A Problem from Hell: Dealing with the Crisis in Syria

Remarks of Ambassador Frederic C. Hof to the American Committees on Foreign Relations in Boise, Idaho, on November 9, 2015.

My purpose this evening is to try to persuade those who need persuading that the United States needs to do much more than it is doing now to bring the Syrian crisis to a satisfactory end. This will not be an argument for unilateralism. It will not be a call for military invasion and occupation. It will not be a plea for the American taxpayer to take responsibility for 23 million people and their blighted country. It will be none of those things. The central point I would like to make is that there are actions we can take and leadership we can provide that can put this Syrian problem from hell on the path to solution—actions and leadership stopping well short of owning the problem itself. If the past four-plus years have taught us anything at all, it is that inaction can produce unintended results, that doing nothing can sometimes have the counter-intuitive effect of spraying kerosene on the fire.

I define Syria as a problem from hell because of its similarity to 20th century episodes of governmental mass murder chronicled by Samantha Power in her masterful book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. In Syria the political survival strategy of a clan that has ruled the country since 1970 has centered on collective punishment of civilians. The results have been staggering. Over 250,000 dead. Countless more maimed, terrorized, and traumatized for life. Tens of thousands in prisons, suffering from starvation, torture, and sexual abuse. Four-and-a-half million refugees, 8,000,000 internally displaced. Six-hundred-thousand people under siege and denied both nutrition and medical care. And now, after more than four years of studied apathy, Western Europe finds itself being flooded by a tidal wave of humanity that has simply given up on Syria as a suitable place to live, work, and raise a family.

The collective punishment and mass homicide survival strategy of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has done more than create the premier humanitarian abomination of the 21st century. It has created, in more than half of Syria, a political vacuum that has been filled by ISIS, an organization also known as ISIL, the Islamic State, and Da’esh. ISIS is the marriage of Al Qaeda in Iraq—an organization supported for eight years by the Assad regime in Syria—and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s core supporters. ISIS—like the Assad regime it purports to oppose—is adept at mass murder and mass terror. Unlike the Assad, regime it has ambitions beyond Syria. But it owes its existence and much of its ability to recruit—both inside Syria and around the world—to the political survival strategy of the Assad regime.

So, we are faced with a humanitarian abomination brought about through mass homicide, and a rising international terror threat that takes full advantage of the horrors unleashed on the Syrian people. In June 2014 ISIS, operating from secure bases in Syria, swept through and conquered a large part of Iraq, drawing the United States back into a war it thought it was done with. Why was it able to attack from secure bases in Syria? Because it was able to fill a very large vacuum all-but-abandoned by an Assad regime trying to hang onto power in western Syria.

In September 2014 President Barack Obama announced that the United States would take the lead in trying to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS. Washington now leads a coalition of some 65 countries that have signed up to that mission. A handful participate with American air assets in striking targets in Syria and Iraq. A handful participate with American ground combat trainers in Iraq. In both places—but especially in Syria—sizeable and capable ground combat forces do not exist, and ISIS will not be defeated by air power alone.

President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and other senior U.S. officials recognize and acknowledge publicly the symbiotic relationship between Assad regime criminality and the well-being of ISIS. They speak about it often in public. They call for political negotiations that would shuffle Mr. Assad off the stage and replace him with a national unity mechanism that would preserve the ministries and departments of the Syrian government. Yet words alone—talk of Bashar al-Assad stepping aside, talk of red lines that must not be crossed—have not sufficed over the past four-plus years. They will not suffice now. Political reality tends to reflect facts on the ground. And the facts on the ground in Syria reflect a near total absence of Western leverage.

Who has the leverage? As we speak it is in the hands of the Assad regime’s two strongest supporters: Iran and Russia.

In early 2013 Iran orchestrated the military intervention of its Lebanese militia—Hezbollah—in Syria. Hezbollah moved some 5,000 fighters into Syria at Iran’s request to help save the Assad regime from losing Damascus. For Iran, Bashar al-Assad is very important. For 15 years he has put Syria completely at the disposal of Iran so that Iran can support Hezbollah’s ability in Lebanon to dominate the country politically and keep rockets and missiles—tens of thousands of them—pointed at Israel. Iran believes that if Bashar goes, the family-based regime will go. And if the regime goes, there is not much of a constituency in Syria for being subservient to Iran. Tehran may not like or even respect Bashar al-Assad. But Iran sees him as a national security asset of great value and importance.

For Russia, the value of Bashar al-Assad goes way beyond Syria. Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria was not aimed at saving a third-rate naval refueling station on the Mediterranean. Russian President Vladimir Putin has several points to make: Russia is back as a world power; Russia stands by its friends; and Russia will defeat what it describes as the democracy-promoting, regime-change agenda of the United States. Although Russia entered Syria on the pretext of fighting ISIS, nearly all of its air attacks have been against Syrian nationalist rebels fighting the Assad regime. Indeed, on more than one occasion ISIS forces have occupied territory cleared for them by Russian air strikes.

The fact that ISIS is benefitting from Russia’s intervention is not an accident. What Putin wants—and what Iran’s Supreme Leader supports—is a situation in Syria where only two significant figures—Assad and the so-called caliph of ISIS (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi)—are left standing. This—or so they believe—would be Assad’s ticket back to polite society.

For Putin in particular the gold standard—the platinum prize—of diplomatic achievement would be to force Barack Obama into an alliance with Bashar al-Assad against ISIS. Therefore, the near-term Russian and Iranian objective is to help Assad and ISIS eliminate alternatives to them both. This is why neither Moscow nor Tehran has forced Assad to stop the barrel bombing or lift the sieges. Indeed, Russian aircraft have hit civilian targets, using cluster munitions among other things. Russia and Iran know that attacks on civilians help ISIS, and this is fine with them for the near-term.

Obviously this is not fine with the Obama administration. But what to do about it? Back in May 2013, when it was becoming obvious that the Assad regime was crossing President Obama’s chemical red line repeatedly, Secretary of State Kerry was sent to beseech his Russian counterpart for a peace conference. The result was a disastrous series of meetings in Switzerland at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014. Now, with Russia trying to set up a binary Assad-ISIS choice that could utterly humiliate the President of the United States—making him eat his August 2011 call on Assad to step aside—Kerry is again seeking Russian help. This is why there was an October 30 meeting in Vienna.

It is not clear to me why Russia would want to help with a diplomatic process aimed at moving its client from Damascus to Minsk, or wherever. What is clear to me is that nothing good can begin to happen in Syria so long as civilians are on the bullseye.

How can there be a dialogue—much less a real negotiation—while barrel bombs, gravity bombs, artillery shells, and missiles plow into residential neighborhoods? It is perfectly understandable that the Assad regime does these things to prevent alternate governance from arising. It is perfectly understandable that Assad doesn’t care how many people are killed or how many are stampeded in the direction of Stockholm. But how can we achieve our stated objective—a diplomatic process producing genuine political transition—if the slaughter continues? Who do we expect to negotiate on behalf of Assad’s opposition if their constituents are being vaporized or sent fleeing in terror?

As someone who has experienced the dubious effects of military action, my strong instinct is to see military intervention of any kind as the absolute measure of last resort, only after all attempts at friendly persuasion have been exhausted. I hope and pray that my government and yours is burning the midnight oil trying to persuade Moscow and Tehran to get their client out of the business of war crimes and crimes against humanity. I see no reason for a second Vienna meeting unless Russia and Iran force Assad to honor UN Security Council Resolution 2139, which directs an end to the bombing of civilian residential areas and the immediate lifting of starvation and disease sieges so that UN relief convoys can get through. The UN Secretary-General has been forced, some twenty times, to report that the Assad regime—totally dependent for its survival on Russia and Iran—has refused to implement Resolution 2139.

I believe we should make it clear to Moscow and Tehran that if they will not get their client out the mass homicide business, we will take steps we deem appropriate to bring a modicum of protection to the people of Syria. That we will do so not only as a humanitarian imperative, but as an anti-ISIS war measure. We are, after all, committed to degrading and destroying ISIS. We should at least make it difficult for Assad to create recruits for the caliph.

I am not an enthusiast, under current circumstances, for any military option that has the word “zone” attached to. It would suffice, I think, for President Obama to tell his Secretary of Defense that he wants to see options that would make it somewhere between hard and impossible for the Assad regime to perform mass civilian casualty operations, whether by barrel bomb, gravity bomb, artillery shelling, or missile attacks. Syrian assets and facilities mounting such attacks could be engaged primarily (if not exclusively) by seaborne cruise missiles. There would be no need to engage Russian aircraft—Assad regime systems and facilities would be the targets. And the regime would definitely be given the prior opportunity to desist voluntarily.

Would operations of this nature solve this problem from hell? No. Could they save thousands of lives? Yes. Could they slow the emptying of Syria? Yes. Could they stem the tide of ISIS recruits, especially among desperate Syrians? Yes. Could they make it at least hypothetically possible for dialogue and negotiations to commence? Yes.

Even if the brutal and relentless war on Syrian civilians were ended or significantly slowed in the western part of the country, ISIS would still be holding forth in the east. This monstrosity will not be beaten decisively by airplanes from above and Kurdish militiamen on the ground. What I would like to see our country try to do would be roughly analogous to what Secretary of State Jim Baker did a quarter century ago: build a coalition of regional states willing to provide ground forces to help liberate Arab land.

Yes, this would be different from the liberation of Kuwait. Others would be providing the mainline infantry, armor, and artillery forces. Perhaps some of our European allies could provide combat support elements. Our boots on the ground would be in the form of special operations forces—far more than the 50 we recently sent to eastern Syria. But if ISIS were swept militarily from Syria the effect on the battle in Iraq would be monumental. And it would give the Syrian opposition a chance to organize itself inside Syria to begin to provide the moderate, inclusive governance President Obama has called for.

But let me be clear: as of now no regional state—not Turkey, not Jordan, not Saudi Arabia, not the United Arab Emirates, and not Qatar—has any appetite for putting ground forces inside Syria. This will take a major diplomatic heavy lift by the Obama administration. Can it be done? I think so. Will it be tried? I have to say, I doubt it. After all, General John Allen—one of the finest officers we have produced in a long time—has resigned as the president’s special envoy to counter ISIL. He did not leave because he had the authority to put together something truly significant.

So, I think the way forward for Syria resides in some combination of civilian protection in the western part of Syria—protection that can enable the kind of diplomatic process everyone says he wants—and sweeping ISIS militarily from the eastern part of the country, using regional forces to provide the missing, and absolutely essential ground force component.

What is important, however, is not what I think or advocate. For the next 15 months or so Barack Obama will be president. He has tried to hold Syria at arm’s length. He has tried to substitute strong and often eloquent language for action. He has acted—and not acted—in ways fully consistent with his belief that Iraq 2003 tells us all we need to know about the efficacy of American military action in faraway places. He has warned of mission creep, slippery slopes, and military actions that fall short of the one silver bullet that resolves all outstanding issues. What President Obama decides to do or refrain from doing will tell much of the story of what Syria will look like on January 20, 2017.

What I think I know for sure is that this Syrian problem from hell will neither burn itself out anytime soon nor be hermetically sealed and contained. It is legitimate for Americans to ask how, if at all, it matters one way or the other to the United States. Indeed, President Obama relies—to some degree—politically on the default position of most Americans: it’s a terrible situation, someone ought to stop it, but it’s far away, and that someone should be someone else; we have plenty of problems of our own. Historically, as Samantha Power has pointed out, it has taken presidential leadership to persuade Americans that something can be done by the United States and with American leadership to mitigate and even stop mass murder committed by governments against their own people.

I suspect that many Americans can still be receptive to a presidential appeal for support based on several propositions. We can save millions of lives and make a major difference for the better without taking ownership of a problem that does not, in the end, belong to us. We can deal a decisive blow to terrorists before they visit us in our homeland. And we can act as the head of great democratic alliance, working closely with our allies to go to the source of the problem to help them deal with the mass of humanity voting with its feet as Syria descends to the depths of civil violence and chaos. Left to its own devices—but with the dubious help of Iran and Russia—Syria will end up uneasily partitioned between two sets of mass murderers: a country hemorrhaging human beings in all directions while all manner of terrorists feast on the carcass of what was once a unitary state.

We cannot—certainly not on our own—solve this problem from hell. Whether we will ultimately take the lead in finding a pathway toward a solution—something beyond wishing and hoping for a diplomatic miracle—depends, I think, on what the president and all of us collectively think the role of the United States should be in the world of the 21st century.  Perhaps in our next national election this question will play a bigger role than it did in the previous two. I certainly hope so.

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

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Image: (Photo: Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘. A Syrian refugee looks out of a window at Zahi Alsameen school serving as a refugee camp for students and women in Jaramana district, southeast of Damascus, capital of Syria, on May 31, 2014, ahead of the presidential election on June 3.)