Syria Needs Train-and-Equip on Steroids: Ambassador Frederic C. Hof’s Remarks

Ambassador Frederic Hof, Senior Fellow with Atlantic Council, Bassma Kodmani, Executive Director of the Arab Reform Initiative and Associate Professor at Paris University, and Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy presented their report, Setting the Stage for Peace in Syria: The Case for a Syrian National Stabilization Force, on April 14, 2015 at the Atlantic Council. Please read Ambassador Frederic C. Hof’s opening remarks below.

On behalf of my coauthors, I’d like to thank all of you for taking the time to be with us today as we launch our report. Obviously, in this room there are many different points of view represented with respect to Syria. But I think we are all allies in the battle against “Syria fatigue.” We may have differences about what is to be done. But no one would dispute that Syria is the premier humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century: a textbook failure in the protection of civilians. No one would dispute that Syria, in its present condition, is a profound threat to the peace of the region and beyond. I think no one would dispute the proposition that degrading and destroying ISIL – our President’s objective – will not be possible absent legitimate governance emerging in Iraq and Syria.

My coauthors and I have tried to do something that’s difficult. It’s easy to be a critic. It is not so easy, outside of government, to propose policy alternatives useful to people inside government. Our report seeks to adjust policy in a practical manner; to make it more consistent with the stated objectives of the President of the United States and other national leaders identifying themselves as friends of the Syrian people. Ours is inevitably an imperfect product. Yet it’s one that sincerely aims to offer a feasible alternative to a policy that cannot, in our view, succeed in attaining its objectives.

Nearly three years ago, President Obama considered the recommendation of his chief foreign policy advisors that the United States undertake a robust effort to arm, train, and equip Syrian nationalist rebels operating under the rubric of the Free Syrian Army. Our President’s advisers saw the nationalist rebels as the natural enemy not only of a regime already neck-deep in war crimes and crimes against humanity, but against an Al Qaeda in Iraq beginning to manifest itself in Syria under various names. The President did not accept the recommendation.

In June 2014, things changed. ISIL, which had managed to dominate central and eastern Syria over poorly supported and depleted nationalist rebel units, swept through Iraq from secure bases in Syria. President Obama now proposed training and equipping nationalists to fight ISIL in Syria: to provide the ground combat component for coalition air forces. As conceived by the administration these forces would focus on ISIL while fending off the Assad regime and providing a basis for negotiations between the regime and its nationalist political opposition. Congress would eventually approve a proposal to train and equip some 5,000 rebel soldiers per year over a three year period.

My coauthors and I fully agree with the administration’s position that the Assad regime cannot be a partner in the battle against ISIL. The regime’s survival strategy made Syria safe for ISIL. The regime works in virtual tandem with ISIL to try to erase Syria’s nationalist armed opposition. The regime is the embodiment of illegitimate governance. We agree with President Obama’s Brisbane characterization of Bashar al-Assad as a mass murderer. And we agree with Ambassador Samantha Power’s recent statement in Kuwait that two countries – unnamed, but clearly Iran and Russia – are accomplices in the regime’s program of mass murder.

We do not believe that the train and equip program as currently conceived can accomplish the objectives set for it. It is too small. It is too slow. Fifteen-thousand soldiers, even if available today, might be useful against ISIL were they and the civilians they try to protect not under constant attack by regime forces and foreign fighters assembled by Iran. But they are not available, and the prospect of chasing ISIL criminals in Syria for three years from 30,000 feet while they are trained and equipped is profoundly unattractive. It would be far better were the United States able now to assemble regional ground forces to sweep ISIL from Syria. An alternate Syrian government could be established in areas liberated, and Assad’s air force could be prevented from terrorizing civilians. This could provide a basis for genuine negotiations and permit Syrians, with help from friends, to build a true national army that could ultimately stabilize the country if negotiations fall short.

If, however, train and equip is to be the way forward, then we propose to put it on steroids. To do so efficiently will require secure areas in Syria protected from regime air attacks and from ground attacks mounted by the regime, ISIL, and other extremists. This will require American leadership; not American boots on the ground.

President Obama told coalition defense chiefs at Andrews Joint Base last October that the fight against ISIL will “require us developing and strengthening a moderate opposition inside Syria that is in a position then to bring about the kind of legitimacy and sound governance for all people inside of Syria.” He knew then as he knows now that this will not happen on its own; it will require secure areas protected from the regime, ISIL, and other extremists. And only days ago, speaking with Tom Friedman of The New York Times, President Obama elevated the protection of civilians from barrel bombs to a core American interest. My coauthors and I believe that the words of the American commander-in-chief matter. We believe they mandate follow-up action if credibility and reputation are to be preserved. Our effort aims at arming our friends in government with implementable ideas that would enable President Obama to do what he says he wants to do.

We are recommending, therefore, that the United States and its partners aim higher with train and equip. We think initial planning should shoot for a 50,000 person Syrian National Stabilization Force organized into three motorized infantry divisions.

This force would have the military mission of defeating any combination of enemies obstructing the stabilization of Syria. It would have robust combat capabilities and civil-military skills. It would likely require assistance – both combat support and logistical – from external supporters.

Ideally, such a force would grow larger as it attracts from the regime officers and soldiers who have resisted participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity and who would welcome an alternative to life in a refugee camp. Such a force must stand for political principles attractive to those Syrians still grudgingly supporting the regime because they see no alternative. Ideally, such a force would help establish legitimate, pluralistic governance in a united Syria. And yes, it will take time to build it. We cannot entirely solve the “too slow” aspect of an initiative that was rejected in the summer of 2012, resurrected in June 2014, and still awaiting implementation. Acceleration is possible, and safe zones can jump-start matters by organizing existing units and accessing recruiting bases. But time lost is never fully recoverable.

Whether we stick with train and equip as currently conceived or transform it into something meaningful, Syrian input and guidance will be crucial. If we seek to create a foreign auxiliary for foreign objectives, we will fail. If we try to recruit and vet on the basis of American knowledge, we will fail.

Over the past four years, American officials have come to know Syrians – in and out of the formal opposition – who are knowledgeable, sensible, practical, collegial, and committed to a pluralistic Syria reflecting rule of law. In the absence of an alternate Syrian government or a fully functioning opposition, we could pull together an advisory task force of prominent Syrians to help guide an effort which, if it lacks Syrian identity and Syrian input, will fail. This task force would disappear when a Syrian national command authority emerges to take charge of the national stabilization force.

Nothing we are proposing precludes the negotiated, political process President Obama seeks. Indeed, the Syrian National Stabilization Force – even perhaps the promise of one – could provide the missing element to change regime calculations – or perhaps those of its Iranian masters – about the value and utility of a complete, negotiated political transition. Train and equip as currently conceived cannot do it. It cannot do what the President says he wants done.

Again, thank you all for doing us the honor of participating in the launch of our report.

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