Speaking for the better part of an hour at the US Institute of Peace on November 12, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to bring his listeners “up to speed” on the Obama administration strategy to defeat and dismantle the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or Da’esh), end Syria’s civil war, and support “friends in the region.” He spoke eloquently and persuasively about the “symbiotic relationship” between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and ISIL, saying that ISIL cannot be defeated while Assad remains in power. He devoted considerable time to anti-ISIL military operations in Iraq. But he short-changed the crucial issue of civilian protection in Syria, saying nothing about what the United States plans to do to protect Syrians from the ISIL-enabling mass atrocities of the Assad regime. It was this critical lacuna that made him fall short in articulating a strategy aimed at achieving the objectives listed.
Kerry was at his best in detailing why Assad and ISIL are “part of the same problem.” He described them as enemies in theory, though not in fact—two extremes that rarely target one another. He made it clear that the rise of ISIL in Syria is directly attributable to Assad’s policies. At the very least Kerry’s strong rhetoric will make it difficult for this administration or its successor to accede to the dream scenario of the regime, Russia, Iran, and even ISIL—a united front with Assad against ISIL.
Although the Secretary referred to the regime’s brutality and noted the impossibility of asking Assad’s opponents to trust him, he was noticeably silent on the implications of Assad regime civilian atrocities for the war against ISIL. He certainly did not dwell on the obvious—that regime barrel bombing, gravity bombing, artillery shelling, and missile strikes, all directed at civilian residential areas, are recruiting gifts that keep on giving to ISIL. If objective number one is to defeat ISIL—the organizational embodiment of what Kerry described as “medieval and modern fascism”—then how could a discussion of strategy omit steps to be taken to protect Syrian civilians?
Kerry did note that the discussion in Vienna on November 14th will include the subject of access for humanitarian relief. But what about mass casualty events perpetrated by the Assad regime with the full, enthusiastic backing of Russia and Iran? Is the United States in daily contact with senior Russian and Iranian officials seeking to persuade them to get their client out of the war crimes and crimes against humanity business? Is the administration considering limited military countermeasures to bring a modicum of protection to Syrian civilians, thereby blunting Assad’s recruitment campaign for ISIL and slowing the rush to the exits by terrified Syrians?
Indeed, there was very little in the Secretary’s remarks on a central question about ending Syria’s agony: how does one get to dialogue, negotiation, compromise, and political transition when civilians are on the bullseye? How do opposition figures not think about revenge and focus instead on preserving governmental institutions when their constituents are being blown to pieces or forced to take a long hike to Helsinki? How can one allude to an objectives-based strategy while being mostly silent on this issue?
Kerry repeated the old saw about how the Syrian crisis cannot be resolved militarily, but immediately noted that leverage is required for diplomacy to succeed. Having gotten the undivided attention of this writer, he then launched into a laundry list of mainly military steps being taken against ISIL, mainly in Iraq. What leverage is being brought to bear to convince Russia and Iran to usher their murderous, ISIL-abetting Syrian client to the exits? The Secretary was silent on this point. And if ISIL threatens to attack the United States—creating stakes that Mr. Kerry said “could not be higher”—then why was there no mention of a significant American ground combat deployment or an effort to organize regional powers to provide ground forces to sweep ISIL from Syria?
Indeed, he tried his best to portray a new process—Vienna—as promising, noting that the Joint Communique of October 30, 2015 contained many points on which “all key interested parties” agreed. Yet he was frank in saying that there is no agreement on the political fate of Assad—and that real political transition in Syria is needed to defeat ISIL—but that he is “still working through” the question of Assad with Russia and Iran.
There was another issue not agreed on by the participants of the Vienna conference: that attacks on civilian populations should cease forthwith. It was not mentioned then, and it was barely mentioned by Secretary Kerry in his eloquent, well-structured remarks of November 12th. And yet how does one get to the promised land of a Syrian-owned political process—one featuring, among other things, a united Syrian front against ISIL—when Syrian civilians remain the target of choice for one key party to the conflict? Until this issue is addressed successfully—whether by diplomacy, limited military countermeasures, or both—laudable American objectives in Syria will remain in search of a coherent strategy.
Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.