Thinking About Strategy: Part Four

This fourth and final part of a series on American objectives and strategy for Syria aims to suggest parameters of a strategy to achieve the following objective (from part three):

We seek a Syria that poses no national security threats to the United States, its allies, and its friends; a country pacified enough to permit the rapid dispatch of humanitarian aid to all in need; a stable country where legitimate governance rooted, at the national and local levels, in the consent of the governed precludes the rise of terrorism, extremism, and armed rebellion; an independent country free of terrorist groups and external suzerainty, one whose territorial integrity is respected and one rid of foreign military forces except those mandated internationally or agreed to bilaterally by a legitimate national government; an economically viable country where reform, reconciliation, reconstruction, accountability, and the protection of civilians permit the return of refugees and the internally displaced to their homes.

As noted in part three, this objective may be far from what the Trump administration has in mind. To date the administration has put resources into the fight against ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). It has (with one laudable exception) deployed verbiage against the poisonous, extremist-inspiring malevolence of the Assad regime and the prospect of Iranian suzerainty, which aims to subordinate Syria indefinitely to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. That exception was swift and effective retaliation for an Assad regime sarin attack on civilians.

The Trump administration could decide to declare victory over ISIS and try to disengage altogether from Syria. Perhaps it has already so decided. Few Americans would object to such a course. But a Syria left to Assad and his Iranian masters would seek pacification through mass terror, which would produce refugees, violent and extremist backlash, and a Levantine version of North Korea. Hezbollah’s aim of opening a terror front against Israel in Syria would be achieved. Iran’s hold on Lebanon would be solidified. All of Syria’s neighbors would be subject to Iranian subversion. For how long could the United States remain aloof from such a scenario?

If the Trump administration decides to do the heavy political-military lift required to achieve the objective stated above, what would constitute elements of a supportive strategy?

  1. Organizing to prevail over the long-term. Designate a senior official reporting to the president who would oversee the implementation of a strategy that would treat Syria as a single problem set. The artificial division of the problem between ISIS in the east and Assad in the west has sought to separate terrorism in Syria from its principal cause, with bad policy consequences. Give that senior official a full time, skilled interagency staff, strong and flexible authorities, and easy access to cabinet officers, the assistant to the president for national security affairs, the president’s chief of staff, and the chief executive himself when necessary. Insure that he or she consults often and fully with Congress.
  2. Prioritizing the protection of Syrian civilians from mass casualty atrocities. Make it clear to Assad’s protectors—Iran and Russia—that regime atrocities will induce strikes on regime targets. The retaliation of April 6-7, 2017 may have put Assad out of the sarin business permanently. Sarin, however, is a minor part of the regime’s mass terror portfolio. Ideally, Russia will ground its client’s air force to help set the stage for meaningful Syrian peace talks. But Moscow may lack the will and the ability to do so. If the regime defies current de-escalatory efforts and persists in collective punishment/mass homicide, the United States should engage regime targets as appropriate. An Assad shorn of key terror assets may remain propped up by Iran. But lives will be saved, and there is no pathway to a political settlement in Syria if the regime remains dedicated to mass murder and has the means to accomplish it. Moreover, an Assad shown to be defenseless risks losing his entourage and enablers.
  3. Exploring with an open, but skeptical mind the possibility of cooperating with Russia to stabilize western Syria, lift regime sieges of populated areas, expedite the unrestricted delivery of humanitarian assistance, neutralize the Syrian chapter of  al-Qaeda, and promote meaningful peace talks in Geneva. What leverage might Washington have? American militancy on civilian protection would make it something more than an inert spectator watching Moscow capitalize on a military intervention approaching its second year. Still, Russia may prioritize its relationship with Iran over the United States. In this case starvation sieges will continue, humanitarian aid (except to regime-controlled areas) will stay blocked, and al-Qaeda will remain a bright ground beacon for regime (and perhaps Russian) aerial atrocities against civilians. Cooperation with Russia requires that Moscow and Tehran have sharply differing visions of Syria’s end-game. It is not at all clear that they do.
  4. Offering to open a dialogue on Syria with Iran. It is very unlikely that Tehran will desist from trying to establish suzerainty over Syria for its benefit and that of Hezbollah. But senior Iranians in track II (unofficial) discussions have expressed unease with Assad regime atrocities and openness to official conversations on humanitarian matters. Such a conversation may prove to be nasty, brutish, and short. Yet, it might prove to be otherwise.
  5. Working urgently with the Syrian opposition, Turkey, and the Kurdish-dominated “Syrian Democratic Forces” to devise alternatives to regime and Iranian rule of areas in eastern Syria liberated from ISIS. Starting these consultations now may prove to be three years too late. And the United States Central Command’s pubic invitation to Iran and the regime to establish themselves in the east may represent official policy. Still, the Syrian opposition to Assad has done some creative thinking on how liberated places like Raqqa could serve as local examples of how a transitional governing body—one including local officials and employees of the Syrian government—could operate nationally. These ideas are worth exploring as alternatives to blood and treasure spent killing ISIS resulting in ISIS 2.0 or an equally loathsome alternative emerging in only a matter of time. Skillful diplomacy between Turkey and Syrian Kurds will be required to mitigate the political consequences of how the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria has been waged.
  6. Remaining absolutely committed to Syrian political transition and to the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communique. That agreement sets the framework and international mandate for political transition. It does not call for the instant disappearance of Assad. It does not dictate details of the outcome of regime-opposition political negotiations. It does not even prescribe, per se, a totally non-Assad transition. But the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council did mandate the negotiated creation of a transitional governing body to be peopled by mutual consent; a body that would exercise full executive power for a transitional period. Yes, Moscow has reneged on its signature. Yes, the regime has adamantly rejected the will of the international community as expressed in the Communique. Yes, Iran was not a party to it and yet was permitted by the Obama administration to become part of the “International Syria Support Group” without accepting it. Still: if the Communique disappears, the international mandate for political transition from terrorist-abetting family rule to governance reflecting inclusivity and compromise will disappear along with it. The Communique remains the bedrock document legitimizing the Geneva peace talks.
  7. Treating the Assad regime appropriately: as a criminal, terrorist, and terror-abetting entity. Support international efforts to accumulate and catalogue evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the regime and others during the Syrian conflict. Ultimately accountability must be in the hands of Syrians. But those hands must not be empty when the time for justice comes.
  8. Building a coalition of partners—regional, European, Asian—willing to accept the objective and to work for its accomplishment under consultative, respectful, but firm American leadership. The previous administration’s decision to subcontract (in large measure) the arming of anti-Assad rebels to others played directly into the Assad strategy of making the uprising look like a sectarian struggle, and contributed to the rise of very unattractive putative alternatives to Assad. A coalition operating with American leadership can decide whom to support inside Syria, how best to bolster the Geneva political transition talks, and what a massive post-Assad reconstruction program for Syria would look like. Absent American leadership of an effective coalition, arms may continue to flow to undesirable elements, the Geneva talks will likely go nowhere, and Russia, Iran, and the regime may successfully blackmail Europe into providing reconstruction funds from which the Assad regime would steal gleefully.
  9. Taking the lead in insuring that planning proceeds rapidly so that international peace enforcement operations and international reconstruction activities can commence quickly if requested by a Syrian transitional governing body created under the terms of the Geneva Final Communique. Even if the United States contributes no uniformed personnel to peace enforcement, and even if American monetary contributions to reconstruction are dwarfed by those of others, Washington’s leadership in getting the planning done on time can prove vital.
  10. Working to regain the respect of Syrians. The Obama administration spoke eloquently and often about Assad regime mass murder: the humanitarian catastrophe it produced, the encouragement to sectarian extremists it rendered, and the threats to neighbors and to European allies it created. It did nothing to complicate or discourage the behavior it condemned. Syrians were not alone in disrespecting this all talk, no action approach. But Syrians will be the keys to rebuilding a state free of terror and extremism; a state posing threats to no one. Their respect must be earned. No doubt ways can be found, with the assistance of Congress, to improve the impact of American taxpayer funds for humanitarian aid to refugees and others and for assistance to civil society activists and humanitarians inside Syria. As the United States struggles to establish workable policies on immigration issues, the demonization of Syrian refugees must be avoided. For over 150 years, people of Syrian origin have strengthened the national fabric of the United States. Policies and rhetoric ought to reflect that fact.

The foregoing elements of strategy would require sustained, long-term effort. There is no guarantee of success. Nearly all these recommendations were presented to officials of the Obama administration, some of whom still claim no one ever offered alternatives to their calamitous policies. Mitigating and perhaps reversing the consequences of bad policy choices made by the Obama administration and its predecessor in the Levant and Mesopotamia will not be a twenty-minute project. It may be more than a twenty-year undertaking. The time to begin is now.

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

Related Experts: Frederic C. Hof

Image: Photo: Brett McGurk, U.S. envoy to the coalition against Islamic State (L), shakes hands with a man in the town of Tabqa, Syria June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said