Syria: Getting to Legitimacy through an ISIL-First Strategy

Last week the Rafik Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council launched a report Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria, recommending that the anti-Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) “train-and-equip” program for Syrian nationalists be put on steroids: that an anemic endeavor aimed at producing 15,000 fighters over three years be converted to building a three division-plus Syrian National Stabilization Force able to stabilize the entire country. To the extent that this expanded initiative is embedded in an overall strategy to facilitate legitimate governance for Syria, it may well attract decisive support from regional partners who want the Assad regime gone. The good news for the Obama administration is that an attractive pathway to Assad’s departure runs right through its primary objective: the defeat and destruction of ISIL.

Train-and-equip seeks to address the principal shortfall in the battle against ISIL inside Syria: the absence of a ground force combat component complementing coalition air power. In isolated localities, Syria’s Kurdish PYD and surviving elements of armed nationalist forces provide that ground component, albeit in limited dosages. Something much larger than 15,000 soldiers much sooner than three years is required. If the essence of the anti-ISIL campaign in Syria is to remain one of chasing criminal bands with high-performance aircraft from 30,000 feet, the ersatz caliph and his Baathist partners will sink roots in Syria and continue to menace Iraq as Syria disgorges terrified humanity in all directions.

The Syrian National Stabilization Force concept aims at building a large and militarily capable all-Syrian force to stabilize the country and set the stage for legitimate governance: the kind of inclusive, pluralistic, citizenship-based self-rule that would make Syria an acid bath for the caliph and Bashar al-Assad alike. Yet raising a force of 50,000 or more will take time, even if the Obama administration accords it top priority and empowers the Department of Defense to make it happen without undue meddling. The “too small” aspect of train-and-equip can be overcome. “Too slow”—both in terms of lost time and the time it would take to build such a force—cannot be entirely rectified.

Building a force of this size entirely outside of Syria without changing conditions inside the country will be next to impossible. Small safe zones in northwestern and southwestern Syria—areas where Assad’s air force would be excluded to enable both civilian protection and the consolidation of existing nationalist units—would provide direct access to population recruiting bases, which would expedite matters greatly. Yet the ideal scenario would be one that accommodates the Obama administration’s top priority: the clearing of ISIL from central and eastern Syria. This scenario would also entail the establishment of an alternate Syrian government, recognized by the United States and its partners, and the rapid building of a Syrian National Stabilization Force. These are precisely the features that would advance President Obama’s stated objective of strengthening moderate governance inside Syria and having it expand to the entire country.

Clearing central and eastern Syria will require boots on the ground—lots of them. Unless the Obama administration changes course, none of them would be American. The last thing in the world ISIL operatives would want to face would be the United States Army or Marine Corps in nighttime operations. Yet as matters now stand, the boots required to kill ISIL in Syria anytime soon—thereby setting it up for a near-term kill in Iraq—would be Turkish and possibly Jordanian. The immediate military objective in Syria would be ISIL, not the Assad regime.

Turkey, of course, has taken the position that ISIL in Syria is the gruesome symptom of the deadly underlying disease: the take-no-prisoners, concentrate-on-civilians, no-crime-too-great survival strategy of the Assad-Makhluf clan. Can President Obama convince his Turkish counterpart that the establishment of a recognized government in Free Syria would be a death warrant for Syria’s crime family? That the grounding of Assad’s air force would protect civilians and slow—if not stop—the hemorrhaging of refugees into Turkey? That the basis for a genuine negotiated transition—one removing the rapacious family while keeping the government intact and preserving Syria’s territorial integrity—would be established? That having a large, secure area where the Syrian National Stabilization Force could be deployed after training and equipping would be a very attractive development? Or will Turkey adamantly refuse to take “yes” for an answer, contenting itself with pointing an accusatory finger at Washington?

Jordan has interesting links to the tribes of eastern Syria and no shortage of motives to help obliterate ISIL—and not just in Syria. Yet its relations with Ankara are cold, with mistrust on the ascendant. Can sustained US diplomacy bridge this breach? Yes it can, provided it is sustained in the region and supported by the president in Washington.

Even if ISIL is swept from Syria and a new government established covering most of the country’s territory, US-led train-and-equip efforts would take place outside of Syria in neighboring countries. But with the new government and its long-suffering constituents protected by coalition ground forces, the process could be facilitated, provided the organizers avail themselves of Syrian advice and counsel. Ultimately, a Syrian national command authority would own and operate the Syrian National Stabilization Force: a condition that would be accelerated by the creation of a new government in Free Syria. As the recent report suggests, however, Syrian input is required now to shape (for Syrians) the political discourse and to overcome challenges related to recruiting and vetting. An informal “Syrian Advisory Task Force” should be established now.

Defeating ISIL militarily, and soon, is the key first step to stabilizing Syria. A new government dedicated to pluralism, citizenship, rule-of-law, and consent of the governed will give Syrians still grudgingly supporting the Assad regime (including army officers and soldiers) an alternative: the long-sought third choice beyond serving a crime family or wasting away in a refugee camp. If the United States can convince its regional partners that it has a strategy to produce legitimate governance for all of Syria and will remain committed to achieving the strategy’s end-state, then those partners may well accept the idea that the pathway to an Assad-free Syria runs straight through ISIL.

Defeating and ultimately destroying ISIL requires legitimate governance in both Syria and Iraq. In Syria, Assad and the caliph are the poster boys for illegitimacy. The Obama administration wants to confront one directly and the other indirectly. America’s regional allies and partners might be induced to support the administration’s approach and hasten the defeat of ISIL if—and only if—Washington can convince them that indirection is not code for “ISIL now, Assad never.”

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

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Rebel fighters carry their weapons as they walk in the town of Mleeha al-atash, after what they said was an attempt from forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to take control of the town, but failed to, in Deraa province April 20, 2015. (Reuters)