Syria at Seven: Part Two

The bewildering complexity of a conflict in Syria about to mark its seventh anniversary causes eyes to close and heads to shake among political leaders and their constituents throughout the West. The unanswerable question—How does this end?—plunges even the best of brains into darkness and despair.

Russia and Iran—for separate but compatible reasons—have cut through the fog and confusion by holding to two objectives: keep Bashar al-Assad in power; and then demographically blackmail the West into paying for the rebuilding of Syria under the auspices of a corrupt and incompetent regime. As the West ties itself in policy knots, objecting loudly but impotently to Assad regime war crimes while trying to end (at long last) a three-plus-year war against a collection of armed rapists, pickpockets, and bank robbers in eastern Syria, Moscow and Tehran attend to business.

Part I of “Syria at Seven” sought to substantiate a straightforward proposition: no one knows how or when this Syrian nightmare will end, but it cannot end well if Syrian civilians remain unprotected on the Assad regime’s bullseye. Deliberate mass homicide cannot produce legitimate, stable governance.

As matters now stand, Syrian parents and their children must rely on the regime to employ sarin gas or a chemical-biological agent of similar strength against them to engage the interest of the United States in offering them a measure of military protection (as it did, admirably, in April 2017). Everything short of sarin is implicitly permissible, with the possible exception of weaponized chlorine, which seems to upset Western officials in ways that highly lethal non-chemical munitions of mass terror and death do not.

Civilian protection is the table ante for positively affecting Syria’s ultimate outcome: whatever that outcome may be. An Assad brand restored to all of Syria through state terror would incubate extremism and motivate large numbers of Syrians to leave the country. Syria would be a permanently failed state. Assad would be nominally in charge, but Iranian-led militias would really run the show. One need not devise in the dark a 98-point plan for political transition from Assad to something civilized to understand that nothing good can or will happen if Syrian civilians are simply left to the butchers.

The West can simplify its navigation of the Syrian maze by focusing on two fixed points: making it hard and costly for Assad to slaughter civilians on an industrial scale; and making something useful of a successful and very long military campaign against the fake caliphate in eastern Syria.

Russia, the regime, and Iran are already literally up in arms over the American intent to maintain an indefinite presence in Syria east of the Euphrates River. That presence has been explained by the administration in terms of stabilization: the post-combat restoration of order and addressing of basic human needs in a territory liberated from an armed foe. Ignoring this staple of military doctrine in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 produced results from which both countries (and the West) still suffer.

What Russia, the regime, and Iran fear is that the United States will successfully stabilize eastern Syria by working with elements of the Syrian opposition to establish, in concert with local councils, local Syrian government employees, and local civil society groups, an umbrella administration for the area that could demonstrate to all Syrians how the transitional governing body mandated by the 2012 Geneva Final Communique would work.

So concerned is the Kremlin with this possibility that it launched, on February 7, 2018, a largely Russian-manned military assault across the Euphrates River aimed at seizing territory (most notably an oil field) and killing Americans. This amateurish, high-cost operation—undertaken without tactical air support—was Vladimir Putin’s Bay of Pigs. Unlike John F. Kennedy, Putin has not stepped forward as the “responsible officer of government” to shoulder blame for the fiasco.

The main obstacle to establishing a visible alternative to the Assad family business in eastern Syria is not, however, the combined military prowess of Russia, the regime, and Iran. Rather it is the legacy of Washington sleep-walking over three years ago into an alliance with the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

One may appreciate and honor the sacrifices of Kurdish militiamen fighting ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State). One may deeply regret the death of the Turkish-PKK peace process and urge Turkey to try to revive it. One may regard the incursion of Turkish forces into the Afrin district of northwestern Syria as a mistake. Still: Turkey is a NATO ally, and the PKK is designated as a terrorist organization not only by Ankara, but by the United States and NATO. Without Turkish cooperation, stabilizing eastern Syria may not be doable.

The Obama administration could have organized a professional ground force coalition of the willing to kill the ISIS ‘caliphate’ in Syria quickly, before it could launch major terror operations in Turkey and Western Europe. Instead, it opted to provide air cover and special operations advisors to a Kurdish (and ultimately a mixed, Kurdish-led) militia which has served as the ground force combat component of the anti-ISIS coalition. Pursuing this campaign with a militia—albeit one containing some skilled and brave fighters—has obliged the coalition to chase an ersatz ‘caliph’ and his depraved minions for as long as the United States prosecuted World War II.

Yet having used a militia ultimately called the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF) to fight ISIS, the American-dominated coalition is now temporarily stuck with it for law-and-order and defense purposes. Kurdish leadership of the SDF creates two problems: the Turkish assault on Afrin is drawing SDF personnel away from mop-up operations against ISIS; and using Kurdish-dominated forces to stabilize Arab areas of eastern Syria may not be welcome by indigenous populations. An alternative must be found. Perhaps a professional ground force coalition of the willing could build up local security forces under Syrian, non-Assad command, while providing for law-and-order and securing the Euphrates River deconfliction line from Russian, regime, and Iranian penetration on an interim basis.

The good news is that members of Syria’s mainstream opposition are reaching out to Syrian Kurds to try to produce two outcomes: a joint vision for Syria’s future that might reassure Turkey; and a plan for governance in eastern Syria that can produce a transitional governing body capable of demonstrating to Syrians that there is indeed an attractive alternative to Assad.

The less-than-good news is that the Trump administration, like its predecessor, seems uninterested in working with qualified Syrians (other than armed Kurds) to address challenges of diplomatic and operational complexity and sensitivity in eastern Syria.

The United States Central Command, which has ably overseen the lengthy campaign against ISIS, is institutionally committed to its Kurdish-dominated “partner force” and rigidly fixated on “defeating ISIS” as the extent of its mission. If an administration champion for tying together the two artificially (and disastrously) separated pillars of American Syria policy exists, his or her identity has been a closely guarded secret. Equally mysterious is where the administration will find the human resources required to pull off a heavy and extended lift in Syria east of the Euphrates.

Yet encouraging the establishment of a transitional governing body in eastern Syria could, combined with throwing spanners into mass murder in western Syria, produce the rarest of all conditions in this seven-year-old conflict: a pathway to a diplomatic resolution with anti-Assad Syrians—most of a largely displaced population—represented by something other than a disjointed, exiled opposition.

There is no reason why such a resolution could not serve the baseline objective interest of the Russian Federation: a friendly and fully cooperative Syrian government. Ironically, there are members of the Syrian opposition who could play this role much more effectively for Moscow than a craven war criminal. Yet real conflict resolution in Syria—the kind that would permit the country’s political and economic resurrection—cannot be made compatible with the Assad-centric personal political interests of Vladimir Putin or with those of an Iran seeking to subordinate Syria to its representative in Lebanon.

Helping Syrians—Arabs, Kurds and others—build in eastern Syria a template for a unified country featuring empowered local governance, civil society, rule of law, and consent of the governed will be a difficult and long undertaking. It will require trying to get on the same page with a Turkey that may, in the end, have incompatible priorities. It may require dishing out additional samples of American military superiority to Russians and others if they try to ford the Euphrates to kill Americans.

Yet if the United States is committed to stabilizing an area liberated from a band of Islamists criminals, the obvious question is, “For what?” Surely not to turn a pacified region over to a regime whose depredations would raise ISIS from the dead, just as they recruit for terrorists globally.

The United States still considers Bashar al-Assad to be the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. This is a shameful state of affairs. The investment already made and yet to made in Syria east of the Euphrates River should aim to underwrite an attractive, broadly based alternative to a kleptocratic mass murderer. This accomplishment would, along with offering civilians a modicum of protection, lift the darkness and finally give the West and the people of Syria a clear view of a positive way forward to ending this abomination.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: A man carries an injured boy as he walks on rubble of damaged buildings in the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh