For over three years the Obama administration viewed the struggle for Syria as something well worth avoiding. Even as Assad-regime atrocities piled the bodies high and drove millions from their homes—enabling an aggressively murderous caliphate to arise in the east while Iran, Hezbollah, and their Syrian client solidified a grip on the west—the administration focused on money to mitigate the humanitarian abomination and rhetoric to make avoidance look like well-considered caution and containment. Yet those days are done. US forces are again at war in the Arab World and Syria is a vital theatre in that war. What is the significance of Syria in prosecuting the battle against the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS)? How can US policy toward Syria preserve a coalition formed to oppose it?
From the outset, President Barack Obama has defined the key to beating the caliph in Iraq as one of effective, inclusive Iraqi governance. Until very recently, he avoided saying the same thing about Syria, an omission he recently corrected at Andrews Joint Base. In Iraq, he knew that the precondition to begin the journey to decent governance was sidelining the abysmally sectarian and serially incompetent Nouri al-Maliki. Clearly, he knew that the same thing applied to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad: he had, after all, called on Assad to step aside in August 2011. He was aware of the intimate connection between the regime’s brutal sectarianism and the attraction to Syria of foreign fighters. The live-and-let-live relationship between the Islamic State and the Assad regime had not escaped his attention.
Yet, until and even (for a time) after the Syrian-based invasion of Iraq in June 2014, the default position of the administration was to pigeonhole Syria as a place where it would be great to have a negotiated political transition; where war was not the answer and Bashar al-Assad should awaken to the fact that he had lost all legitimacy. This whistling past the graveyard phase of US policy toward Syria seems to be over. But what will replace it?
Back to basics: if decent, inclusive governance in Iraq is what is needed to keep the Islamic State dead even after the caliph and his gang of cutthroats are eliminated, is this not also true of Syria? Can the objective articulated by President Obama—the destruction of the Islamic State—be accomplished with the Assad regime, borne aloft by Iran and its sectarian militiamen, retaining power in western Syria?
Those who are unmoved by the regime’s grotesque, largely self-recorded criminality—whether they be Iranian and Russian officials or Western academics and media commentators—argue that the regime’s existence and the Islamic State’s defeat are in fact reconcilable. Indeed, the regime’s objective of liquidating its nationalist opposition so that it can confront Mr. Obama with the inescapable fact that the choice in Syria has boiled down to President Bashar versus Caliph Baghdadi is not one that offends the unmoved. As the tempo of regime barrel-bombing of residential neighborhoods escalates, the regime’s minister of information invents a military campaign against the Islamic State to substantiate the arguments of the apologists. Is there anything at all to the claim that the Assad regime can help beat the caliph?
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry think not. They see Assad and his policies as having opened the door to the Islamic State on many levels. Yet, it is not quite right to see the rise of this cancer in Syria as being a result of Sunni Arab political grievance; something parallel to Iraq. The uprising against the Assad regime was not sectarian. When a resurrected al-Qaeda in Iraq inserted itself into Syria, it was not at the invitation of Syrians. When these murderers attracted private Gulf financing and foreign jihadists to their ranks, it was not for the purpose of enfranchising Syrians or even confronting Assad, their top recruiting asset. Whatever voluntary support—tribes, Baathists, and the like—may exist for the caliph in Iraq, it is not replicated in Syria. Even young Syrians who signed up with the caliph did so largely for reasons having to do with weapons, ammunition, walking-around money, and breakfast: items that could have been provided to nationalist units by the West. Syria is not fertile ground for what Baghdadi has on offer.
Indeed, Bashar al-Assad could vindicate the stated (if perhaps insincere) hopes of his foreign apologists by ending the bombing, shelling, and starvation besieging of residential neighborhoods; by releasing tens of thousands of prisoners undergoing starvation, torture, and sexual abuse; by declaring a unilateral ceasefire with respect to nationalist forces; and by stating his readiness to respect empowered local governance in all areas not under his control as a first step toward the reconvening of negotiations aimed at an overall political settlement. Such an initiative could open the way for unrestricted humanitarian relief and an all-Syrian battle against the Islamic State.
It will not happen. The man who lacked the moral backbone and political skill to handle the peaceful Deraa protests nonviolently in the beginning will not emerge as a statesman now. The man responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity documented by literally tons of paper—much of it smuggled out of regime archives—will not now act with malice toward none and with charity for all. His cynical objective is to present Barack Obama with a fait accompli: if you want to go beyond bombing runs against the Islamic State in Syria, it is me or no one.
If Assad alone is left standing to confront the Islamic State—assuming he and the caliph choose not to perpetuate their longstanding live-and-let-live relationship—what will be the effect on regional members of the coalition assembled by the United States? How likely is it that they will persist in the US-led battle against the caliph if Assad succeeds in imposing himself on them as an ally?
For reasons of coalition solidarity, if nothing else, Syria cannot be an afterthought to an Iraq-centric campaign. Yes, priority of near-term coalition military effort must go to Iraq. But a Syria policy characterized by an old expression from the American west—”a bad case of the slows”—can imperil the coalition that has been built. Keeping the nationalist opposition inside Syria alive through robust resupply of arms and equipment will not lessen the already microscopic possibility of the Assad regime acting with wisdom and generosity. Grounding the regime air force and establishing a protected zone for opposition governance to take root, in accordance with President Obama’s Andrews remarks, will neither abet the biggest crime wave nor worsen the worst humanitarian abomination of the still young twenty-first century. Doing both of these things—and quickly—will solidify the coalition.
Killing the Islamic State inside Syria will require bullets. Keeping it or an even more loathsome successor dead will require good governance. It goes without saying that the words “good governance” and “Assad regime” do not even belong in the same sentence. Unless the administration has reason to believe that Bashar al-Assad is finished torturing Syrians and is ready to begin edging toward the exits, it will move with dispatch to keep alive and well the nationalist forces fighting the caliph even as they resist the regime. A bad case of the slows—fatal in places like Tombstone, Arizona—might also kill a coalition trying to neutralize the lawless in Iraq and Syria alike.
Frederic C. Hof is a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.