Non-Nuclear Option

09.24.15 7:33 PM ET

A Strategy to Push Back Iran in Syria

The Iran nuclear deal is a good one as far as it goes. But Washington has to show it will stand up against Tehran’s regional designs. The place to do that is Syria.

News from the Middle East has been dominated by two separate sets of issues in recent months. First, there is Iran and the contentious debate over the nuclear agreement with Tehran, known more formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The other has been Syria, with its refugees overflowing into Europe, a new Russian military buildup, and Washington’s admission that its initial, half-hearted effort to build up a moderate opposition had failed. 

In actuality, these narratives are much more closely intertwined than the coverage would have you believe, because how the United States handles Syria could have a profound effect on the long-term implications of the Iranian nuclear agreement.

We need to begin by saying that we both support the JCPOA. As with the product of any difficult negotiation, the deal is far from perfect. The limited duration of some of the most important constraints on Iranian nuclear development leaves us uneasy. Nevertheless, our dispassionate analysis is that the Obama administration is ultimately correct that although the JCPOA is not an ideal document, it is better than any of its plausible alternatives. 

In either case, the debate over this question is now moot. The U.S. Congress did not reject the agreement, and so it is now set to be implemented in the months ahead. Whether one supported or opposed the JCPOA, at this point all Americans have an interest in ensuring that it is rigorously and successfully implemented to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.

Our greatest concern with the Iranian nuclear deal is an issue that is only just starting to get the attention in the public debate that it deserves: its potential impact on the Middle East itself. In truth, no one—including the Israelis and the Saudis—feared that the Iranians would start lobbing nukes at them as soon as they got them. Instead, everyone’s (legitimate) fear was that an Iranian nuclear arsenal would enable and encourage greater Iranian efforts to destabilize the region by subversion or even outright aggression. The deal itself will take that particular worry off the table for 10-15 years if not longer, but does not mitigate the pre-existing problem of Iranian efforts to overturn the regional status quo by force, terrorism, insurgency, and other unsavory methods. 

In fact, that’s what all of America’s allies are most afraid of. That, coupled with the fear that the United States will use the nuclear deal to further disengage from the region. Understandably, they fret over a post-nuclear-deal future in which the United States is making even less of an effort to play its traditional role as regional stabilizer, and its very absence further incites Iran to greater aggressiveness.

The Obama administration insists that it does not plan to disengage from the Middle East after the Iranian nuclear deal, but America’s Middle Eastern allies remain unconvinced. Across the board in private, Gulf officials damn the administration for its disdain for the Middle East and particularly its weak response to Iran. Some of these criticisms are overblown and blame the Obama administration for regional developments outside of its control or inflate the threat posed by Iran. But the reality is that in the absence of American engagement, leadership, and military involvement in the region, the GCC states (led by the Saudis) get frightened, and their tendency when frightened is to lash out. 

The GCC military campaign in Yemen is a perfect example of this. It represents a dramatic departure from past practice: the Gulf States had never intervened directly with their own armed forces against another country, except as part of a massive American-led force, as in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. It drives home the point that in the absence of a strong American role in pushing back on Iran, the GCC’s default mode is to attack on their own—and that only makes the situation worse. The Gulf states are not strong enough to take on Iran alone, and if they act provocatively toward it, even if intended to deter Iranian aggression, they could easily provoke just such aggression and/or over-stretch their own limited capabilities with potentially dire consequences. If the United States is not there to reassure the Gulf states and deter Iran, things could get even uglier.

There may only be one way that the United States is going to reassure the Gulf States that it is not going to leave the field open to the Iranians. Not coincidentally, it may be the only way to demonstrate to the Iranians that the United States is neither abandoning the region nor too fearful of jeopardizing the nuclear agreement to block Iran’s continued aggressive activities around the Middle East. And that is for the United States to pick a place and take the Iranians on there.

Here there are three possibilities, but ultimately only one conclusion:

Yemen is the wrong place for the United States to confront Iran. Yemen is simply not consequential enough to justify making any American investment there; in fact, Washington should be doing everything it can to help the Saudis and the GCC end their own intervention in Yemen, not reinforce it.

Iraq is also the wrong choice. The Iranians are too strong in Iraq now and Iraq is too important to Iran. Both we and the Iranians need the Iraqis to sort out their problems, and Iraq will probably need both of our help to do so. Thus, Iraq is also the wrong place at the wrong time.

That leaves Syria.  If the United States is going to push back on Iran in the aftermath of the nuclear deal to demonstrate to both Tehran and our regional allies that we are not abandoning the field and allowing (or enabling) the Iranians to make greater gains, Syria is the place to do it. Syria is a genuinely contested battlefield with high stakes for both Iran and the GCC states and one where increased American action could tip the scales in the midst of a prolonged stalemate. This is not the place to describe in detail how the United States might mount such an effort, but we can sketch out some of the broad contours, to highlight what should and could change.

First and foremost the Obama administration needs to abandon its self-defeating focus on Daesh (the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL) as the only target of its strategy and adopt a comprehensive approach that deals with the Syrian civil war as a whole. The administration’s single-minded approach fails to recognize that Daesh is nothing but a symptom of the wider malady of the Syrian civil war. Even if the U.S. could somehow vaporize Daesh, if the civil war continues to rage, new extremist organizations will simply emerge to replace it. This is exactly what happened with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Daesh’s predecessor was virtually extirpated in Iraq by 2011 until the civil war in neighboring Syria provided it with a new refuge and lifeline. Resolve the civil war, however, and the source of Daesh’s strength and appeal disappears.

Ending the Syrian civil war will mean creating a Syrian opposition army capable of effectively threatening all of the other warring factions, including those backed by Iran as well as Sunni extremists, and forcing them to come to the bargaining table to work out their differences politically, rather than simply pursuing a military strategy. This was ultimately how NATO engineered the Dayton Accords, helping to build a Croat Army (backed by NATO airpower) able to defeat the Serbs on the battlefield, thereby forcing Milosevic and Karadzic to sit down with Richard Holbrooke or else have the Croats overrun the rest of Serbian Bosnia. 

Until the same happens in Syria, no negotiated agreement will be worth the paper it is written on. Since the Sunni states of the Middle East (with limited American and European covert aid) have clearly failed to create such a force, only a much greater effort by the United States—assisted by its regional and European allies—could do so. 

Of necessity, that will mean devoting far more effort toward building a new opposition military capable of dominating the battlefields of Syria. It will also mean using American leverage and its investment in this new force to get our regional partners on board and asking them to shift away from supporting extremist groups inside Syria. Meanwhile, the United States should continue to provide support to other existing groups inside Syria who have already proven effective, including the Southern Front and the Kurds, with the intention of eventually integrating them into a wider coalition force built around the new opposition army. 

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Such an approach would also significantly ease recruiting challenges, as few Syrians have been interested in joining a force unwilling to take on Assad. That is the primary reason that the initial U.S. train and equip program produced only a few dozen fighters despite thousands of would-be volunteers. However, it also means taking on slightly greater risk, because it would mean scrapping the cumbersome vetting standards the administration has so far employed. These have successfully kept out anyone who might prove to be a terrorist agent, but they have also excluded the vast bulk of Syrian opposition fighters, virtually all of whom want to fight the Assad regime as well as Daesh, leaving a minuscule force that numbers in the dozens rather than the needed thousands.  

The approach thus far has focused on actively proving that each and every individual to be trained and armed by the United States is not an extremist, instead of using the training itself to identify the extremists and cull them out as the U.S. did successfully in Iraq in 2007-2009.  

This bass-ackwards burden of proof has dramatically slowed the process. The reality is that unless we were to abandon the train-and-equip program altogether, some American arms are going to end up with bad guys no matter how cautious we are. But this is a commonplace in all civil wars, and it has never proven decisive or even terribly meaningful, even if the stories are always embarrassing to the provider.

The plan outlined by the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, in September 2014 remains a reasonable approach to building a new, professional, conventional Syrian opposition army, one that—with American advisers, weapons, intelligence support, and massive airpower—would have a good probability of defeating the regime’s Iranian-supported forces as well as those of Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra, to make clear to all of them that victory was not possible and convince all of Syria’s warring communities to opt for a power-sharing agreement instead. 

In another critical departure from the current, failed train-and-equip mission, the right way to muster a new Syrian opposition army would be to build it in Turkey or, better still, Jordan, and to keep it there until it is ready for the Syrian melee. The 5,400 fighters per year originally envisioned by the administration seems entirely appropriate, as it would enable such a force to take on Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Assad regime and any other challengers. But it is critical to hold it back until it is properly armed, trained and sized to ensure that it has every chance of success to create psychological momentum in its favor. (In addition, a force of this size will be able to occupy territory sufficient to enable the UN and NGOs to set up humanitarian relief and governance mechanisms to succor the populace in the liberated space and encourage other Syrians to join the cause.)

If the United States and its regional and Western allies are willing to properly build and support such a force, there is good reason to believe that it will be able to do in Syria what the rebuilt Croat army did in Bosnia: threaten all of its rivals with catastrophic defeat, thereby making them amenable to the compromises of the Dayton Accord. In Syria, we should seek a similar end state, with a power-sharing arrangement that decentralizes authority and resources to the constituent communities; provides for the creation of a small, professional military representing the entire polity; and establishes equal treatment and protections for all Syrians. 

It is important to note that while Bashar al-Assad should, could and likely would go in this scenario, the Alawi community that he leads must get a seat at the table as well as political and economic influence equal to its demographic weight. That is also the best way to assure that Iran (and Russia) would ultimately acquiesce, just as Russia ultimately acquiesced to the Dayton Accords (as well as Serbia’s defeat in the 1999 Kosovo war). Indeed, at various points, whenever it has seemed that the United States would adopt this approach, the Iranians have been quick to signal that they were glad to jettison Assad in return for the Alawis getting their fair share in any future political settlement.

The new Russian military buildup obviously adds yet another complicating factor, but there is no reason it needs to be a deal-breaker. The United States has conducted military campaigns in Bosnia, Kosovo, Korea, and Vietnam while Russian “advisors” and “volunteers” were present on the other side and it never led to a superpower war. In Syria, it is hard to imagine Putin wanting to tangle with the United States if Washington makes clear that it is serious about victory, again, as was the case in both Bosnia and Kosovo. 

Moreover, as with the Iranians, there is good reason to believe that the Russians won’t fight if the United States makes clear that its goal is not to sacrifice the Alawis to Sunni extremists, but to protect them by engineering a new power-sharing agreement among all of Syria’s warring factions with appropriate guarantees for the safety of Syria’s minorities. Ultimately, if the United States is determined to prevail in Syria, there is little that Russia can do to stop it, and such a negotiated settlement would be the best Moscow could hope for.

In the end, a serious American effort to tip the scales in Syria and bring the civil war to an end would send a powerful signal both to our Arab allies and to Iran. It may also set the table for a new regional order where, in the aftermath of a negotiated agreement on Syria as well as the nuclear issue, there is a precedent set for greater engagement and diplomacy between the United States, Iran, and the Arab States to solve the region’s problems.  But it is yet another of the paradoxes of the Middle East that before those more positive scenarios can come to pass in the aftermath of the Iranian nuclear deal, finally executing the Obama administration’s proclaimed strategy for Syria and increasing American involvement may be the best and only way to regain control over the dangerous confrontation escalating between Iran and America’s Arab allies.  

All of which brings us back to the news from Syria. Debating whether to take 10,000 or 100,000 refugees does not address the reality that there are 4 million Syrian refugees already, and millions more to follow if the war keeps raging. The only way to truly end that crisis is to end the Syrian civil war. The history of the past 20 years has repeatedly demonstrated that that is possible, but only if the U.S. is willing to lead a coalition to do so, and that will require a much more serious effort than what we have tried so far. Our strategic interests and our humanitarian impulses are finally beginning to mesh, and they all point toward taking such a greater role in Syria.

What was it that Churchill once said?  “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all of the alternatives.” We’ve exhausted all of the alternatives. It’s time now to do the right thing in Syria.