Syria: A Strategy Possibly Emerging, But to What End?

Recent media reports indicate (if not conclude) that the anti-Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) “train and equip” effort of the US Department of Defense will be based largely in Jordan and focused mainly on preparing Syrian fighters of tribal origin to operate in ISIL-occupied eastern Syria. Meanwhile, rebels in western Syria will receive arms infusions from other sources not connected to “train and equip.” Unless significantly supplemented, such a strategy could set the stage for years of additional bloodshed in Syria with no diplomatic resolution in sight.

There is nothing wrong with contriving a ground combat component of sorts to help coalition aircraft target ISIL in eastern Syria. The robust resupply of nationalist units in western Syria is long overdue. Yet if this is the emerging strategy—if this is all there is—it is woefully incomplete.

Although this approach would be attractive to an administration eager to engage ISIL militarily while limiting its exposure to a Syrian political and humanitarian catastrophe aggravated by its own policies, it would still leave Syrian civilians defenseless against the Assad regime’s campaign of mass homicide. As such, it would undermine President Barack Obama’s stated goals of promoting moderate governance inside Syria, protecting civilians, and setting the stage for genuine negotiations. That which may be emerging is a strategy of convenience, one divorced from stated presidential objectives and one aimed at limiting the scope for Syria-related confrontation with Iran.

For months, senior administration officials have struggled with media queries on how Syrian nationalist rebels could be attracted to an ISIL-centric mission and still defend against Iranian supported regime depredations, including ground attacks and barrel bombs on pro-rebel neighborhoods. How would the United States help defend them against Iranian-abetted regime onslaughts? Several days ago, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated that the mission of fighters produced by “train and equip” would indeed center on ISIL, while also acknowledging that “we have some responsibility to protect them.” Still, how would one recruit to an anti-ISIL mission fighters already under ceaseless pressure from the Assad regime and its foreign supporters—as well as from ISIL?

The answer may be simple: recruit mainly elsewhere. Indeed, the only way for the administration to evade the anti-regime priorities of Syrian rebels in western Syria while keeping its focus on ISIL in the east is for “train and equip” to concentrate on the east: to work mainly with Jordan to prepare Syrians to operate in areas dominated by ISIL; areas where the likelihood of regime attacks on US-trained elements would be reduced significantly; areas where protection for trained Syrian forces would come mainly in the form of coalition air assets already hitting ISIL targets. By focusing this well-publicized Department of Defense program on ISIL-occupied eastern Syria, the Obama administration might avoid offending Iran in Syria as it seeks to finalize a nuclear agreement with Tehran.

An approach of this nature would also suit Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom is by no means well disposed toward the Assad regime. Yet its security interests center on preventing further refugee flows into Jordan from southwestern Syria. It counts, therefore, on the exhausted regular forces of the regime being unable to mount a sustained offensive in the heavily populated Syrian southwest without foreign fighters taking the lead and it counts on rebel forces being able to inflict prohibitively high casualties on Hezbollah militiamen, thereby dissuading any major regime-supporting Iranian moves. Jordan reportedly believes it can best contribute to “train and equip” by facilitating operations in the tribal areas of eastern Syria: operations that, by definition, would be entirely anti-ISIL in nature (provided residual regime units in the east are simply avoided). If personnel were drawn largely from eastern tribes, they would not have the same day-to-day concerns as rebel forces trying to defend neighborhoods in Aleppo or in southwestern Syria.

Another potential hub of “train and equip” is Turkey, where Ankara’s view of what needs to be done in Syria differs sharply from that of the Obama administration. Ankara favors the establishment of a safe haven covering much of Idlib and Aleppo provinces in northwestern Syria; an area from which regime aircraft terrorizing civilians with barrel bombs (included some defiantly laden with chlorine canisters) would be excluded; an area in which decent governance might take root and humanitarian aid expedited. The Obama White House, however, is skeptical of the safe haven concept and, in a practical, operational sense, not seized with the slaughter of Syrian civilians. Evidently, “responsibility to protect” is nullified when the UN Security Council includes (as Ambassador Samantha Power recently suggested) an accessory to mass murder.

Turkey’s view is that the Assad regime’s behavior and interests paved the way for ISIL’s presence in Syria. The Gulf Cooperation Council leaders who plan to meet with President Obama at Camp David on May 13 share that view, along with a powerful aversion to Iran’s hegemonic foray into Syria.

In order to appease Arab Gulf leaders and secure Turkish support for “train and equip,” it appears that Washington blessed (independently of “train and equip”) a major resupply of Syrian nationalist rebels in northwestern Syria. The new flow of weapons and ammunition seems to have contributed to significant tactical advances in recent weeks by rebels at the expense of Assad regime forces. It may well be that “train and equip” per se in northwestern Syria limits itself in large measure to enabling rebel forces to take and hold all official Syrian crossing points into Turkey. Ankara can hardly object to this on its own, albeit circumscribed merits, as it would facilitate the continued resupply of existing Syrian nationalist forces and the passage of humanitarian assistance. For Turkey, however, it might not be enough for it to say yes to the full range of American anti-ISIL desiderata.

It came as no surprise to Washington or any of the other actors in the recent resupply surge that nationalist forces made common tactical cause with the Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. Nusra—a major beneficiary of the Obama administration’s 2012 decision to minimize its support for mainstream, nationalist rebels—played the dominant role in the recent anti-regime offensive. Rich in resources, Nusra has been able to draw to its ranks from nationalist units many capable Syrian fighters wishing to operate with serviceable weapons and plentiful ammunition. Indeed, resupplying nationalist forces must be robust and sustained if Syrian fighters are to be drawn away from serving jihadists and back to Syrian nationalism.

For the time being, however, Nusra’s prominent role actually enables the administration to have it both ways in northwestern Syria. On the one hand Nusra—obviously not a recipient of any supply surge blessed by Washington—spearheaded efforts to produce tactical military results pleasing to Arab Gulf countries and Turkey. Yet by the same token, Nusra’s presence permits the administration to declare itself deeply concerned and even shocked by the prominence of an al-Qaeda affiliate operating alongside nationalist rebels, thus enabling it to argue that a safe haven containing Nusra elements is unthinkable. Nusra even helps the administration justify looking the other way as Assad’s military aviation slaughters civilians with careless, reckless abandon and impunity. Why, after all, take steps from which a designated terrorist organization might (along with millions of Syrians) be a beneficiary?

That which appears to be the emerging strategy is clever and not without merit. Yet it is not enough and it is not cost-free.

President Obama, on record, elevated the protection of Syrian civilians from Assad regime barrel bombs to the status of core US interest. He is on record telling the defense chiefs of the anti-ISIL coalition that moderate governance must be supported inside Syria so it can spread governing legitimacy to the entire country: mission impossible without safe havens protected from both ISIL and the regime. His Secretary of State has repeatedly asserted that changing the calculation of Bashar al-Assad is the key to opening up a political-diplomatic track for ending Syria’s horrific ordeal.

Allies and adversaries of the United States weigh all of these statements and others of considerable notoriety in the past. Those of a generous bent will believe that Syria is a one-off, problem from hell case study in which a US President may say anything he pleases without following up on any of it. Those not so generous will draw other conclusions, leading them perhaps to take dangerous, destabilizing actions.

If the sum total of an emerging strategy is merely one of focusing “train and equip” on eastern Syria while citing the Nusra Front as an excuse for rejecting safe havens and ignoring civilian protection in the west, the stage will have been set for years of additional bloodletting.

Indeed, if that is all there is, such an approach would also convey definitively to the people of Syria a message they have long suspected to be at the heart of Washington’s Syria policy: you are on your own if you wish to establish a basis for agreed security arrangements and a negotiated political transition. Maybe the Russians will help; perhaps the Iranians have a price; inshallah United Nations special envoy Steffan de Mistura will pull a diplomatic rabbit out of his hat. But do not let our soaring, great power rhetoric mislead you. Our strategy aims small: it has nothing to do with people stepping aside, chemical red lines, protecting civilians from barrel bombs, or fostering legitimate governance inside Syria—the kind of governance that would kill ISIL and keep it dead. You want to save Syria? Well, get on with it. Our priorities are elsewhere.

One prays this does not reflect what President Obama thinks. But whatever he thinks, his actions will be dispositive. He may still need a strategy to achieve objectives he has articulated for the whole world—not just 23 million Syrians—to hear.

Frederic C. Hof is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Free Syrian Army fighters look up at warplanes loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad at Nahlaya Front in Idlib, as they gather in preparation for an operation to take over Ariha city, May 9, 2015. (Reuters)