Syria: “Military Pressure Particularly May Be Necessary”

In his March 5, 2015 press availability in Riyadh with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, Secretary of State John Kerry went out of his way to douse regional speculation (often articulated in the form of total certainty) that the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) entails cooperation with the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Kerry noted that Syria “is being torn apart by a leader who places his personal preservation ahead of the preservation of the state or the preservation of all of the people of his state.” Then he uttered the magic words: “Ultimately, a combination of diplomacy and pressure will be needed to bring about a political transition. Military pressure particularly may be necessary, given President Assad’s unwillingness to negotiate seriously. And what we must do is strengthen the capacity for this political solution.”

Kerry’s words are meaningful only to the extent that they reflect forthcoming action. Soon after he became secretary of state in early 2013 he observed that Bashar al-Assad’s “calculation” with respect to genuine political negotiations would have to be changed; a calculation rooted in military realities. Iran responded to Kerry’s warning by shifting those realities in Assad’s favor: by bringing in foreign fighters from Lebanon and Iraq to rescue the regime’s crumbling army. Propped up in Damascus by an Iran that values greatly his unquestioning support for Hezbollah’s rocket and missile force in Lebanon, Assad views with contempt any notion of power sharing, much less complete political transition. Given the Obama administration’s track record when it comes to matching over-the-top rhetoric with appropriate action, Kerry’s latest statement may be eliciting no more than knowing smirks in Damascus and Tehran.

Kerry also noted, “Whether or not we are able to reach a deal on the nuclear program, the United States will remain fully committed to addressing the full slate of issues that we have with Iran, including its support of terrorism.” Substitute the word “become” for “remain” and the statement becomes the basis for something approximating hope. Tehran—along with Moscow—has been all-in supporting mass murder in Syria. Iran’s Supreme Leader and Russia’s President have withheld nothing in supporting a systematic campaign of war crimes and crimes against humanity waged by Bashar al-Assad and his security forces against Syrian civilians. They have seen the Assad way of war—barrel bombs, starvation sieges, and mass incarcerations featuring torture, starvation, and sexual abuse—as necessary for securing a client whose services they value, even as they assure Western interlocutors privately that they have no affection or respect for the man himself.

The failure of the United States and its Western partners to do anything of consequence to mitigate the effects of Iran’s deep complicity in Assad regime mass murder has contributed mightily to Israeli and Gulf Arab reservations and fears about a nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1. The issue has less to do with the provisions of an agreement that would elongate Iran’s “breakout” time for fielding nuclear weapons than it does with the sense that US and Western European leaders are simply flaccid and apathetic in the face of very assertive, unapologetic, and triumphalist Iranian military intervention in the region. Those who would be most directly affected by the consequences of a nuclear agreement wonder: (a) Will Washington be diligent in insuring that its provisions are enforced and (b) will an Iran out from under sanctions be better positioned to finance its unopposed (at least by Washington and Europe) program of regional hegemony?

The issue, in short, is one of confidence and credibility. For years, Western leaders have been chanting about the alleged absence of a military solution to Syria’s problem: an open invitation to Tehran and Moscow to seek a military solution for their client’s benefit, all the while secure in the knowledge that there would be no consequential pushback. As the parameters of that solution unfolded in mid-2013, the response of the Obama administration was to seek to repeal the laws of political physics by arguing that Bashar al-Assad would have to yield political power irrespective of military realities: he would have to read the terms of the June 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué and comply forthwith. Then came the chemical weapons crisis and the accompanying spectacle of US political dysfunction. Did the administration imagine that no one was watching? Perhaps it did not care. It knew there was no roiling domestic demand for steady, reliable US leadership. It had other priorities.

Yet the consequences have been enormous. Credibility was sacrificed at a price that is now clear, given Prime Minister Netanyahu’s performance. ISIS—a spectacular symptom of Assad-induced chaos in Syria—erupted from secure Syrian bases and flowed almost unimpeded through much of Iraq. Eager not to offend the sensibilities of Iranians it hopes will recognize their own interests in a non-nuclear outcome, President Obama assures the Supreme Leader in writing that his Syrian client will not be touched and tells anti-regime Syrian fighters on the receiving end of Iranian-orchestrated offensives that they ought to sign up to be trained and equipped to fight ISIS. Is it any wonder that John Kerry has to ride the circuit and persuade people that they ought not to believe their eyes and ears?

Fortunately, there is a way to prioritize the fight against ISIS while building the basis for a decent political outcome in Syria. Yet it will require the kind of US leadership for which this administration has demonstrated little appetite.

In conjunction with coalition airpower, a ground combat component provided by regional powers can make quick work of ISIS in central and eastern Syria. An alternate Syrian government—one recognized and supported by the London 11—can be established in Raqqa or Deir Ezzor. As some ISIS fighters flee into northwestern Syria, an air exclusion zone can be established so that coalition aircraft can pursue them without interference from regime aircraft out and about dropping barrel bombs on civilians.

None of this would require a frontal assault on regime, Iranian, or Hezbollah forces. The vacuum permitting ISIS to dominate central and eastern Syria will have been closed. The train-and-equip program could be expanded to build a truly national army. Relief and reconstruction could begin in earnest in major parts of Syria. Some refugees can come home. A “combination of diplomacy and pressure” will have created a far better basis for an eventual negotiated settlement than exists today.

Will Washington try to make something real out of Kerry’s words? Will partners in the region step up to a plan that would, when implemented, do precisely what they say they want and what Kerry is calling for in Riyadh? Or is this just more empty verbiage falling on deaf ears and deepening the doubts of Arabs and Israelis alike about the willingness and ability of the United States to lead, to persuade, and to do things of consequence beyond talking about them?

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

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Image: US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses reporters during a news conference with Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal on March 5, 2015, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, following a series of meetings with King Salman, Deputy Crown Prince Muhammed bin Nayef, and members of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council. (Photo: US Dept. of State)