August 3, 2017
Thinking About Strategy: Part Three
By Frederic C. Hof
A Syria left to the tender mercies of Iran, its foreign fighter mercenaries, the Assad regime, and Russia if Washington simply declares victory over ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) and leaves the stage will be a Syria that incubates transnational terrorism and hemorrhages people for as far as the eye can see. For the United States to disconnect its instruments of national power from Syria after ISIS is defeated would be to double-down on the Obama administration’s misperception that chaos in Syria is containable.
Yet formulating a national security objective for Syria must consider more than an inherited dog’s breakfast of policy and performance malpractice. It must also reflect, with unblinking honesty, the level of effort and resources one is prepared to dedicate to the task. If, for example, the Trump administration decides it is through with Syria once the ersatz caliph and his rapacious minions are neutralized, then it need not go through the drill. It can leave Syria to the actors who created and sustained ISIS and other sectarian barbarians. It can just hope for the best. Who knows? The vaunted good luck of the United States—gone for quite some time now—may return.
On the other hand, if the Trump administration decides that the threats posed by a perpetually unstable Syria merit a heavy and sustained national security lift, then it must decide who will do the lifting. A depleted Department of State showing no signs of repopulation where it counts—in geographical bureaus and in embassies—does not bode well for a successful, strenuous effort.
The American military might well play a pivotal role in helping to shape a civilized outcome for Syria. But the military cannot do it all: its habit of selfless public service to a country largely disposed to self-indulgence makes it the default candidate for all tasks requiring leadership, skill, and endurance. But the challenges and complexities presented by Syria would, assuming a presidential mandate for the heavy lift, require sustained effort across several departments and agencies of government. And it would require partners: allies, friends, and ideally even some who have been adversaries.
Assuming President Trump decides that Syria is worth the candle—that the United States will devote considerable resources and energy to it for the length of his incumbency and even beyond, if necessary—then what would be reasonable in terms of an objective? The following paragraph attempts to answer this question.
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.
An objective as above would address at least three items of importance frequently mentioned by American officials: the top priority of defeating ISIS and Al Qaeda; the inadmissibility of long-term Assad rule; and the unacceptability of Iranian domination. Indeed, all three items really boil down to neutralizing terrorism and extremism.
ISIS and al-Qaeda have filled governance vacuums created by Assad’s illegitimacy; the Assad regime’s remarkable blend of brutality, incompetence, and corruption is immutable and a gift of enduring value to Islamist criminals; and the crude sectarianism of Iran—aimed at subordinating Syria to its Lebanese militia (Hezbollah)—is nothing but kerosene on the fire of deep (though not unanimous) Syrian Sunni Arab resentment toward the Assad regime. Though the objective is silent on the name “Assad,” it seeks conditions incompatible with a long-term political role for a regime steeped in criminality.
And the objective spelled out above does not preclude or oppose a major, long-term Russian role in Syria. Indeed, none of the outcomes included in the suggested objective is inconsistent with Russia becoming Syria’s principal trade, defense, and foreign policy partner. In his August 1, 2017 press availability Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made plain the administration’s desire to cooperate with Moscow in stabilizing a post-ISIS Syria; cooperation that would entail “zones of stabilization and lines of de-confliction” and a return to the Geneva peace process overseen by the United Nations.
The administration is correct to explore the possibility of cooperating with Russia in Syria. But it should assume neither the willingness nor the ability of Moscow to help bring about a Syria posing no threat to its neighborhood or to the transatlantic community. To date there has been no evidence of Russia’s desire (beyond its signature on the June 2012 Geneva Final Communique) to see political transition in Syria away from the murderous, kleptocratic family rule to something civilized. If the desire exists, there has been no evidence to date of Russia’s ability to oblige the regime even to negotiate seriously. Indeed, Iran (not Russia) is the decisive force propping up the regime: a fact not lost on Mr. Assad.
The all for cooperation with Moscow may be code for “Russia and Iran now own Syria and we are gone, post-ISIS.” But if a national security objective anything like the one articulated above is adopted, the possibility that Russia will subordinate Syria to its relationship with Iran and support the regime’s survival indefinitely can neither be dismissed nor unopposed. Indeed, it is possible that Tehran and Moscow will collaborate for a Syrian outcome that subjects the country to Iranian suzerainty in return for Russian air and naval bases. The ability of Washington to cooperate with Moscow depends at a minimum on the latter having an end-state vision for Syria significantly different from that of Tehran.
Clearly Russia and Iran would weigh heavily on any long-term American strategy aimed at accomplishing an objective focused on removing the obstacles to legitimate Syrian governance: the kind of governance that would rid Syria of terrorism and extremism. As noted in the first two parts of this series, civilian protection—specifically, the lack thereof—is the first such obstacle. Can and will Moscow prevent its client regime from continuing its practice of civilian mass homicide? Will Russia itself now refrain from the savagery it demonstrated in Aleppo in late 2016? Thoughts on strategy to be addressed in the final part of this series begin and end with the protection of Syrian civilians.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.