Special Presidential Envoy General John Allen did his best in an Asharq Al-Awsat interview to square the circle of an unsustainable Syria policy in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, ISIL, or the Islamic State). Stipulating that the outcome sought in Syria “does not include Assad,” Allen nevertheless flatly responded “No” when asked if Syrian nationalist units to be trained to fight ISIS would also fight Assad regime forces. They would, according to Allen, engage regime forces only “as they seek to defend themselves and those areas that they dominate and as they seek to defend their families and their ways of life…” The objective is to create a “credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognize. There is not going to be a military solution here [in Syria].” Moreover, Iran (whose “constructive role in Iraq” has been welcomed) has to hear from the United States “that we seek a political outcome [in Syria] where there will be many voices that contribute to that political outcome.” But that political outcome, according to Allen, “Will not include Assad.”
Confused? Don’t blame the General. On October 14, 2014 President Obama said that the battle against ISIS will “require us developing and strengthening a moderate opposition inside Syria that is in a position then to bring about the kind of legitimacy and sound governance for all people inside Syria.” [Emphasis added.] There was no equivocation by the president about “areas that they dominate.” There was no conditionality about a “credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognize.” The president’s words were clear. Has it has been left to General John Allen to fudge them: to give the administration the space to walk away from yet another exercise in empty rhetoric?
What are those charged with actually building a nationalist force to make out of the jumbled conceptual mess created by what may well be yet another policy climb-down? They are being asked, in essence, to recruit a force of individuals willing to chase ISIS from pillar to post while firing not at regime operatives unless fired upon. This remarkable proposition lacks in situational awareness. Is there some aspect of the Assad regime’s war against Syrians that has escaped the administration’s notice? Are administration officials aware that the regime has stepped up its merciless barrel bombing of residential neighborhoods? Has no one informed the administration of tens of thousands of Syrians incarcerated by the regime and undergoing torture, starvation, and sexual abuse? Does anyone at senior levels in this administration know or care what this extraordinary proposition—fight ISIS, keep your powder dry until attacked by the regime—sounds like to pummeled Syrians who have witnessed valiant US efforts to save Yazidis and Kurds from mass murder?
Perhaps no one cares. This is, after all, all about us and our dysfunctional policy-making processes. But how are we to recruit a force and field it given the gap between what we say we want and the ground truth in Syria? It is one thing for operationally illiterate Americans to sit around a conference room table and come up with the kinds of tortured formulations General Allen felt compelled to recite. It is something else to ask military professionals to make chicken salad out of what is being served up. Construct a force that is strong enough to fight ISIS, but not so strong as to “liberate Damascus?” Recruit Syrian nationalists willing to go on the offense against ISIS but stay buttoned-up in the face of a remorseless, merciless regime? In short, create a force that is just right in terms of bridging US policy dysfunction? This is a job for Goldilocks, not an American General Officer.
The politicos want the US military to build a force that fights ISIS effectively but is merely “credible” in the face of Assad: something that he, his family, the Iranians, and Iran’s foreign fighters will someday feel obliged “to acknowledge and recognize.” This is fantasy. If the regime and its supporters ever feel sufficiently intimidated to consider a “political outcome” other than military victory, it will only be when they face the prospect of military defeat. The mantra of “no military solution for Syria” cannot repeal the law that political-diplomat results in armed conflicts—civil and otherwise—track very closely with military realities.
With regard to Iran, leave aside the horrific effects of its support for Iraqi sectarian militias busily engaged in terrorizing civilians. Perhaps there are other aspects of its policy in Iraq that are praiseworthy. Tehran, however, is not the least bit interested in our view that there could be “many voices that contribute” to a nice political outcome in Syria. Tehran wants Assad. It wants Assad because he is a reliable employee when it comes to keeping Hezbollah prepared to rain missiles down on Israeli cities. It realizes that with Assad gone, the keystone of clan-based regime is extracted and everything collapses. Senior Iranians close to those who actually run Tehran’s policies in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon have no problem at all articulating these facts in unofficial encounters with Americans. Iran’s Supreme Leader has no trouble whatsoever expressing his contempt for the United States. Why are we so intent on reassuring people who know exactly what they are doing and have no reservations at all about prevailing?
If the United States is serious about building an all-Syrian stabilization force, it will configure it to defeat any combination of enemies inside Syria. The mission of such a force should be to stabilize Syria under the direction of a competent Syrian civil authority: the kind President Obama spoke about developing inside Syria. This force should have the wherewithal to assist the coalition in routing ISIS, and it should have the capability to compel the Assad regime to surrender or—at the regime’s option—negotiate a political transition that would allow it to step aside peacefully. Washington need not reassure Tehran about anything. The force, however, should be trained and configured to protect all Syrians and to safeguard government installations and facilities it liberates.
All of this will take time. Nationalist forces fighting ISIS and the regime need robust material assistance now, lest Assad and Caliph Baghdadi achieve their common aim of becoming the only two left standing in Syria. Syrian nationalists need a protected zone to bring about the vision articulated by President Obama at Andrews Joint Base. What they do not need is a primer on the identities of the enemies they face, who they should fight, and in what order. They are already fighting in two directions. Secretary of State John Kerry had it right in early 2013: if you want to get Assad to the negotiating table, change his calculation. The United States should, at long last and at the very least, stop driving that calculation in the wrong direction.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.