Word out of Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom is willing to contribute ground forces to the anti-Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) fight in Syria and the positive reaction of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter combine to form one of earth’s rarest elements: good news on Syria. The ongoing display of official American disbelief about the motives and methods of Russia with respect to Syria adds to the usual ration of bad news. And the ugly may be found in Russia’s aerial blitzkrieg in northwestern Syria, producing as it does the customary humanitarian abomination even as it sinks the prospect of productive peace talks.
In early 2015 the Atlantic Council produced a report recommending that the Obama administration pursue an alternative to its anti-ISIL “train and equip” initiative: the building of a “Syrian National Stabilization Force”—in effect a new Syrian army—whose mission would be to pacify the country by militarily defeating any combination of destabilizing elements. The report predicted that train and equip, built as it was on the fatally flawed premise that anti-Assad rebels could be persuaded to turn their backs on their principal enemy and join a fight run by foreigners for foreign purposes, would fail. When it did fail the Obama White House—which had created the fatal premise—took the extraordinary step of blaming outsiders for having forced the program on it.
The alternative offered would have required, in the opinion of the report’s three authors, a sizeable protected area in Syria to raise, train, and equip the requisite all-Syrian stabilization force. For a variety of reasons such a force could not—in the view of the authors—be configured outside of Syria. When it became clear that the Obama administration would persist with train and equip (even though those charged with implementing it saw it as nonsensical) the central recommendation here shifted: that the United States should attempt to build a ground force coalition of the willing—consisting mainly of regional states—to close with and kill ISIL in Syria, permitting the Syrian opposition to establish an alternate Syrian government in the liberated part of the country. This would be the largest possible protected zone: one in which the Syrian National Stabilization Force could be built rapidly and effectively.
Discussions with senior administration officials about the necessity of destroying ISIL in Syria sooner rather than later (especially given the November 13, 2015 Paris attacks), the crying need for a powerful ground combat force component that simply cannot be provided by a Kurdish militia and miscellaneous Arabs, and the attraction of coalition-building as an alternative to American forces perhaps being obliged by circumstances to do it on their own seemed to be a dialogue of the deaf. On February 1, 2016 in SyriaSource another recommendation was offered: that states in the region seeing the logic of crushing ISIL and making the Syrian opposition a political beneficiary encourage the Obama administration to act by offering ground forces preemptively.
It would be presumptuous to claim that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has responded positively to a blog post. It would also be reckless to assume that the Departments of Defense and State have been negligent: that they have neither done the planning associated with a potential ground force coalition nor broached the subject with potential partners. All that can be said with full confidence at this point is that the statement emanating from Riyadh and the positive reaction to it by the US Secretary of Defense is a piece of good news piercing an otherwise opaque gloom enveloping Syria.
That which is bad in the context of a Geneva peace conference failing to gain traction is the official American reaction to a Russian military campaign aimed at securing Bashar al-Assad in power in western Syria and confronting the West with what Moscow hopes would be the Syrian version of Hobson’s choice: Bashar the Barrel Bomber or Baghdadi the False Caliph. Consider the following exchange between the Department of State spokesman and a reporter on February 4:
QUESTION: So where is your leverage with the Russians to get them to stop this? Just telling them that they should stop doesn’t seem to be working.
MR KIRBY: It’s not about – it’s not about the United States applying leverage on Russia.
QUESTION: Of course it is.
MR KIRBY: It is about the international community applying the requisite pressure for them to meet their own commitments, commitments they signed up to when they signed on to that – to 2254.
QUESTION: But where’s the – like, how do they apply – I’m sorry. How do they apply that pressure?
MR KIRBY: The pressure should be on them intrinsically if they believe what they signed up to on 2254; to a unified, whole, pluralistic Syria; to a government that’s responsible for the Syrian people; to a ceasefire, as it’s stated in 2254, a resolution they signed. If they believe everything they signed up to, then the lever should be on them to simply meet their own commitments, and that’s what we want to see them do.
It is not the fault of Mr. John Kirby that he is obliged to represent as best he can a policy approach to Syria that is devoid of operational content. Indeed, it is not the fault of Mr. Kirby’s boss—Secretary of State John Kerry—that a diplomatic process seeking magically to compensate for policy vacuity has been launched. Both Kerry and Kirby have spoken effectively about the mismatch between Russian words and deeds in Syria: about Moscow’s disinformation concerning the target of its military campaign and Russia’s deception in signing up to commitments in Vienna and New York that it has yet to honor. If the response to this mismatch is to deny the relevance of leverage and leave matters to the honor and word of Vladimir Putin, how is the United States to maintain its credibility and mitigate the threats to the peace posed by Russia in Syria and Europe?
What is more alarming is the White House reaction to Russian duplicity, which is essentially one of denial. The following exchange took place between a reporter and the White House spokesman on February 4:
QUESTION: What you’re saying and acknowledging is that Russia is doing something different than what it is telling you it intends to do, right? They’re not keeping their word. They are seeking solutions on the battlefield, not at the negotiating table. So why still believe that talking to them is the way to get to the solution?
MR. EARNEST: Well, primarily because the Russians themselves have said, both publicly and privately, that a political transition is needed. And I don’t think they’re saying that as some sort of subterfuge. It’s patently obvious to anybody with any sort of equities or concerns about Syria that the political situation there is the root cause of all of the chaos and violence. The only reason that we’ve seen ISIL establish a safe haven inside of Syria is because the political situation in Syria was a mess, and ISIL capitalized on that and flourished.
One can only hope that Mr. Earnest’s view that Russia is not employing a subterfuge is not shared by his boss, the commander-in-chief. And one wonders what it will take in terms of observable Russian behavior—on full public display since September 30, 2015—for White House officials to tumble to the realization that the ISIL “safe haven in Syria” is fully consistent with Russia’s central objective: keeping Assad on his throne.
That which is especially ugly about Syria and getting uglier by the day is the dolorous impact of ongoing Russian air attacks on Syrian rebels and civilians and on the prospects for diplomatic progress at Geneva, where talks have been suspended. International NGOs and the Turkish government have reacted with alarm to the Russian air campaign, which may allow Assad regime forces to occupy quarters of Aleppo.
Civilians already subjected to indiscriminate air attacks would, with the arrival of regime ground forces on their doorsteps, have one more nightmare with which to deal: the prospect of regime intelligence operatives and shabiha gangsters going door-to-door to kill, loot, arrest, and rape as they wish. Already there are reports of tens of thousands of civilians on the road toward Turkey. If and when Russia turns its full attention to the south, Jordan will be next. Defenseless against marauding Russian aircraft, Syrian rebels—including elements reportedly assisted in the past by the United States—are finding the holding of ground to be increasingly difficult.
For the average American citizen the merit of trying to keep all of this at arm’s-length has compelling appeal. Indeed, President Obama can probably find majority support for the proposition that the United States should abandon even the pretense of caring what happens on the Assad side of Syria. No doubt the president would be reflecting the views of many Americans if he were to say it matters not to the United States what happens to the countries adjoining Syria or to Western Europe as Syria slouches toward Assad-ISIL partition and empties itself of its people. Clearly the president hopes to focus operationally on ISIL, employing leverage-free hortative language and diplomatic processes to try to mitigate the premier humanitarian abomination of the twenty-first century and limit Moscow’s contribution to it.
It will not work. Ultimately Syria’s bad and ugly, left unattended, will erase whatever good may exist or be hoped for. Unless Russia is made to pay a price for its assault on the people of Syria, it will continue until Assad and Baghdadi are the only two players left standing. And this will be more than a disaster for Syria, its neighbors, and Western Europe. It will be a triumph for a Russian leader thriving on calculated, but still dangerous, aggression, and a humiliation for a Washington hoping to contain the damage.
Frederic C. Hof is a Resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.