With an all-out fight for Syria’s northwest province of Idlib looming, if not already beginning, the potential is growing for yet another round of immense human tragedy within the country. The consequences for regional stability, and for the possible future emergence or re-emergence of various extremist groups and associated sanctuaries, could be severe. Future events may soon require an updating of our analysis and ideas, but nonetheless, we offer the following as a realistic “10-degree shift” to U.S. policy in Syria at this crucial inflection point in the war.
Current U.S. strategy toward Syria has largely, though not completely, led to the battlefield defeat of ISIS there. But to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS or a related extremist group, limit Iranian influence in Syria, and address humanitarian and refugee stresses in the region that severely affect U.S. allies such as Turkey and Jordan, the United States should engineer what we call a 10-degree shift in strategy. Chief elements would include:
- Recognizing what is increasingly obvious: that President Bashar Assad will not be displaced or replaced through the current Geneva peace process. Instead, the United States should work over time to persuade his cronies and allies to convince him to step down in favor of a successor who is largely of his choosing. Other Syrian groups and the international community should have a say in the formation of additional elements of a new Syrian government, as a precondition for the provision of substantial reconstruction aid to and through the central government.
- Threatening and, if necessary, conducting limited reprisal air strikes against Syrian aerial assets, in retaliation for any future regime barrel bombing, particularly around Idlib. Washington should adopt a similar strategy toward Iran should its proxies attempt attacks against the United States or its allies.
- Promptly providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid to those parts of Syria not under government control, with U.S. forces remaining in roughly their current number and location to supervise the process and help train provisional local security forces (more like police than opposition forces bent on Assad’s removal). The aid should be provided more locally than regionally, in part to discourage the formation of a single, strong Kurdish zone that would exacerbate Turkish fears of secessionism.
- Working with Turkey to weaken extremist elements in and around Idlib, including with limited military action if need be, and continuing U.S. military action against residual pockets of ISIS elements in the country’s east until the battlefield defeat of ISIS is complete.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.