In his remarks to Chiefs of Defense at Andrews Joint Base on October 14, President Barack Obama may have hinted at a significant Syria-related policy change in the fight against ISIS. Reminding those who attended a strategy session chaired by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey that the battle against ISIS cannot be simply military in nature, Obama said, “It’s going to require us developing and strengthening a moderate opposition inside of Syria that is in a position then to bring about the kind of legitimacy and sound governance for all people inside of Syria.” These words, linking as they did Syria’s mainstream opposition directly to the attaining of legitimacy and sound governance in Syria, avoided any reference to political transition negotiations rejected by the regime, opposed by Iran, and undermined by Russia. Does this language presage an actual shift of policy?
The president’s choice of words was arresting. One hopes they were also thoughtfully composed. He did not use the modifier “armed” in referring to the opposition. He did indeed specify “inside Syria.” At present, the Syrian National Coalition and the opposition’s Interim Government (with the newly reelected Ahmad Tohmeh as its prime minister) are headquartered in Istanbul. The National Coalition’s president, Hadi al-Bahra, wants to relocate everything—including the Interim Government—to Syria. He is understandably reluctant, however, to be on the losing end of a Levantine Bay of Pigs. Al-Bahra wants to operate within a protected buffer zone adjoining Turkey, one in which the National Coalition and the Interim Government can link up with local committees to provide governmental services and connect directly with nationalist military units they can help rearm, resupply, reorganize, and direct. These armed nationalist forces would continue to do that which has long-since been forced upon them: prosecute a two-front defense against the Assad regime and ISIS, eventually going on the offensive against each.
There is simply no way the United States, its anti-ISIS coalition partners, and its London 11 “Friends of the Syrian People” colleagues can effectively support the mainstream opposition “inside Syria” absent a protected zone in which that opposition can establish a governmental alternative to ISIS and the Assad regime. Turkey has been pressing for the establishment of a protected zone, and has identified the key protective service to be rendered up-front: the grounding of an Assad air force (fixed wing and rotary) that has specialized in mass terror assaults on civilian populations. Ankara has wanted the Obama administration to adopt precisely the kind of policy direction implied by President Obama’s words. Turkey has wanted the United States to see the Assad regime as one of the main roots of the ISIS phenomenon: not as something to be left untreated as coalition aircraft focus exclusively on ISIS targets.
In its original articulation of the anti-ISIS counter-terrorism strategy, the Obama administration identified sound governance in Iraq as a precondition for victory. It pointedly refrained from saying the same about Syria, referring only to the desirability of negotiated political transition. That oversight has been corrected: the administration is now on record saying that “legitimacy and sound governance for all people inside Syria” is essential. It has also, since August 2011, been on the record to the effect that Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy had expired. If the administration is serious about “developing and strengthening a moderate opposition inside of Syria” that will “bring about” the requisite legitimacy and sound governance, it will move immediately to plan with Turkey the implementation of a Syrian protected zone in the very near future. This will require, among other things, the grounding of the regime’s air force and the assistance of Turkish ground forces in relieving armed Syrian nationalists now beset by regime artillery and ISIS maneuver forces.
It is, of course, possible that the president’s words were not actually intended to signal a fundamental shift of policy: one that would see Syria not as an ISIS rear-area for operations in Iraq, but as an Assad regime-fueled incubator for ISIS operations all over the Levant and Mesopotamia. It is also possible that a pragmatic, thoughtful willingness by Washington to discard a losing approach to Syria will only unmask a massive Turkish bluff: that Ankara may (as it has done in the past) demand that Washington bind Moscow and Beijing to a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing military intervention in Syria before it lifts a finger to implement its protected zone concept.
The view here, however, is that President Obama knew exactly what he was saying and that President Erdogan is—once he is confident of Washington’s commitment—willing to do what it takes to give the mainstream, nationalist Syrian opposition a chance, inside Syria, to offer an alternative to two merciless criminal enterprises. Ankara, Washington, their regional partners, and the Syrian National Coalition should get down to business now.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.