Same US Policy, Different Syria

Critics have called the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy inconsistent and confused, but in occasional speeches and interviews, President Barack Obama makes clear his core views on US policy in the region. His 2016 State of the Union speech was one such occasion. In it, he justified staying the course on the Middle East and, implicitly but clearly, in Syria, showing absolute confidence and rejecting all the main criticisms of the United States’ hands-off approach to the conflict. In 2015, these policies showed decidedly mixed results in Syria. The civil war continued to kill tens of thousands and Russia intervened directly to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) held on to key territories and launched several dramatic overseas attacks, though it also lost other territory and suffered significant casualties. Whatever the administration’s performance thus far, however, continuity in policy does not imply continuity in results. The impact of the same US policy will be worse in 2016 than in 2015.

The following statements by the president reveal key beliefs about Syria:

The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

The implication here is that the United States cannot resolve primordial, ancient conflicts disconnected from any specific set of contemporary, addressable circumstances. Thus, it can do very little if anything about ending the war in Syria.

Masses of [ISIS] fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But do not threaten our national existence.

This statement relates directly to Syria policy, since ISIS emerged from the civil war in Syria and has established its ‘capital’ there. The president’s main point is that the ISIS threat must be kept in perspective, but there is an unspoken policy implication: if the threat itself is quite limited, then it is impossible to justify risky policies to eliminate it—such as addressing the conflict from which it emerged and derives strength.

We just need to call [ISIS] what they are — killers and fanatics who have to be rooted out, hunted down, and destroyed.

This is self-evidently true, but again there is a policy implication: here, these particular killers and fanatics are decontextualized from the Syrian war. The possibility that they may enjoy some limited local legitimacy or acceptance for reasons rooted in the war is discounted. It follows that it is not necessary to understand and shape their environment, only to kill them (which is, incidentally, current US policy against ISIS in Syria).

We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.

This statement ought to dispel any doubts about the administrations’ policy intentions in Syria in 2016. It is clearly a thinly veiled reference to that conflict. To the extent the president believes the Syria challenge is analogous to the disasters in Vietnam and Iraq, he cannot (and will not) contemplate involvement or intervention. If US involvement means taking over and rebuilding Syria, then it is not an option.

In short, the United States will continue its minimalist, risk-averse, approach to the challenge of the Syrian civil war. There is likely no ‘barring a major terrorist attack on US soil’ caveat to this. The administration’s policy does not assume that such an attack will not occur, but that it would present no existential threat and that, in any case, trying to destroy ISIS by intervening to end the Syrian civil war would be unwise. Just as the Syrian regime’s blatant violation of the president’s chemical weapons red line did not shift his approach on Syria, there are no likely events or circumstances that would do so in 2016.

This thinking raises the question of what continuity in US policy would mean for the Syrian civil war. It is of course impossible to make exact predictions about such a complex phenomenon as the Syrian conflict, but it has indisputably changed substantially over the past year, indicating that an unchanged policy is unlikely to perpetuate the status quo. Most notably, while an increasingly effective insurgency and attrition in regime ranks led to large-scale rebel gains in most of 2015, Russia’s essentially unimpeded entry into the war—ostensibly against ISIS but mainly against the insurgency—changed the equation.

Media attention has focused on Russia’s bombing of civilian areas and killing of innocents, but insurgents consistently attest to the severe punishment that Russian firepower inflicts on the rebellion. Russian support provides a morale boost for regime forces and its militia allies, including Hezbollah, and has helped deliver some important territorial gains for the regime. At the same time, the United States and Russia have pushed the rebel groups into a grinding and likely futile diplomatic process—effectively a channel for Russia to use its military gains to impose a political settlement favoring the regime.

If these circumstances persist in 2016 (and President Obama has offered no reason to believe otherwise), the insurgency could not accept a political settlement that favors the Assad regime, nor would it be able to defeat it. A substantial increase in foreign military support or US military intervention would create options for the rebels, including an equitable diplomatic settlement or, failing that, defeating and imposing terms on the regime. Unfortunately for the insurgency, continuity in US policy means it will receive neither. If 2015 was a year of substantial victories for the rebellion, an unchanged US policy could make 2016 the year of its demise.

Faysal Itani is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, where he focuses primarily on the Syrian conflict and its regional impact.

Related Experts: Faysal Itani

Image: Screenshot of President Barack Obama delivering his final State of the Union address. (White House)