One of the great difficulties for those in President Barack Obama’s administration struggling to meet the challenges posed by chaos in Syria has been the absence of clear guidance as to how the president evaluates the problem in terms of American national security interests. Never, in the history of this crisis dating back to March 2011, has there been anything from the president to his national security apparatus conveying the raw materials of objectives and strategy on Syria… until now.
In a recent Charlie Rose interview, the president defined the national security interest engaged by chaos in Syria: its negative effects on the security of America’s allies and friends in the region. President Obama mentioned Jordan in particular, as well as Jordan’s proximity to Israel.
Indeed, the implications of the Assad regime’s campaign of terror against populated areas in Syria beyond its control—shelling and bombing, deliberately intended to kill and otherwise depopulate—are dire for the Hashemite Kingdom. They are similarly so for NATO ally Turkey and longtime friend Lebanon. The regime’s terror campaign affects security in Iraq as well, a place where many Americans have sacrificed their lives. Syria’s neighbors are being flooded by refugees and all of them—including Israel—face the possibility (and, in the case of Lebanon, the reality) of violent spillover occasioned by Iranian and Hezbollah armed intervention on behalf of the Assad regime.
Now that the president’s priority concern has been articulated, the administration’s national security apparatus has something on which to focus: how best to mitigate the effects of the regime’s terror campaign on US allies and friends on Syria’s periphery. A properly functioning national security staff should be able to present the president with a proposed strategy and options for execution very quickly.
In considering how best to address the problem of the Assad regime waging total war against a major part of Syria’s population, it appears that the US national security establishment will have one given: an enhanced role for the United States in ensuring that properly vetted Free Syrian Army elements get what they need in terms of weaponry and equipment. This role will be essential if the non-jihadist, nationalist opposition identified with Major General Salim Idris is to stabilize and reverse a negative tactical situation brought about by foreign fighters introduced by Iran and Hezbollah. Leveling the playing field for armed Syrian nationalists will not relieve the burden on Syria’s neighbors anytime soon, but it will prevent the worst of all outcomes for those who justifiably fear genocide-like consequences for vulnerable populations in Syria: a regime victory. The administration’s notion of an opposition victory being somehow undesirable—an obstacle to peace talks—should be dropped. Changing the Assad regime’s calculation with respect to peace talks and setting the stage for the regime’s military defeat require the same steps in terms of bolstering the mainstream opposition.
Stabilizing the tactical situation in Syria will not stabilize the problems affecting Syria’s neighbors. The regime will not stop its terror campaign, accurately described by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry in a recent report to the United Nations Human Rights Council as "war crimes and crimes against humanity." Iran and its Lebanese partner actively facilitate these crimes. Russia is an enabler. It ships arms to the regime and condemns the recent report—which severely took to task jihadist opposition elements—as "biased." None of these parties are lifting a finger to slow or stop the regime’s killing machine, even as one of them calls for a peace conference and another seeks permission to attend.
The Obama administration will likely consider two broad approaches to implementing the president’s desire (as articulated to Charlie Rose) to help defend US allies and friends against the effects of the Assad regime’s war on Syria. Although the options need not be totally binary in nature, two broad courses of action will likely be considered: increasing aid to Syria’s neighbors in the hope that they will be better able to cope with the ever-increasing humanitarian and security implications of regime-generated spillover from Syria; or using limited military means to destroy or seriously degrade the ability of the regime to target civilian populations with artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and missile strikes.
Elements of option one—increased economic, humanitarian, and security assistance for Syria’s neighbors—will be in play even if option two is implemented. Refugees will not be returning to Syria in large numbers anytime soon. Exclusive reliance on option one would require acceptance of its open-ended nature, both in terms of time and potential expense. The United Nations expects that nearly half of Syria’s population will require sustained humanitarian help by year’s end, and much of this burden will fall on Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Lebanese and Jordanian armed forces will require enhanced security assistance as they try to maintain some semblance of order. If option one is adopted exclusively it will be expensive, open-ended, and likely ineffective: the treatment of symptoms as events play out inside Syria.
Option two—advanced weaponry for the mainstream opposition, a no-fly zone, targeted aerial strikes, or perhaps a combination thereof—would aim to address the source of the problem, and naturally the first recourse would be diplomatic. One hopes that the administration has been pressing Russia relentlessly to rein in its client on war crimes and crimes against humanity. Now, however, President Obama’s identification of the national security interest at risk merits an either-or proposition: you stop it or we will.
Arming nationalist rebels with anti-aircraft weapons can address, at least in part, the aerial aspect of the problem. It would not touch artillery or Scud missiles. The same might be said for a no-fly zone, a remarkably expensive and inefficient approach to the challenge of producing specific effects: no further (or sharply reduced) shelling, bombing, or missile strikes against populated areas. Targeted strikes, making maximum use of stand-off weaponry, would seem to be an attractive option if and when diplomacy fails to stop the slaughter. Military airfields would no doubt receive special attention were this option selected. Unintended casualties—US, Russian, Syrian civilians—should be assumed. There is no such thing as a surgical strike.
It is important to keep in mind the military objective of any such operation: to destroy or seriously degrade the ability of the regime to target populated areas with artillery shelling, aerial bombardment, and missile strikes. Commentators and military professionals alike often pose what they think is the killer question: What if targeted strikes fail to do the job? What would be next? The limited military objective answers the question: the job is done when the instruments of mass murder and terror are neutralized. The operation under consideration would aim simply to treat the problem President Obama has identified as a "serious interest" of the United States: the inundation of American allies and friends with the spillover effects of the terror campaign.
The United States is not responsible for winning the Syrian revolution. The president believes the United States is indeed responsible for helping American allies and friends withstand and overcome the dire challenges being posed by the Assad regime’s unrelenting campaign of mass terror. The job of the US national security apparatus is to determine how best to implement the desires of the commander-in-chief.
Of course, diplomacy comes first. If Moscow and its client are sincerely interested in a Geneva political transition conference the terror campaign will be stopped voluntarily, and soon. If it does not stop, Geneva is pointless. If it does not stop, the United States should stop it after giving due notice to those who could end this crime spree if only they would. As long as the Assad regime is willing to wage a no-limits campaign of terror, US allies and friends are in jeopardy and peace talks are an illusion. Advocates of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine are no doubt disappointed that regime depredations against defenseless civilians are not enough to whet the president’s appetite for action, but they should take what they can get: the president has identified the national security interest of the United States in terms of allies and friends, and by so doing has formed a foundation for action.