—is a plan for failure, one that will outlive this administration and its successors for as far as the eye can see, and even beyond.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.