Which Way Now For US Policy Toward Syria?

Is American policy toward Syria now at a turning point? Has the eruption of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) from bases in Syria into Iraq convinced President Barack Obama to change course? If so, in which direction? Early indications suggest that the administration’s longstanding bias toward minimal effort on Syria—a bias reinforced and sustained politically by widespread public indifference—remains essentially in place. Notwithstanding the ISIS rampage and the potential threat it poses to American security and interests, the Obama administration seems still wedded to the notion that minimal effort in Syria equals minimal risk. The challenge for those proposing policy alternatives remains one of making a case counter-intuitive to many: that a rhetoric-rich policy of empty gestures and checking boxes actually entails breathtaking risk; and that an objective-driven, action-oriented strategy implemented with partners and aimed at the eventual elimination of both the Assad regime and ISIS is actually quite conservative and less risky than the futile arm’s-length alternative.

The administration continues to state publicly that Syria’s Assad regime is part of the ISIS problem: not the solution. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been clear on this point and they are correct. They have been opposed by a handful of former officials and academics who argue that ISIS is a greater evil than Bashar al-Assad, and who imply there may be scope for US-Assad regime cooperation against ISIS. Given that the regime and ISIS share a near-term battlefield objective—the destruction of the Assad regime’s nationalist opposition—the operational dimension of the “work with Assad” thesis is one that would starve Assad’s nationalist opponents of aid to bring about an opposition collapse so that the regime and ISIS would abandon their de-facto collaboration and turn against each other. Once this supposed confrontation takes shape, the United States could presumably work with the Assad regime to defeat ISIS militarily.

To its credit, the administration seems not attracted to the “work with Assad” proposal. The administration’s coolness to the idea may have little to do with the regime’s history of having ferried ISIS-like terrorists across Syria into Iraq for years after the 2003 US invasion. It probably does not take into account that the regime emptied its prisons of violent Islamists at the outset of Syria’s troubles to compromise and defeat the non-sectarian character of the uprising against it. The Obama administration’s aversion to working with a regime neck-deep in war crimes and crimes against humanity may not even be driven entirely by the point it makes repeatedly in public: that it is the regime’s program of sectarian mass homicide that has attracted foreign jihadists to Syria and made ISIS a going concern. Were it not for the political implications of casting its lot with Bashar al-Assad, the administration might be just as inclined as the “work with Assad” proponents to dismiss as ancient history the actual role to date of the Assad regime creating the problem some suggest it can help solve.

That which probably accounts in part for the administration’s refusal to work with Assad is its knowledge that, in the coming weeks, there may be an exponential up-tick in public awareness of the Assad regime’s Nazi-like habit of recording, in a very business-like and thoroughly unapologetic manner, the worst of its murderous atrocities. Even if the administration could see its way clear to sacrificing entirely its credibility and reputation to make common cause with a system whose leaders must someday stand trial for having authorized some of the most horrible depredations of the twenty-first century, it would still have to ask and answer a practical question: what would the Assad regime bring to the table as its contribution to a joint effort against ISIS?

This is, after all, a regime dedicated (as Russia and Iran will testify) to the free ride. On a good day, the Assad regime will meet potential partners 10 percent of the way: in the days that follow, it will try to walk-back that 10 percent. And if the regime and ISIS succeed in their parallel efforts to defeat the nationalist opposition, is it inevitable that they will then turn on each other? Iran, after all, is quite content to have its client ensconced firmly in western Syria, where it can be of use to Tehran in keeping Hezbollah fit to fight in Lebanon. ISIS, for its part, might well be content to impose its barbaric brand of looting governance on the entirety of non-regime Syria rather than going all out after Assad. Syria, divided between two sets of brutal outlaws, would continue to hemorrhage refugees while providing a secure base for transnational criminals.

If working with Assad is inadmissible, so is a policy rich in rhetoric and empty gestures. On July 16, The Wall Street Journal reported—in connection with the administration’s $500 million request to Congress to train and equip Syrian rebels—that the Pentagon would train and equip 2,300 men over an eighteen-month period starting in 2015. If the US objective is to help the Syrian opposition fight ISIS and resist the regime, while at the same time changing the regime’s calculation about serious political transition negotiations, then the Journal’s report simply cannot and must not reflect the totality of the administration’s plans. Two-thousand-three hundred men by 2016 would be someone’s idea of a very bad joke, given the stakes. One hopes that such pitifully small numbers represent neither the projected output of planners nor the result of “vetting” concerns driven by a fear that weapons might end up in the hands of terrorists already armed to the teeth and flush with money.

If the administration’s objective is ultimately to see Syria free of the Assad regime and ISIS and replaced by a national government reflecting pluralism, citizenship, and rule of law, then it must move with dispatch now on two military-related fronts.

First, the administration must insure that nationalist Syrian rebels now battling both the regime and ISIS get what they need in terms of weaponry and other resources. The Vladimir Putin-abetted abomination of the Malaysian Air shoot-down in Ukraine has given aid-and-comfort to those who would deny to Syrian rebels air defense capabilities much more modest than those provided by Russia to its Ukrainian employees. Indeed, Assad wasted no time in articulating his support for Putin. Yet surely, it is beyond neither the capacity nor the wit of the world’s only superpower to cause a handful of regime helicopters—otherwise delivering barrel bombs on the heads of innocent civilians—to be brought down so that impunity can be brought to an end.

Second, even if inadequate assistance helps the regime to prevail in Aleppo and elsewhere, the United States should take the lead now in constructing, over the next eighteen months, a Syrian National Stabilization Force outside of Syria: one of sufficient size and military capability to be deployed to Syria with the mission of restoring law-and-order in the entirety of the country. This force would be composed mainly of Syrian officers and enlisted men recruited from refugee camps and elsewhere outside of Syria and from inside Syria as well, including from military units still controlled by the regime.

This would be a project of considerable complexity and expense: one requiring the full cooperation of regional states. That cooperation—financial assistance, training facilities, and the like—will be forthcoming if and only if the prospective partners of the United States perceive that President Obama is deadly serious about, and totally committed to, overseeing the destruction of ISIS and the Assad regime alike and their replacement by a government representing all Syrians: one with the requisite legitimacy to guide reconstruction and reconciliation.

Is US policy at a turning point? Near-term actions in the military sphere—or their absence—will tell the tale. Those who say there is no military solution to Syria’s crisis understand neither the connection of force of arms to politics and diplomacy nor the nature of those forces destroying Syria and destabilizing the region. There is a war taking place. Those who win will dictate the political outcome.

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

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Image: Free Syrian Army fighters in training, December 2012. (Photo: Flickr/Freedom House)