Thinking About Strategy: Part One

The decision of the Trump administration to end its support for armed, anti-Assad Syrian rebels again raises questions of what the United States considers a desirable and attainable end-state for Syria, and how it plans to achieve it. These questions were avoided by an Obama administration that treated Syria’s humanitarian and security catastrophes as a public information campaign to be managed so that it could get and keep a nuclear deal with Bashar al-Assad’s best friend: Iran. Obviously, the Trump administration subordinates nothing to the nuclear agreement. But given the Syrian policy inheritance they have received from their predecessors, how do the president and his advisers even begin to define achievable objectives and sensible strategies?

In fact, the Trump administration approaches the task with two advantages: one procedural, and one substantive. With a chief executive not inclined toward micromanagement, national security professionals in the administration (led by General McMaster) are free to make the interagency consultative process work as it should. On Syria (and perhaps in other contexts as well) national security adviser Susan Rice had no client for such a process. And in terms of substance, Russia’s cold contempt for the Obama administration in Syria (and beyond) was converted to attentiveness and perhaps even respect by President Trump’s rapid and forceful reaction to an Assad regime chemical attack, and by kinetic American responses to Iranian and regime threats to anti-ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) “partner forces” in eastern Syria.

Notwithstanding these advantages, however, the Trump administration was indeed bequeathed policy poison in the case of Syria. In the western part of the country the Obama administration was inert for years in the face of mass civilian homicide by the Assad regime (with Russian and Iranian assistance), despite the protests of senior American officials and contrary to administration rhetoric rich with outrage and condemnation. In eastern Syria, the Obama administration permitted its Department of Defense to go slow against ISIS with a politically problematical militia, a policy that enabled Syria-based ISIS cells to mount major terror operations in Western Europe and Turkey. The effect of this policy inheritance—putting aside the calamitous impact on Syrians, their neighbors, and European allies—is to scale back the reach of an objective on which a strategy would be based. One cannot simply dismiss or discount the consequences of five-plus years of policy failure.

In bygone days, for example, one could define a national security objective in terms of Syria becoming a country fundamentally cooperative with American objectives in the region and beyond. This made sense when the Obama administration was haltingly engaged with Damascus and a parallel effort to facilitate Syrian-Israeli peace was underway. In those days, it was possible to think (for example) of a peace scenario where Iran and Hezbollah would be the biggest losers.

But those days are gone. Bashar al-Assad still has a presidential title, but his relationship to Iran now is analogous to that of Polish communists carried into Warsaw in 1945 as Soviet baggage. Beyond his corruptly brutal entourage, Assad has no legitimacy; only grudging, fearful obedience in places controlled by his murderous security services and rapacious gangs. His dependence on outsiders is total. The state is gone, the country ruined, and Tehran and Moscow call the shots while an American-supported militia chases ISIS in Raqqa as if nothing else is going on.

The Syria of 2017 resembles not at all the Syria of 2011, even if the same family purports to rule. And that family—a bottomless reservoir of incompetence and criminality—will go nowhere for the foreseeable future unless some combination of Iran and Russia decides to escort it off-stage. Facing an Obama administration deathly afraid of losing a nuclear deal that Tehran diligently sought for its own interests, Iran—with decisive military intervention by Russia—secured its client and solidified strategic depth for its Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

Some observers have expressed shock over the aid cutoff to rebels, saying that it repeals, in effect, the American objective of removing Assad. Yes, since August 2011 it has been the earnest desire of the American government that Assad give way to something decent, inclusive, legitimate, and civilized. But Assad’s forced removal, in terms of a national security objective facilitated by a national security strategy, has never been a factor in American policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin can brag all he wants to his domestic audience about having defeated an American regime change campaign, thereby saving the Syrian state. But he knows the truth: there was no American regime change campaign. The Obama “step aside” dictum to Assad of August 2011 was the product of the belief that the Syrian dictator would soon fall, and therefore the President of the United States should get out there publicly on the right side of history. Even the belated effort to arm, train, and equip anti-Assad rebels was a half-measure, one aimed at appearing to be doing something to push back against Assad’s mass homicide while doing nothing of consequence to obstruct civilian slaughter, thereby not alienating Iran.

Indeed, by offering no protection to Syrian civilians—by refusing adamantly to throw sand in the gears of the Assad regime’s collective punishment political survival strategy—the Obama administration was unintentionally but decisively complicit in the regime’s survival. The Trump administration must face facts: Iranian and Russian efforts to save the regime had the perfect foil for the better part of five years. As it mulls over a national security objective for Syria, the current administration will likely take as a given the survival of a regime that has (through its excesses) promoted extremism, created a humanitarian catastrophe, and undermined friends and allies of the United States in the region and far beyond.

As the administration sifts through the policy wreckage of its predecessor, it would do well to keep in mind one key variable: the Assad regime’s ironclad belief that its survival depends not just on Iranian and Russian military intervention, but on systematic state terror. Had it chosen to do so, the Obama administration could have devised a middle way between violent regime change and what it ended up doing: making Syria a grand, disgraceful exception to the “Never Again” response to mass civilian homicide. It could have hurt the regime badly—perhaps even mortally—by frustrating and complicating its ability to pound away unopposed at hospitals, homes, schools, mosques, and market places. By so doing, it could have offered a modicum of protection to otherwise defenseless civilians and, by extension, to friends and allies. It could have implanted doubts in the minds of Bashar al-Assad’s enforcers. It could have facilitated real peace talks.

It is likely that any Syria-related national security objective devised by the Trump administration will assume the persistence, for some period, of a regime whose key members and enablers richly deserve prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. How to stabilize the country and protect its people while the principal cause of mass murder and state destruction remains in place is the policy riddle to be solved. Pretending that the military defeat of ISIS is “mission accomplished” in Syria will not stand up to the harsh and unforgiving reality of the extremists’ best friend staying in place. Neither should opponents of the regime imagine that terminating assistance to anti-Assad rebels somehow marks a policy reversal.

Recognizing that nothing good can happen in Syria so long as civilians are subjected to collective punishment and mass homicide by their “government” is the beginning of sensible policy planning. Yes, Syria is terribly complicated. But leaving civilians utterly unprotected makes any American national security objective in Syria, no matter how modest, unobtainable. Civilian protection is more than a humanitarian and human rights issue (as if that were not enough). It is the alpha and omega of a decent, lasting, and civilized end to the Syrian crisis. It is the key to the United States and its allies emerging from this catastrophe with anything at all worth having.

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

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Image: Photo: A boy sits near rubble of damaged buildings in Arbin, a town in the Damascus countryside, Syria July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh