What To Do In Syria

After carefully surveying all of the American options in Syria, Hussein Ibish makes the case for a robust, but arm's-length, U.S. intervention.

Narciso Contreras/Polaris

As many of us have long been saying they eventually inevitably would, the United States and several of its allies, after a recent meeting in the Gulf, announced a major initiative to increase material support, including weapons, to rebel forces in Syria. This decision came in the wake of a major shift in the balance of power on the ground in favor of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in large part due to an influx of massive support from Hezbollah, Iran and, to a lesser but vital extent, Russia. This constitutes something of a repetition of the scenario that unfolded in Libya. The United States has decided to act now, in a limited way, less to achieve something specific and identifiable, and more to avoid something unacceptable (in both cases, the outright victory of the existing regimes).

Both the long-term goals and specific content of U.S. policy in Syria are therefore somewhat mysterious. According to the administration it continues to seek a negotiated agreement between the government and the opposition to end the conflict at the soonest possible date. Unfortunately, as things stand, this goal is unachievable given the lack of incentives on any side currently fighting on the ground in Syria to enter into a negotiated agreement. In particular, the regime believes that it has turned a corner and is winning the war. It is convinced that its strengths are multiplying while the opposition's weaknesses are growing more pronounced.

The dramatic reversal of fortunes on the ground in Syria is inextricably linked to the fact that for the regime and its immediate supporters (Hezbollah and Iran in particular) the war is viewed as an existential, life or death struggle, whereas for the external opponents of the regime (the U.S., Europe, Turkey, the Gulf states, and most of the Arab world), it is not. This view may be shifting somewhat, particularly in Saudi Arabia, which appears to be ready to act with a new urgency; but not, apparently, in Washington.

Current thinking on Syria in Washington

In the past, I've argued for increased American involvement, and even advocated that the new policy be accompanied by a certain degree of "mission creep." It's incumbent on me, and other supporters of more robust engagement, to explain exactly what we want the United States to do, why and, in so far as possible, how. For that, it is essential to situate this perspective within the broader spectrum of American policy analysis on Syria. Because of its inherently opaque nature and apparently unachievable stated goals, current U.S. policy is interpreted in very different ways by commentators with divergent analytical frameworks and points of view. There appear to be six basic positions. I will identify each with one of their more vocal proponents.

1) The United States is now doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons; it shouldn't be involved in Syria at all, or as little as possible (Marc Lynch).

2) There are no good policy options in Syria and involvement is folly, but also unavoidable for both political and humanitarian reasons (Aaron David Miller).

3) The United States wants a rebel victory, but very slowly, so as to avoid state disintegration and preserve as much of the national institutions as can be salvaged (David Ignatius).

4) The United States actually does seek an agreement in the long run, but not the one that is usually imagined. The Obama administration mainly sees the Syrian war as a subset of the Iran question. The confrontation with Iran over nuclear weapons and other ongoing disputes is the only conflict the administration is fully comfortable pursuing, and therefore it's seeking to change the balance of power on the ground in Syria for yet-to-be-fully-clarified goals that will be more dependent on the way U.S.-Iran policy proceeds than any Syria-specific aims (this author).

5) The United States is engaging in a crude, unspoken, brutally realpolitik policy that sees Syria as merely a proxy battlefield to weaken Iran, and drain Hezbollah or even create its own Vietnam (Daniel Drezner; although he states he does not approve of this policy, he believes it is obviously the actual one in place).

6) The Syrian civil war has become nothing more than a sectarian conflict between two enemies: the Shiite Jihadists of Hezbollah and the Sunni Jihadists of Al Qaeda. Therefore the United States should constantly fund the losing side, and keep the war going as long as possible (Daniel Pipes, who advocates arming the Assad regime).

What can be drawn from these analyses?

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The immoral and unscrupulous last two options (the first of which is denounced even by its identifier, and the second promoted mainly, at least in public, by a noteworthy crank), are readily dismissible. Deliberately promoting the worst possible violence in Syria cannot possibly have a happy ending for the United States if we seek a stable, manageable regional order in the Middle East. The first key question in any policy conversation regarding Syria is this: how much does the United States really care about the strategic regional landscape in the Middle East in the coming decades? This is crucial because the outcome of the war in Syria will do more to affect that landscape than any other dynamic currently at play. For example, the loss of Syria as a key strategic ally for Iran and Hezbollah would almost certainly crush the prospects for the emergence of a long-term, stable Iranian-led alliance that challenges the regional status quo into the foreseeable future, and seeks to extend its influence into ever new areas. This is only the most dramatic of the profound strategic implications the outcome of the conflict in Syria will have for the Middle Eastern strategic order. It's extremely difficult to overstate what is at stake. The question is how much do we really care?

The first option, do nothing, or as little as possible, has been tried for the past two years and everything the United States said it wished to avoid—an intensification of the conflict, a refugee and humanitarian crisis, increasing sectarian hatred, atrocities on both sides, a spread of the war into bordering countries, and the rise of extremist Al Qaeda style groups among the rebels—have all been not only not prevented by relative American inaction. They have been promoted by it. The pre-existing policy of telling everyone who was fighting on the ground to stop what they were doing was a non-policy of the first order. It simply wasn't going to work.

Taking a hands-off approach for fear of making things worse simply allowed others to define the conflict, its nature, main participants and probable outcomes. Indeed, the neglect for both patriotic Syrian and less extreme Islamist groups is precisely what has allowed Al Qaeda-style rebels to become disproportionately prominent, even though their numbers are small. The key has been a constant stream of funding to such groups by wealthy extremists in the Gulf, funneled largely through Kuwait with its strong privacy laws and traditions, while more moderate groups have been relatively ignored. This has left the United States with very little influence over rebel groups in general, and almost no ability to influence the nature or the outcome of the conflict. And it has created an even more complex situation than existed a year and half ago or so, where the United States faces two grave enemies in Syria: the Damascus regime and the Salafist-Jihadist ultra-extremist rebels. Meanwhile, regime supporters, particularly Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, stop at nothing in all out support. They are playing to win.

The three potentially acceptable Syria outcomes for the U.S.

Assuming the answer to the question of how much we care about the future of the Middle Eastern strategic landscape is the traditional one—a very great deal indeed—there are three potential policy outcomes the United States could plausibly find acceptable in Syria.

1) The outright defeat of the regime and the victory of an acceptable coalition of rebel forces (understanding this would mean an intensification of the "war within the war" between acceptable and unacceptable insurgent groups).

2) A negotiated agreement between an acceptable coalition of rebel forces and remnants of the current power structure without the leading figures of the present regime (because no negotiation between Assad himself and the rebels is possible, either now or, almost certainly, at any future date).

3) A non-negotiated de facto end to the conflict involving the effective fragmentation of Syria into zones of autonomy loosely held together, at best, by a weak central government. Such state fragmentation could result in at least quasi-autonomous Alawite, Kurdish and possibly Druze areas—with greater or lesser degrees of practical independence and mini-statehood—and a currently unpredictable arrangement between Sunnis and Christians in the rest of the country or in different parts of it. This would be, in effect, a Lebanon scenario. There is precedent for the United States accepting such a de facto solution, even when it involves violence and "cleansing." The West accepted the rapid and massive ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia in 1995 because it viewed the atrocity as a decisive and final resolution to the Serbian-Croatian conflict. In effect, such an outcome can often answer the age-old question, "tell me how this ends," even if the answer is an ugly one.

This third option is the least palatable for several reasons. First, it means the probably irreversible fragmentation of the modern Syrian state. Second, it would almost certainly involve a great deal of violence, and even population "cleansing," to achieve the kind of stalemate and equilibrium required for such a de facto arrangement, agreed to by no one but accepted grudgingly by all, to emerge. Third, it involves acquiescing to far more of a minimalist "victory" for the regime supporters, both internal and external, then ought to be otherwise tolerable. Fourth, the long-term stability of such a de facto end of conflict based on stalemate is highly questionable. The extent to which the Sunni majority and other Syrians, and most of the rest of the Arab world, might be inclined to accept this over the long run is uncertain to say the least.

However, such a scenario might be acceptable from an American point of view because it could end the carnage, stabilize the situation at least for the time being, and impose a degree of at least temporary order in which a more thought-out long-term policy for Syria can be developed. It also may be the only actually achievable way of ending the conflict in the medium run, because a clear victory for either side may prove unattainable for years to come. The pendulum has recently swung in the direction of the regime in large part thanks to external intervention, but with a new wave of external intervention on behalf of rebel forces, the war is likely to drag on for a considerable period. If a clear victory for either side is unattainable, and a negotiated agreement unachievable, a de facto order based on a stalemate on the ground that achieves the minimum existential interests of all the different Syrian and, to some extent, external players might emerge whether or not anyone wants it. Given the present administration attitude, such an outcome might be considered distasteful but (one hopes barely) acceptable to the United States.

All three outcomes require playing to win

However, the most important policy and strategic point is that the emergence of any of these three scenarios all require, at least at this stage, the same fundamental U.S. policy shift: playing to win. As long as the Assad regime and its external supporters regard the situation as existential and winnable, they will not negotiate or be defeated. They must either be defeated, or become fully and decisively convinced that defeat is at least plausible if not imminent, for either a negotiated or a de facto settlement to emerge. Halfhearted efforts, partial support and limited means just to ensure that the regime does not triumph completely will not achieve such outcomes. To realize any of them, the United States must begin to adopt a similar policy towards certain of the rebels that the supporters of the regime do: real commitment to their victory. Otherwise, they will have little or no faith in the United States. We will have little or no influence over them. And the regime will never believe that it has to negotiate or accept a de facto outcome as described above, or anything else short of total victory or unending war (which are both unacceptable outcomes for the United States for obvious reasons).

Changing the equation on the ground requires the following policy initiatives:

1) Identify and empower the most acceptable rebel forces

It is exceptionally unconvincing that this is impossible or perennially elusive. Clearly the Supreme Military Command of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as led by General Salim Idriss, constitute precisely such plausible allies. The United States now faces two dangerous enemies in Syria: the regime and the Salafist-Jihadists led by Jabhat al-Nusra. This leaves the myriad collection of other Salafist groups operating under the general rubric of the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) as an important hinge or wedge between the FSA and al-Nusra. The SIF, as it is presently constituted, is an unacceptable grouping in so far as it insists on an "Islamic" Syria under the rule of "sharia law" (whatever, in practice, anyone might think that means).

But there is every reason to think that many of the groups in the SIF, and certainly many of the fighters that have gravitated to those groups, are winnable to the Syrian nationalistic cause. Pluralism runs deep in Syrian national culture. Traditions of tolerance are far more ingrained in that country than in much of the rest of the Arab world. The fact that so many rebels have drifted towards a Salafist line or grouping can be attributed to a number of factors, including foreign funding, the relative disorganization of the nationalistic military and political opposition, and the fact that "Islam" serves as a non-Ba'athist organizing principle. Many of these groups, and especially their fighters, do not have a clear ideology, in contrast to al-Nusra. What they know for sure is they want to get rid of the dictatorship. And they know that Islam and local imams have a certain traditional authority and are capable of adjudicating matters of dispute in the absence of any other governing system. Hence the proliferation of sharia "courts" in areas where the government's writ does not run, but are in the hands of SIF groups rather than al-Nusra.

Many of these groups and their fighters may stick with Salafism, but many may be interested in real alternatives if they are presented with them as practical, functional alternatives. And there is an insurmountable barrier between all of the SIF groups and al-Nusra. The Syrian Salafists are, at heart, nationalists, whereas al-Nusra adheres to the Al Qaeda ideology that denies the legitimacy and seek the abolition of all Arab and Muslim states and wishes to replace them with a transnational "caliphate" of some kind. In the final analysis, most of the organizations, and certainly most of the armed young men, fighting under the banner of the SIF forces have more in common, at least in terms of their paramount Syrian national identity, with the FSA then they do with al-Nusra, whose core ideology evinces no particular fealty to Syria at all. Therefore not only does the wholehearted and enthusiastic cultivation and the promotion of the FSA make eminent sense from an American point of view, there is also the real possibility of winning over significant chunks of what are presently "unacceptable" SIF forces to the FSA side, as and when it becomes more empowered, coherent, effective and coordinated.

2) Assist acceptable rebels with both light and heavy arms

One of the most important battlefield advantages of the regime forces is the ability to use its heavy weaponry against lightly armed insurgents and, frequently, civilian targets. Changing the balance of power on the ground requires supplying rebels not only with light arms but with serious and effective anti-tank and anti-aircraft capabilities. Yes, I'm referring here, among other things, to the dreaded man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), which are shoulder-launched surface-to-air antiaircraft missiles. Of course these could pose a real threat to civilian aviation if they fall into the wrong hands. But they are necessary if any of the three acceptable outcomes are to be achieved. There is ample evidence that such weapons have, in fact, already been delivered to certain rebel groups. It is strongly in the American interest that acceptable, vetted rebel forces have the ability to confront and neutralize the regime's ample supplies of heavy weaponry.

3) Additional crucial assistance to rebel forces

Acceptable and vetted rebel groups also require significant support in terms of general funding, command and control capabilities, logistics, and intelligence. The project must be to turn Gen. Idriss and his colleagues into real battlefield and integrated military commanders rather than figureheads or political spokespeople for an umbrella of loosely-coordinated, disparate local armed entities. This will not only help turn the tide of the conflict away from the regime and its foreign supporters, it will be crucial in drawing SIF groups and/or fighters away from their current unacceptable and unworkable commitment to "an Islamic Syria under sharia law," and towards a political position that is closer to that of the FSA, more workable, and more consistent with traditional Syrian culture and social structures.

4) Neutralize the Syrian Air Force, in whole or in part

As long as the regime retains significant and unchallenged airpower, it will be impossible for the rebels to secure a sustained victory not only throughout the country, but in any given area in which the regime decides to make a concerted push to crush opposition or at least render the entire area a demolished battleground. There has been increasing discussion of limited no-fly zones in the north or, especially, the south of the country (beginning with small, 25-mile radius areas), and heavy disputes about the viability and military and financial costs of such an operation. All military experts concur that Syria has significant air defense systems, which Libya did not. Therefore there would be a risk to any such operation, particularly if it were directly challenged militarily. How great a risk there is, however, is heavily disputed, including among experts.

There are reasons, though, to believe that Syrian airpower and air defenses are overrated. Some may be old and in disrepair. The quality and commitment of the personnel manning these defenses has not been tested. Though they had the advantage of the element of surprise, Israeli airstrikes on Syrian targets proved impervious to such defenses. And the performance of the Syrian Air Force, which has often ended up bombing its own resources as well as those of the opposition, not to mention civilians, has been less than stellar to say the least. Nonetheless, it is to be stipulated that the establishment of any no-fly zone, however small, in Syria, does carry risks that the aerial intervention in Libya did not.

The United States and its allies, however, have confronted more serious air defenses in the past and sustained acceptable losses to achieve a necessary result. Again, we return to the fundamental question: how much do we care about the strategic landscape of the Middle East in the coming decades? If we can live with a hyper-empowered Iran, possibly nuclear-armed, with a crescent of clients and proxies stretching from southern Lebanon into Afghanistan and beginning to expand its influence, potentially even in parts of the Gulf, then such risks may not be worth taking. If, however, this is an unacceptable scenario from an American point of view, an arm's-length engagement—not terribly dissimilar in its substance from the one in Libya, although with greater risks—is probably advisable if not unavoidable. At any rate, as long as the regime and its allies command the airspace throughout Syria largely unchallenged, and can enforce their will in any given limited area if they choose to focus their resources on it, they will continue to feel that the war is winnable or at least that decisive loss is not foreseeable. Under such circumstances, the current power structure, or elements within it, will neither negotiate seriously nor accept a de facto end of conflict.

The logical conclusion, which may or may not be avoidable, is an all-out effort to ground and/or disable the Syrian Air Force throughout the country. Hopefully this will not be necessary, but it may prove essential. If the other measures to curtail the extreme advantage that command of the skies has presently given the regime and its allies fail, including antiaircraft weaponry for rebels and the establishment of limited, small no-fly zones, then to achieve any of the three acceptable American aims may well require an all-out campaign, although from the air only, to destroy much or most of the Syrian Air Force and air defenses. This would undoubtedly prove a turning point in the conflict, and should be seriously considered, particularly once an effective and acceptable rebel coalition begins to dominate the insurgency, and can ensure that the influence of Al Qaeda-inspired extremists is either limited or eliminated.

5) Address the issue of chemical weapons

One of the most legitimate reasons for trepidation regarding a more robust engagement in the Syrian conflict is the possession by the regime of one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the Middle East. There are several dangers associated with such weapons. First, that the regime might use them against rebels or civilians in a last-ditch act of desperation. This is the kind of dreadful scenario that makes the otherwise unpalatable third option of a de facto, non-negotiated state fragmentation potentially defensible. Second, that the weapons might be used against American allies or interests outside of Syria. This seems extremely unlikely, as Israel, in particular, has made it clear that it will act to prevent the transfer of any such weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Beyond this, there are few logical scenarios that explain how such weapons would be used outside of Syria and by whom. Third, except, of course, if such weapons should fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-inspired groups like al-Nusra, which seems a very remote possibility indeed.

In fact, there appears to be a heavy concentration of Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces around the chemical weapons stockpiles. There is reason to believe that Iran and Russia understand the particular significance of a major use of chemical weapons in the Syrian war and its ramifications. The regime itself has clearly dipped into its stockpile in very limited ways on numerous occasions, undoubtedly in order to test the international reaction. The international community has failed that test miserably by taking no action at all. But the particular Iranian interest in Syria's chemical weapons suggests, yet again, that the most fundamental elements of the conflict in Syria from both an Iranian and American point of view have to do with their own bilateral relations.

It's impossible for any analyst without access to highly classified intelligence, and with no experience in special forces or other similar military operations, to comment seriously on the plausibility of any limited military interventions designed to seize and secure these stockpiles. Even if they are possible, such actions would surely be even more risky than a confrontation with Syria's Air Force and air defenses. Yet it is one of the contingencies that needs to be strongly considered, if it is plausible at all. But it is quite irrational to allow the presence of such weapons to inform an American policy which boils down to relative apathy about the outcome of the conflict in Syria. Even if Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles are, as I suspect, the closest thing on the ground to a bilateral Iranian-American issue, that's no reason to view the Syrian war and its outcome entirely through the lens of this relationship. The strategic implications are far broader, although of course the future role of Iran is Exhibit A in why Syria really does matter to the United States. But it's only the tip of a very large iceberg of concerns.

The limits of "mission creep"

Having bitten the bullet recently and openly called for "some good, old-fashioned American 'mission creep'" in Syria, because I find the current policy insufficient for the reasons explained above, it's also incumbent on me to be clear about the limitations I would set for such a policy.

1) Nothing should be done that invokes the accurate "Pottery Barn" rule for interventions made famous by Secretary of State Colin Powell in the run-up to the Iraq war: "you break it, you own it." Under no circumstances should the United States become directly responsible for Syria or its future. The model for a more robust engagement, or, if you prefer, intervention, in Syria should be the one pursued in Libya: arm's-length, limited in scope and scale, and designed to prevent certain outcomes and promote but not absolutely ensure other ones. Outcomes cannot be ensured at arm's length or from the air. Wars are never won except on the ground: they are inevitably decided by seizing and holding territory or, in the case of insurgencies or guerilla campaigns, by making the cost of continuing for the other side (assuming they have the option to quit) too costly. These limitations do not contradict my earlier prescription that the United States must be absolutely committed to the defeat of the regime in order to achieve any of the three potential goals outlined. Russia, after all, is not going to be invading Syria either. It simply means doing everything we can, at every level, to exert maximum pressure on the regime to either fall, capitulate or come to agreed or de facto terms. This can be done without an invasion that absolutely nobody at all advocates or requests.

But in truth even if the United States took the steps outlined above, it would not dictate the outcome of the conflict in Syria, only influence it. It would not be responsible for Syria or its future, just as we have not been responsible, practically or morally, for Libya and what has happened there, good and bad, since the fall of Moammar Qaddafi. Nobody wants American boots on the ground, except perhaps in very small numbers and under very limited and brief circumstances, and it's vital that this doesn't materialize. This will not and cannot be a rerun of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. There will be no American "Governor General" of Syria, in the manner of Paul Bremer's disastrous role in Iraq. I have explained elsewhere exactly why, and how, Syria is not Iraq, this engagement will not be like the Iraq war, and the strategic and political circumstances are radically different.

2) As best as possible, we must make aid conditional on respect for the laws of war and fundamental humanitarian practices. The United States cannot be associated with, responsible for or directly attached to atrocities, ethnic cleansing, massacres or anything of the kind. Moreover, any groups receiving assistance from the United States or its allies must break with Al Qaeda-inspired extremists and, indeed, confront them. Aid will have to be given on a trial-and-error basis. There is no way around that highly uncomfortable reality. There never is. But clear red lines, as outlined above and more, can and should be made absolutely understood to any rebel or insurgent group receiving American aid or funding.

3) The whole point of a more robust engagement is to promote the best possible outcome. I listed the acceptable outcomes as three, in order of desirability. None can be achieved without an all-out push for a rebel victory. But a rebel victory will only be desirable if the rebels in question meet minimal standards of respect for human rights, pluralism, rule of law and other basic international standards. Otherwise, the second or even the third (highly unpalatable) outcome might actually be not only more achievable but also, sadly, preferable.

Finally, having called for more robust engagement and, indeed, for "mission creep," and having stipulated that there is an element of risk and trial and error involved, if, in the long run, no acceptable allies can be found in Syria, then assisting unacceptable allies is a foolish policy. This is an extremely remote contingency, but should it prove the case, then a thorough reevaluation of the entire chain of logic laid out here will be urgently required and a very different set of policy considerations and actions necessitated.