Kerry’s counterproductive Syria strategy (with addendum)

Editors’ Note: In the wake of the tragic attacks in Paris, Mike O’Hanlon provided an addendum to this post on November 14.

First, it is important to express my deep sadness and sympathy for the French people, sentiments that I am sure virtually all Americans share at this devastating moment. The French are one of the great multicultural, multiracial, and multi-confessional nations on Earth, and they will find their way through this unspeakable abomination. In the words of a young French friend of mine who wrote me early this morning, “we have got to stay strong, and not let ourselves be scared.” Amen.

Second, it is time to stop pretending that the threat in Syria, and now Iraq and beyond as well, is tolerable, or one that we do best to minimize our involvement in. Our current strategy in Syria in particular is an abject failure and is woefully inadequate to the task at hand. The foreign fighter problem is a major threat to Western societies as well as regional societies. Earlier arguments by some that it was not so severe in magnitude have to my mind been disproven definitively by this tragedy, as well as by recent attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, and the Sinai. Of course, the Islamic State (or ISIS) is a huge threat to the peoples it abuses within its area of control as well—as we are learning again, most recently, from reports from liberated Sinjar in Iraq, where Kurdish and Yazidi forces have thankfully just freed a small city from ISIS control. 

Third, however, we need to keep our cool. The Paris tragedy does not, to take an extreme example, constitute an argument for a flattening of Raqqa by a World-War-II style aerial attack. Nor is it an argument for an invasion, either. This latest tragedy makes the case for stepped-up and more robust strategies against ISIS, but not a return to the types of operations employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to avoid an oversimplified, bipolar debate.

I have written elsewhere, and in the blog post below, about my own recommendations for how to ramp up our role in both Syria and Iraq, in alliance with indigenous forces, NATO allies, and Middle East partners as well. That ramped-up involvement should include more U.S., NATO, and Gulf Cooperation Council special forces on the ground in both countries, to conduct raids and better orchestrate aerial attacks, but especially to accelerate training of Syrian moderate fighters and the Iraqi army (and to facilitate provision of humanitarian relief in places within Syria as well). It should include creative use of no-fly zones to hasten creation of conditions for a confederal settlement in Syria–targeting not airplanes in the air, but Syrian (not Russian) airfields and aircraft on the ground that have previously ignored our demands to stop bombing innocent Syrian populations. 

Most of all, for this weekend, it should lead John Kerry and Barack Obama, in their foreign travels, not to pursue the failed logic of the current Syria peace talks but to explore a confederal model and seek buy-in from as many key players and allies as possible. Our military strategy needs to begin with a solid and realistic political framework. In Syria in particular, we lack that at present.

[Original post, from November 13:]

Like many Americans, I greatly admire Secretary of State John Kerry. I have met many critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, who like me are nonetheless impressed by the energy, perseverance, and doggedness of America’s top diplomat. Sometimes, despite long odds, his efforts pay off. Leave aside the Iran nuclear deal, which is of course controversial. But consider Afghanistan, where he midwifed the departure of President Hamid Karzai and formation of a government of national unity last year; or Russia, where he helped create the international foundation for sanctions against President Vladimir Putin. Even on some problems where he has tried and failed, like the Israel-Palestine peace process, it is hard to blame him for the failure, and hard to criticize him for trying.

However, Syria may be the exception. As Secretary Kerry prepares to leave for Vienna for another round of peace talks with outside powers focused on that forsaken land, I worry that the simple act of trying may do more harm than good.

Here’s why: Tragically, Syria is not ripe for peace. More specifically, it is not ripe for the kind of deal Kerry appears to envision—a ceasefire on the battlefield and replacement of the Bashar Assad regime with a government of national unity. By trying to negotiate when conditions are not conductive, we fail to diagnosis the real problem and address it directly. We distract ourselves and squander precious time.

Ceasefire built on sand

At present, the moderate forces in Syria that we would like to see empowered, or at least protected in any peace deal, collectively constitute the third-strongest military force in the country, if that. The strongest force is what is left of Assad’s army: It had some 300,000 personnel at the war’s start, so even as a shell of its former self, it has a considerable capability. The second strongest is the Islamic State (or ISIS), with perhaps 30,000 fighters. The combined moderate opposition, including Kurdish and various Arab forces, might rank next. Then again, it might not—since the Nusra Front (the al-Qaida affiliate in Syria) and Hezbollah’s deployed forces there may be of comparable strength. 

Translation: The good guys, even if acting together (as they rarely do), probably constitute no more than 10 percent of all armed strength on Syria’s battlefields today.

Any ceasefire that Kerry could negotiate, to go along with a new government of national unity hypothetically replacing Assad in Damascus, would therefore be built not on the foundation of favorable military balances—it would be built on a foundation of sand. There would be no mechanism to enforce it; no neutral and respected army or police force that could give authority and legitimacy to the notional government of national unity and carry out its edicts. 

Tragically, Syria is not ripe for peace.

We would have to hope that extremist groups would respect the negotiated deal even in the absence of any force that could credibly enforce it, and that moderate forces could avoid fratricidal fights with each other. Many ceasefires and peace deals in civil wars fail, even after they have been negotiated, and the circumstances surrounding this conflict would make that extremely likely, even in the very unlikely event that Assad could be persuaded to step down. 

The perils of a Hail Mary

Realistically, three ingredients are needed to improve the odds for durable peace: 

  • First, a military balance in which moderate forces are at least comparably strong to their enemies—and ideally stronger. 
  • Second, some kind of peace implementation force, with strong foreign elements, that could be deployed to monitor, and if necessary, enforce the terms of any deal. 
  • And third, the right political model for the future Syria. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in its original form has become a dream. 

In my eyes, the most realistic approach would establish a confederal state with several autonomous regions—one for Alawites, one for Kurds, perhaps one for the Druze, perhaps a couple for Sunni Muslim regions, and one or two for the central intermixed cities from Aleppo to Damascus. 

Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again in its original form has become a dream.

Syria, a country of 23 million before the war (and perhaps 18 million now), would in theory require up to a half million peacekeepers if one applies the famous David Petraeus/James Mattis/James Amos force-sizing algorithm from the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency manual. But if a confederal model were pursued, the number of troops could be cut at least in half and perhaps more, since the force would only need to patrol along the borders of autonomous zones and within the central cities. This would still be a daunting proposition, and might have to include 20,000 American troops to be credible. Yet it would be far more practicable than a force that had to deploy in every town, city, and village throughout the country. At present, however, no one is talking about such a political model—because everyone is trying to pretend that the Vienna talks have a chance, and lend them moral support.

Instead, we should be focusing our efforts on fostering these three necessary ingredients for a peace, and not on trying a Hail Mary in Vienna, which by wasting time and distracting us from the real tasks at hand is likely to further prolong the war.