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Op-Ed

Deconstructing the Syria nightmare

U.S. POLICY towards Syria since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 has been a litany of miscalculation, frustration and tragedy. The ascendance of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as the major element of the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime may not amount to an imminent threat to American security; indeed, to date very few Americans have died at the hands of ISIL or its affiliates. But ISIL’s rise does place at much greater risk the security of Iraq, the future of Syria itself and the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. It could jeopardize the safety of American citizens as well, given the possibility of attacks by Westerners returning from the Syrian jihad or “lone wolves” inspired by ISIL propaganda. Massacres on a par with the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, or worse, could easily occur in the United States. The potency of the al-Nusra organization, Al Qaeda’s loyal affiliate, within the Syrian opposition is also of considerable concern.

This is not a situation that requires an invasion of Syria by tens of thousands of Western troops. But nor is it a situation that can be allowed somehow to burn out on its own. Even if the Assad regime soon falls to combined opposition forces, the problem will hardly be solved, since ISIL might then be in a position to dominate an entire country rather than just half. An ISIL advance westward would put the 10 to 15 percent of the population made up of “apostate” Alawites, as well as the 10 percent of the population that is Christian (according to prewar tallies), at severe risk of massacre. Upheaval in Syria would intensify, having already displaced half the country’s population and ended a quarter of a million lives. All of this would further validate ISIL’s apocalyptic narrative of a caliphate beginning in Syria—a narrative that, even if it has no chance of being realized, could aid the group in its already-impressive recruiting efforts, which are currently bringing about one thousand new fighters a month to the battlefield. This pace is probably adequate to replenish the loss rate from U.S.-led airstrikes, estimated by one U.S. official to have killed ten thousand ISIL fighters. Indeed, the U.S. government’s upper-bound estimate of some thirty thousand ISIL fighters has not changed for months despite the air campaign.

WHAT’S NEEDED to end the carnage is a radically new approach: working toward a confederal Syria. Put even more starkly, the only credible path forward is a plan that in effect deconstructs Syria, especially in the short term. A comprehensive, national-level solution is too hard even to specify at this stage, much less achieve. Instead, the international community should work hard, and devote substantial resources, to create pockets of more viable security and governance within Syria over time. With initial footholds in place, the strategy could develop further into a type of “ink-spot” campaign that sought to join the various local initiatives into a broader and more integrated effort. This approach builds on the ideas of classic counterinsurgency efforts but has a much different application. In this case, of course, the United States and foreign partners are taking the side of the insurgents rather than the government, and the goal is not to defeat the insurgency but to support and empower it.

This strategy might produce only a partial success, liberating parts of the country and then settling into stalemate. But that should not be seen as failure, even if it happens. One possibility is two or three safe zones in more remote parts of the country, backed up by perhaps one thousand American military personnel and other countries’ special-operations forces in each (with an implied annual cost of perhaps several billion dollars), rather than a snowballing and successful nationwide campaign. Generalizing the strategy from, say, the Kurdish areas of the country in the northeast (where a “lite” version of such an approach is now being attempted by Ankara and Washington), to the heavily populated and intermixed population belt from Idlib and Aleppo through Homs and Hama to Damascus could be very difficult. It would be substantially more dangerous, and also much more logistically challenging. It would be important that Washington not precommit to comprehensive regime change on any particular time horizon, since the number of available “moderate” partner forces may not prove adequate to that task, even once recruiting and training begin within the safe zones.

In fairness to the Obama administration, a realistic and comprehensive plan for Syria has always seemed elusive, without even factoring in self-imposed U.S. political constraints. And now, American “allies” in the war together constitute perhaps the fifth-strongest fighting force in the country, after Assad’s own military, ISIL, al-Nusra and even Hezbollah. Some of these so-called allies may not be so moderate, or dependable, after all. Kurdish fighters in Syria have had some success, and are now integral to a plan Ankara and Washington have developed to establish a safe zone in northern Syria that will greatly complicate ISIL’s ability to connect logistically with the outside world. But the ability of the Kurds to liberate any territory further south is unclear, and Turkey’s willingness to go along with any such escalation of the Kurdish role is also in doubt.

The woes go on. The central peace process appears to be in tatters. Moderate forces are not currently strong enough to achieve a significant governing role through any plausible negotiation outcome. Any willingness by Assad to defect as part of an integrated plan to produce a new power-sharing government (perhaps backstopped by an international peacekeeping force) would likely be seen as evidence of weakness by his enemies. It would probably fail to produce a durable and stable outcome. An actual large-scale U.S. military intervention is off the table, in light of what the nearly decade-long effort in Iraq produced; not even the most hawkish candidates in the GOP field for president in 2016 are calling for such an approach. Development of a new Syrian army of tens of thousands, able to take on Assad as well as ISIL, may be conceptually appealing. But it seems hugely ambitious in a situation where the United States has failed to train even a few thousand moderate fighters a year, and where there are few individuals who could provide political or military leadership of an integrated Syrian opposition. An integrated army may be the right long-term plan, but it is probably not a realistic goal with which to begin.

Instead, a more limited strategy could have major benefits. It would help the United States and other outside powers protect several million Syrians who would no longer have to fear being overrun by Assad or ISIL, as well as allow them to collectively attack and pressure ISIL from more locations than possible today. Such a strategy would send a clear message of U.S. engagement to regional partners and create new opportunities that may not presently be foreseeable.

QUALIFYING STANDARDS for opposition fighters wishing for U.S. training, equipment and battlefield assistance would be relaxed under this approach. Requiring that they are untainted by past associations with extremists and that they swear to fight only ISIL would no longer be central elements of the vetting process. To avoid American legal issues, the subject could simply not be raised the way it is now. The United States would not have to bless, or encourage, their aspirations for overthrowing Assad, but it could stop trying so proactively and unrealistically to squelch those ambitions. “Accidental guerrillas,” to use David Kilcullen’s memorable phrase, who had previously been in cahoots with some of these groups could in some cases be forgiven their transgressions, if there were reason to think that they were dependable.

Training opposition fighters in the safety of Turkey, Jordan and other friendly countries would still be the first step. But it is not sufficient, and this new strategy would recognize as much. Many opposition fighters are reluctant to leave their home territories—and thereby leave their families and communities unprotected—in order to go abroad for training. The wiser idea would be to help moderate elements establish reliable safe zones within Syria as catalysts to much broader recruiting and training efforts that would then occur within these zones on Syrian territory. American and allied forces would act in support, not only from the air but eventually on the ground via the deployment of special-operations forces into Syria as well. This would entail risks, but manageable ones. Syria’s open desert terrain would make it easier to monitor for possible signs of enemy attack against these zones, through a combination of technologies, patrols and other methods that outside special operators could help Syrian local fighters set up.

Were Assad foolish enough to challenge these zones, even if he somehow forced the withdrawal of the outside special-operations forces, he would be likely to lose his airpower in ensuing retaliatory strikes by outside forces, depriving his military of one of its few advantages over ISIL. Deconflicting U.S./allied efforts to attack ISIL with the expanding Russian activities in the country would, however, be important.

With this approach, given the direct American and other allied assistance that would be provided, one could be confident that sanctuary sites would never again have to face the prospect of rule by either Assad or ISIL. They would also constitute areas where humanitarian relief could be supplied, schools could be reopened and larger opposition forces could be recruited, trained and based. UN agencies and NGOs would help in the effort to the extent they were willing and able, focusing on health, education and basic economic recovery. Governing councils would be formed, more likely by appointment than election, to help international agencies make decisions on key matters relevant to rudimentary governance. Regardless of details, relief could certainly then be provided more effectively than today.

At least one such area should adjoin Jordan and another Turkey, and these should be created in cooperation with Amman and Ankara. These locations would allow secure transportation lines for humanitarian as well as military supplies. They would also provide bases from which to attack ISIL in its strongholds, a mission that Western forces could carry out in conjunction with local allies. The ultimate endgame for these zones would not have to be determined in advance. The interim goal would be a deconstructed Syria; the ultimate one could be some form of a confederal Syria, with several highly autonomous zones. One of those zones might be for Alawites, perhaps partly protected by Russian forces. But none of the zones could be for ISIL, al-Nusra or Assad and his inner circle.

At some point, the emergent confederation would likely require support from an international peacekeeping force, once it could be somehow codified by negotiation. The United States should be willing to commit to being part of a force, since without it, it is dubious that the conflict’s various parties will have confidence in the stability of any settlement. The challenge of creating governance structures that protect the rights of Syria’s various communities would be especially acute in the intermixed central population belt of the country. But in the short term, the ambitions of this strategy would be limited—they would be, simply, to make individual 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.

As safe zones were created, over time some would eventually coalesce. For example, once appropriate understandings were reached with Turkey, a single Kurdish zone would make sense. Major sectors in the south near the Jordanian border, and in the north near Idlib and Aleppo, could be logical. Over time, if and when feasible, zones near some of the central cities such as Hama and Homs could be envisioned, though the logistical challenges and the safety challenges for Western forces (and the difficulty of collaborating safely with any Russian forces) could be greater in those cases. Prudence would have to be the watchword. In some cases, even the various members of the so-called moderate opposition might come into conflict with each other; outside parties might have to threaten to withhold support of various types to discourage such behavior.

The plan would be directed in part against Assad. But it would not have the explicit military goal of overthrowing him, at least not in the near term. American forces could concentrate on supporting opposition units fighting ISIL. Still, this plan would probably have the effect of gradually reducing the territory that Assad governs, since it would train many more opposition fighters and would not try to prevent them from liberating areas of the country currently controlled by the central government. If Assad then delayed too long in accepting a deal for exile, he could inevitably face direct dangers to his rule and even his person. The plan would still seek his removal, but over a gradual time period that allowed for a negotiated exit—with stronger moderate opposition groups part of the negotiation than is the case today—if Assad were smart enough to avail himself of the opportunity. In the short term, however, the current tacit understanding with Assad, whereby he chooses not to challenge Western airpower in Syria when it is used against ISIL, ideally would continue.

The opposition would need to accept that a peace deal that includes post-Assad Alawite elements remained Washington’s goal—and if they wished economic and other help down the road for rebuilding a new Syrian state, they would have to tolerate some influence for the United States as well as other key outside players. This approach, while not ideal for many elements of the opposition who surely seek more systematic revenge against Assad and his cronies, could nonetheless provide a more workable basis for making common cause than is the case today, since it would in fact ultimately aim for an end to Assad’s rule. For these reasons, whether they fully endorsed it or not, America’s main regional allies in the effort—Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states—would likely welcome such an approach since it would move significantly in the direction they have advocated. Moreover, it would be more credible than previous American strategies, stated or implied, because its means would better match ends.

This strategy might soften Iran and Russia’s opposition to the broader approach as well—perhaps reducing their inclination to escalate support for Assad and also possibly even enlisting them in an eventual negotiated deal about Syria’s ultimate future and associated peace-enforcement operations. Indeed, the strategy strikes a balance in its approach to Iran and Russia. It would grant neither a major role. But it would seek to mitigate the risks of escalating rivalry with them by holding out political hope and the prospect of an autonomous region for Alawites (even those previously associated with the Assad regime, as long as they were not from Assad’s inner circle). This approach may appeal even more to Moscow and Tehran if Assad continues to suffer battlefield setbacks. Damascus and Moscow would be much more likely to support a confederal Syria to the extent they believe that the alternative has become the complete overthrow of Assad and his government, the elimination of meaningful Alawite influence in a future government or, in a best case, civil war of indefinite duration.

An ultimate settlement could include outright partition of the country if necessary. However, partition would not solve the question of how to address the mixed cities of the country’s center belt. As such, while it should not be taken off the table, it would hardly represent a panacea.

Should Assad fall, the essence of this strategy would still apply, but in a modified way. Moderate insurgents would still need strongholds from which to build up capacity to challenge ISIL (the presumed main winner in such a defeat of Assad).

Ideally, the U.S. Congress would explicitly support this strategy, but existing authorities and funds are adequate to start now. Ideally, the UN Security Council would endorse the approach, too—including the near-term idea of providing relief (without Assad’s blessing) in some safe zones, and the longer-term goal of deploying a peace-implementation force to support an eventual peace deal. But again, given the emergency situation, the security stakes and the UN’s interest in the notions of the responsibility to protect and the prevention of genocide, existing authorities are sufficient to embark on this strategy.

THE BASIC logic of this ink-spot and regional strategy is not radical. Nor is it original or unique to Syria. In effect, variants of it have guided Western powers in Bosnia, in Afghanistan in the 1980s and since 1993 in Somalia. The last case is particularly relevant. Somalia, while a site of tragedy for U.S. forces in 1993, has since shown some signs of hopefulness. The Puntland and Somaliland in the north are largely self-governing and autonomous. Similar types of zones would be the interim goal for Syria as well.

We must be honest with ourselves: the interim period, including some type of American engagement in the war effort, could last a long time. For a country weary of long wars in the Middle East, this would constitute an on-the-ground role in yet another. That said, it is worth bearing in mind that while the Afghanistan war today continues to consume American resources and cost some American casualties, it is not a major source of domestic political acrimony within the United States. Perhaps Americans are more patient with long military operations than is often argued. That is especially the case if the strategy that the operations are designed to serve is responsive to a real security threat, and if it is at least moderately successful in its implementation.

There would of course be risks associated with this strategy. The most glaring would be the possibility of American casualties—either through “green on blue” insider attacks of the type that have taken dozens of American lives in Afghanistan, or through ISIL or regime elements overrunning a safe zone in which American forces are located. This is a significant risk, to be sure, and one that would have to be carefully managed, as noted above, by careful selection of where the safe zones are to be. It would also require deployment of American quick-reaction forces in the area, in more locations than they currently are found today, to improve the odds of coming to the aid of such U.S. forces in a timely fashion if their positions are brought into danger. In these ways, the operation in Syria would resemble the beginning phases of the Afghanistan campaign in 2001 and 2002, in which modest numbers of U.S. forces worked closely with the Northern Alliance and then the fledgling Afghan government, participating in raids and occasionally suffering casualties. Casualties could also be expected in any future peace-implementation mission, as spoilers use suicide bombs and other weapons to attack outside forces.

It is worth noting that two other types of risks associated with this strategy would be no greater, and in most ways probably less, than under current policy. First, there is the matter of U.S. prestige. Some would argue that by declaring itself committed to a change in battlefield dynamics, the United States would lose more prestige if in fact that proved more difficult to achieve than anticipated. But this risk must be measured against the real blow to American credibility that has already resulted from four years of an ineffective policy. Moreover, even partial success would help liberate and improve the lots of millions of Syrians who are now living under ISIL, Assad or anarchy.

Washington is already at war with ISIL—not only as a matter of formal policy but also in the ongoing bombing campaign underway in Iraq and Syria today. ISIL has already demonstrated its lack of restraint in its dealings with the United States in the 2014 beheadings of American hostages within its reach. Its social-media outlets are already trying to encourage lone-wolf attacks against the United States and its civilian population today. ISIL is currently encouraged by a sense of sanctuary and a sense of military momentum. Making Western attacks against ISIL more effective seems just as likely to put the group on the defensive as to occasion new attacks. In acting more aggressively to stabilize Syria and defeat ISIL, the Obama administration would not be plunging America into a new conflict. Instead, it would be recognizing that it is already engaged in one.

This piece was originally published by The National Interest.

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