The Obama Administration’s strategy in Syria keeps shifting. Last week, John Kerry announced that Iran would be included in Syrian peace talks in Vienna and that the UnitedStates would not insist that Bashar Assad step down as a condition of a peace settlement – both moves represent serious shifts in the US position. At nearly the same time, the Defense Department announced that 50 US Special Forces troops would be dispatched to northeastern Syria to aid Syrian rebel and Kurdish forces – also a shift in position. Both moves were broadly met with dismay by our allies and disdain by our foes. Why is it so hard for the Obama Administration to get it right in Syria? The fact is, we face a serious dilemma in Syria: we are committed to regime change in Damascus and defeat of ISIS in Raqqah (ISIS’ Syrian capital) – two goals that are nearly impossible to achieve individually and surely impossible in tandem. And the geopolitical mix in Syria is maddeningly complex – the Iranians and Russians are on the ground in support of Assad, the Saudis support the free Syrian armies and probably jihadi armies as well, the Turks support the free Syrian armies and oppose the Kurds, the US supports the Kurds and some free Syrian forces – if we can find them! Interestingly, the Israelis sit on the sidelines – a place many Americans wish we could occupy.
How did we get here? The starting point in Syria was 2011, when the Arab Spring incited protest and revolt throughout much of the Arab world. After a period of dithering, we jumped on the bandwagon and supported the overthrow of Middle Eastern autocracies in the name of democracy. The results were not pretty. With the exception of Tunisia, turmoil ensued in the Arab Spring states, including Libya, Egypt, Syria and Yemen. Libya, where we took a direct hand in overthrowing Gaddafi, and Yemen, where the Saudis are embroiled, are now failed states, spreading chaos. Egypt has been stabilized by its powerful military. And Syria has descended into a pitiless civil war. In line with our pro-Arab Spring position and in reaction to atrocities committed by the Assad regime, we took the uncompromising position that Assad must go. Although we’ve backed off that demand somewhat last week, unless Assad departs in due course we will be seen to have lost in Syria. (Our official position is that the departure of the Assad regime is necessary to drain support from ISIS, but it’s not clear that anyone really believes that.) Meanwhile, ISIS was born and became a juggernaut, quickly conquering large swathes of Syria and Iraq and spreading its influence throughout the Middle East, including in Afghanistan. ISIS is clearly a geopolitical threat to the United States, to its allies in the Middle East and to our access to the Arab states’ oil resources. We must defeat ISIS not just for political reasons but also for tangible national security reasons. The Obama Administration seems to be coming to grips with this reality, as it backs off its obsession with Assad and focuses on ISIS.
Does it matter to us that Russia and Iran are in Syria, supporting Assad? Assad is a bad actor, like Saddam Hussein was, and of course we’d like him to see him go. But Russia and Iran are not likely to allow that – Assad is their ally, his regime and institutions provide a base for their military efforts and they are happy to see the United States embarrassed in the Middle East once again. Interestingly, Russia has a genuine national security interest in seeing the defeat of ISIS. Russia is threatened by Jihadism as much as we are, if not more so. Russia is much closer to the Middle East, shares borders with many Muslim states and has suffered from terrorism. Absent Putin’s bad behavior in Ukraine, we might be able to work with him in Syria. Iran, on the other hand, continues to be our sworn enemy, the recent nuclear deal notwithstanding.
If Assad, Russia and Iran were to be successful in defeating the forces arrayed against them in Syria -- including the Free Syrian Army (our ally), Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and ISIS -- would that be bad for us and our allies? Would that be bad for the Syrian people or the Kurds? Would the refugee problem get worse? The answers to these questions are unclear. But, in any case, a clear-cut victory by any side is unlikely for quite some time. What is likely is a grinding quagmire, with no winners or losers. We must ask ourselves why we would want to be drawn further into such chaos – with ground troops (as Obama has just committed) or no-fly zones (as Hillary Clinton and most Republican candidates have favored). Perhaps it is time to take a page out of the Israeli playbook when it comes to Syria: stay on the sidelines, surgically strike when our national interests are threatened and maintain dialogue with all sides. We have enough on our hands with our commitment to Iraq – where we’ve been bogged down for 12 years – and to Afghanistan – where we’ve been trapped for 14.