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Order from Chaos

Deconstructing Syria: A new strategy for America’s most hopeless war

Michael E. O’Hanlon

While the Obama administration’s strategy for Iraq requires substantial upgrading in light of recent Islamic State (or ISIL) successes in and around Ramadi in particular, the plan for Syria is in much worse shape. The peace process is dead. So are a quarter million Syrians, with another 12 million displaced. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey has just testified to Congress that only some 150 moderate opposition fighters are currently receiving training from the U.S. Department of Defense—at a time when ISIL’s forces may number 30,000 and President Bashar al-Assad’s army several tens of thousands as well. Meanwhile, ISIL continues to threaten the region and to inspire lone-wolf terrorist attacks around the globe.

What to do? Counterintuitively, at this stage, the only realistic path forward may be a plan that in effect deconstructs Syria. A comprehensive, national-level solution is too hard even to specify at this stage, much less effect. Instead, the international community should work to create pockets with more viable security and governance within Syria over time. With initial footholds in place, the strategy could develop further in a type of “ink-spot” campaign that eventually sought to join the various local initiatives into a broader and more integrated effort. 

Safe, autonomous zones

This approach builds on current U.S. strategy, but with a much less glaring mismatch between means and ends. Requiring ideological purity of opposition fighters would no longer be quite as high of a bar. Training them in the safety of Turkey, Jordan, and other friendly countries would still be the first step, but not a sufficient one. 

The idea would be to help moderate elements establish reliable safe zones within Syria once they were able. American, as well as Saudi and Turkish and British and Jordanian and other Arab forces would act in support, not only from the air but eventually on the ground via special forces. The approach would benefit from Syria’s open desert terrain which could allow creation of buffer zones that could be monitored for possible signs of enemy attack. Western forces themselves would remain in more secure positions in general—within the safe zones but back from the front lines—at least until the reliability of such defenses, and also local allied forces, made it practical to deploy and live in more forward locations.

Creation of these sanctuaries would produce autonomous zones that would never again have to face the prospect of rule by either Assad or ISIL. They would also represent areas where humanitarian relief could be supplied, schools reopened, and larger opposition fighting forces recruited, trained, and based. U.N. agencies and NGOs would help to the extent possible; regardless, relief could certainly be provided far more effectively than is the case today. 

The end-game for these zones would not have to be determined in advance. The interim goal might be a confederal Syria, with several highly autonomous zones and a modest (eventual) national government. The confederation would likely require support from an international peacekeeping force, if this arrangement could ever be formalized by accord. But in the short term, the ambitions would be lower—to make these zones defensible and governable, to help provide relief for populations within them, and to train and equip more recruits so that the zones could be stabilized and then gradually expanded.

Changing the approach 

This plan would differ from current strategy in three main ways. First, the idea would be plainly stated as the avowed goal of the United States. This could reduce disagreements with other sponsors of the insurgency, and many of the insurgents themselves, since American policy would be based on a more realistic squaring of means with ends. It would also help dispel the lurking suspicion that Washington was content to tolerate the Assad government now as the lesser of two evils. Among other benefits, this could reduce frictions in America’s relationships with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and several other key regional countries.

Second, Syrian insurgents would be vetted on a somewhat different set of criteria. While extremist ideologies would still be seen as disqualifying, past collaboration with extremist elements of the insurgency would not itself be viewed as a scarlet letter—since some of that collaboration could have been a necessary means of surviving on Syria’s complex and challenging battlefield. Third, multilateral support teams, grounded in special forces detachments and air-defense capabilities as needed, would be prepared for deployment into parts of Syria once opposition elements were able to seize and reliably hold strong points. 

This last part would of course be the most challenging, and the actual deployment of any such teams the most fraught. It need not be rushed. It could be undertaken in the safest zones first—perhaps in Kurdish areas, for example, and then near the Jordanian border in conjunction with Jordanian forces. But it’s a necessary part of the effort. Beginning the planning immediately would not only help prove American seriousness about the overall campaign plan, but also allow for coordination with humanitarian and development groups.

The plan would be directed not only against ISIL but in part against Assad as well. In a bow to reality, however, it would not explicitly seek to overthrow him, so much as deny him control of territory that he might still aspire to govern again. The autonomous zones would be liberated with the clear understanding that there was no going back to rule by Assad or a successor. In any case, Assad would not be a military target under this concept, but areas he currently controls (and cruelly bombs) would be. And if Assad delayed too long in accepting a deal for exile, he could inevitably face direct dangers to his rule and even his person. 

Don’t kick the can

This type of plan may be the only realistic path forward, recognizing battlefield realities, the key interests of various regional actors, and the actual options we have before us. Moreover, while it is not without risks for the United States, the scale of military involvement envisioned is not substantially greater than what we have been doing the last year or so in Afghanistan. President Obama can stay true to his most important pledges—to downsize America’s role in the wars of the Middle East, while doing everything in his power to protect the country from further terrorist attack—with such an approach. He should not view Syria as a problem to hand to his successor, but rather a crisis that demands his attention and a new strategy now.

Check out our other foreign policy blog, Markaz, on politics in and policy towards the Middle East. Read all the Order from Chaos content »

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