As the Obama administration considers a significant change of policy direction for Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—one of the more vicious of al-Qaeda franchises—runs amok in Iraq, cashing in on the profound rot personified by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It seems that nothing in the Middle East stands still long enough for leisurely policy reappraisals to run their course in Washington. Even if ISIS fighters are flushed from Iraqi urban areas by some combination of Kurdish Pesh Merga, Iranian Qods Force personnel, and those few Iraqi army units more adept at fighting than running, lasting damage may have been done. This ISIS rampage may prove, in political terms, to be Iraq’s version of the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam. Although there is little the Obama administration can do about Iraq as long as the conspiratorially incompetent Maliki remains on the scene, it can move with dispatch on the Syrian front with a strategy to defeat not only ISIS, but an Assad regime serving as a catalyst for sectarian extremism in the region.
There are no quick fixes or silver bullets for Syria. If the US objective is to neutralize ISIS and to replace the Assad regime (whether through negotiations or compulsion) with governance reflecting pluralism and citizenship, then a political-military alternative to both sets of violent extremists must be created. The wringing of hands and the wagging of tongues over the inadequacies of the Syrian opposition make for lively drawing room repartee—rich in irony, sarcasm, and schadenfreude—but is useless for policymakers in Washington, Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, and elsewhere now facing the disastrous (if unintended) consequences of Western policies wholly disconnected from ground truth in Syria and spillover elsewhere.
There are many tens of thousands of Syrian army officers and soldiers who voted with their feet rather than support the Assad regime’s program of mass homicide in Syria. They need to be organized outside of Syria into a new Syrian national army. They need arms, equipment, and perhaps some training. They need to be deployed to Syria to secure—from the regime and other armed extremist groups alike—territory in which an alternate Syrian government can be established. That government, ideally consisting of Syrians who have fought the revolution from inside Syria combined with Syrians experienced in government and public administration, would be recognized and supported by the Friends of the Syrian People group. It and the new Syrian national army would move against both ISIS and the Assad regime. For the former there would be no quarter. For the latter the possibility of negotiated transition could be kept alive.
No doubt it is necessary to provide arms and equipment to existing armed opposition groups to protect vulnerable populations from the depredations of the regime and ISIS alike. Yet this cannot be the long-term cure for Syria’s agony. Syrians need a truly national government and a national army to replace the patchwork of armed groups, destroy ISIS, and pressure the regime into negotiated, compromise political transition or surrender. This will take time.
That which is being proposed here is enormously complex and fraught with difficulty. It is not an exercise in strategic communication. It is not a speech. Neither is it something the United States can or should undertake alone. Indeed, it could be the largest multilateral undertaking since the 1991 liberation of Kuwait. Yet without firm, direct, and clear US leadership it cannot and will not happen.
Such an undertaking will require the full cooperation of several regional states in which a Syrian national army would be assembled, organized, armed, equipped, and trained. These countries might be hesitant about playing such an overt, anti-Assad regime role unless they are sure of two things: the United States intends to lead for the duration; and the United States will respond with devastating force to attacks on allies and partners mounted by the Assad regime.
The Obama administration will have some convincing to do in light of perceptions arising from previous policy shortfalls. Yet the key to persuading others is first to persuade oneself. If the administration backs into the fray and tries to get by with half steps and rhetorical flourishes it will convince no one. To mimic seriousness is to court contempt. The president must believe in the mission and work to accomplish it.
The course of action recommended here is not one overflowing with natural appeal to President Obama and the tiny circle of foreign policy and political illuminati around him. For them Syria has never been a priority. Indeed, for the American people, Syria has never been a priority. Sadly, neither the mass homicide program of the Assad regime nor its spillover effects on US allies and friends have been sufficient motivators for appropriate action.
Yet surely this ISIS rampage in Iraq can change minds in the White House on Syria. Surely the fall of Iraqi cities to these small bands of highly motivated savages can give President Barack Obama the arguments he needs to explain and implement a fundamental course correction on Syria policy. Indeed, the nature of what is happening in Iraq enables him to do so without having to acknowledge any past errors with respect to Syria. The fall of Mosul gives the president a one-time opportunity to start anew in Syria. He should think big and work with the patriotism of those Syrian military personnel who refused to partake in mass murder.
Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.