Looking for Mr. Good War

Face It, Obama. Without Assad, You’ve Got No Strategy in Syria

If the administration does not come up with a clear plan to defeat the jihadis and end the Syrian war, Congress should not sign on to it.


In his State of the Union speech, President Obama pressed Congress to grant him war powers to combat the Islamic terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Congress should not oblige him—until he presents a convincing strategy for winning that battle. As yet, his belated offerings on this front are not plausible. He’s just recently taken some small steps to come to grips with the heart of a new strategy, finding ways to cooperate with the dreaded Syrian President Bashar Assad, but these tentative hints and musings don’t go nearly far enough.

There is a story behind Obama’s tentativeness and confusion in developing a winning strategy. There is a battle underway inside his administration.

State Department professionals continue to argue furiously that the president must maintain the original approach, that is, to back moderate Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime. They persist in this line despite the lack of any convincing evidence that these rebels, however noble their cause, represent a plausible instrument for overthrowing Assad, much less defeating the jihadis.

Not only are these State Department officials blinded by their passion for the good guys (and we’d all like the good Sunni rebels to win), but they also protest fiercely that any move away from the rebels toward Assad would totally alienate key American allies in the region such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Thus the professionals want to stay the current implausible course.

As for their leader, Secretary of State John Kerry, he’s all over the lot on this one. Sometimes, he’s doggedly anti-Assad and pro-rebel. Other days, he’s pulling the door open slightly to an Assad arrangement against the jihadis.

Civilian and military Pentagon officials are pushing hard for a better strategy and for more authority and wherewithal to enhance their fighting capabilities against the Islamic State. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recent secret memo to the White House was an attempt to clarify an incoherent strategy. Meantime, the Joint Chiefs want to further increase the 2,000-plus boots on the ground in Iraq and expand authority for air attacks in Iraq, and in Syria as well.

Most importantly, Obama’s core of highest level humanitarian interventionists continue to lead the way against any efforts to align with bad guys like Assad and Iran to fight the jihadis. They’re still fixated on Assad’s clearly proven massacres of his own people. He has indeed done terrible things. But these advisers simply don’t get the plain fact that the jihadis are quickly overtaking Assad in atrocities and will go frighteningly further in the end. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power remain the key knights for this crusade.

What’s truly fascinating in this picture is that the main official flirting with the idea of a working arrangement with Assad is President Obama himself. Administration officials explain his reasoning, privately, as follows:

First and foremost, he’s unalterably against the U.S. getting immersed in any sort of new ground war in the Middle East.

Second, he is much more skeptical than his subordinates about the Sunni rebels getting stronger in any near-term sense, and about America’s current allies contributing significant ground troops to the joint effort.

Third, he realizes that the Islamic State cannot be checked or in the end defeated without strong ground troops.

Fourth, as much as he despises Assad, he understands more than his colleagues do that the jihadis are a far greater threat to American national security and to our allies than Assad ever was or will be.

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Fifth and finally, all of this is causing Obama to inch toward some sort of de facto and informal battlefield cooperation with Assad’s forces.

Various forms of tacit and indirect cooperation are all already underway, such as U.S. aircraft not striking Assad’s forces or interfering with Iranian airstrikes (and vice versa) in both Syria and Iraq.

The overwhelming problem is that Obama’s baby steps in the right direction don’t go nearly far enough. He just can’t seem to bring himself to make big and bold strategic choices. He hasn’t figured out how to overcome key and significant issues in a realistic strategy.

For example, the president needs to have his staff develop an approach to political accommodation between our rebels and Assad. The essence of this would be a promise from Assad to focus his forces solely on fighting jihad and one from the rebels to focus their energies on desperately needed humanitarian relief. And to fashion and guarantee such political accommodation, the U.S. needs to work with Assad’s closest allies, Russia and Iran, which are even more fearful of the jihadis than is the United States. These intricate maneuvers won’t be easy, but they are manageable given the common interests of all these parties in battling the jihadis.

Then comes the even knottier problem of bringing the Turks, the Saudis, and others on board. They insist, or rather they act as if, Assad and the Iranians are a bigger threat than the Islamic State. Maybe they still believe this or maybe they are waking up to new realities. In any event, the reality that Washington should wake up to is that our Saudi, Gulf, and Turkish allies have done us more harm to us in dealing with the threat of terrorism than any other countries. Until quite recently, they have been the main providers of arms and money to these Islamic terrorists.

They did more than anyone else to create the tremendous problem that now faces us all. Obama has to say this to their face and tell them that they need to make a major effort to fix it. Specifically that will mean their acceding to a strategy that includes Assad and Iran as the key players in countering the jihadis.

The U.S. confronts major challenges around the world from cyberwarfare, to Russia and China, from global warming to trade pacts. None of these is more dangerous in the next years than the threat of terrorists establishing a viable state in the heart of the Middle East. It will be a hub for worldwide terrorist attacks, as we saw in Paris. It could even get hold of nuclear weapons.

Key American officials and the new powers that be in Congress understand this threat. But they strongly resist the obvious strategic conclusion. The U.S. must have effective working arrangements with Syria and Iran to check and defeat the Islamic State. There is no other way.

Key elements of this approach have to be put together with other countries, and the mutual interests are there to make this doable. As in all foreign and national-security matters, however, it is up to the president of the United States to make the very tough decisions and to lead the way. By precedent, if not law, the president does not require congressional authority to continue fighting this war, but he has asked for it to demonstrate national resolve to friend and foe. First, however, he must demonstrate to Congress, the American people and the world that he knows what he is doing and has a strategy to win with the means provided by Congress. Until he does, they must continue to hold his feet to the fire and take the heretical step of playing a useful role.