With the debate in Washington about the success or failure of American strategy in Syria and Iraq continuing and presidential campaigns running at full steam, there has been no shortage of competing suggestions about how the United States must respond to Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war. These suggestions range from reducing America’s involvement in the ongoing conflict to escalating U.S. military efforts in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s provocation.
Many of these proposals sound muscular but remain vague. It is not clear, for example, what the pronouncement that the United States “must reestablish its presence” means operationally. Adding details dilutes the tough-sounding talk or raises questions about realism. Countering Putin in the Middle East comes down to advising neighboring countries to prevent Russian overflights or sanctioning Russian defense companies — which the United States has been doing since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Turning to another suggestion, it is not clear how the United States might build up a “regional army” to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad or who in the region would be inclined to join such an army. Thus far, America’s efforts to train and equip a limited number of fighters have turned into an expensive embarrassment.
This is not to say that America’s current course of action is based upon a realistic assessment of the situation. Right now, Russia may not be impressed by President Obama’s offer to work with Putin only when Russia drops its support for Assad. If Russia’s military intervention turned into a costly quagmire, as its invasion of Afghanistan did 30 years ago, Moscow could come to see things differently, but that is not the situation now.
Without getting distracted by speculation about Putin’s psychology or long-range strategy, it is clear that Russia does not want to see its long-time ally in Damascus collapse. Russia wants to ensure the survival of the Assad regime, its last remaining partner in the Middle East, or at the very least, a pro-Russian successor that will guarantee its continued possession of Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean.
That means defending Damascus and the Syrian government’s remaining enclave in the western part of the country, which, in turn, means going after the adjacent rebel forces. These include both al Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and what remains of the more-secular forces backed by the West. This goal explains the immediate focus of Russia’s airstrikes. ISIS is concentrated in eastern Syria and thus a more distant threat, although the presence of a reported contingent of 2,500 Muslims from Chechnya and the Caucasus in the ranks of ISIS has to worry Moscow and provides another motive for why Russia is not content to let the United States and allies deal with Syria’s insurgents. Russian participation in ISIS’s destruction should not be unwelcome, even though policy and politics require American officials to insist that the United States and Russia are not cooperating.
Russia’s intervention in Syria distracts world attention from Ukraine and ordinary Russians from their own economic travails in addition to making the United States look foolish. Some Russians may welcome new military engagements abroad as validation of Russian power, but putting Russian soldiers — even as volunteers — on the ground in Syria runs risks. And although Russia’s involvement in Syria is being portrayed domestically as an expression of Deus vult (“God wills it,” the battle cry of the First Crusade in the 11th century), Russia probably would want to avoid the consequences of what could be portrayed as a Russian religious war against all Sunnis.
The United States and its allies have additional objectives, which complicates strategy. For now, ISIS’s rapid expansion in 2014, its well-advertised atrocities, and fear of foreign fighters returning home have made its destruction the politically acceptable priority — the coalition is bombing ISIS, not Assad. But ISIS’s enemies in the West, along with Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf monarchies, also want Assad out and replaced by a more inclusive government that is capable of drawing in the majority of Sunnis who might otherwise end up in ISIS’s camp.
The fact that no suitable replacement for Assad has yet emerged does not lessen Western hostility toward his regime. Western powers definitely want to prevent the Syrian regime, supported by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, from destroying the anti-Assad forces. Even though these forces include undesirable extremist elements, they keep Assad weak and contained. At the same time, the West does not want Assad’s departure to be followed by the kind of chaos that has continued long after Muammar Gaddafi’s removal from power in Libya. Nor does it want to see jihadists slaughter Assad’s Alawite and Christian supporters — infidels, in the eyes of Sunni fanatics.
Coalitions come with constraints. There is little international support for expanding the coalition’s campaign beyond attacking ISIS. Broadening the coalition’s mission or escalating the conflict by introducing ground combat forces might reassure some in the region of American resolve, but it could make some participants drop out. The United States could go it alone or with a handful of allies, but doing so also jeopardizes legitimacy and could erode already tenuous domestic support.
Fears of the terrorist threat posed by returning foreign fighters, who now make up a sizable portion of ISIS’s ranks, and the difficulties of dealing with the deluge of refugees pouring out of the region, further complicate strategic calculations. The refugee crisis is shaking the European Union to its core.
So what is to be done? Here are five options:
1. Confrontation. Denunciations by themselves don’t work. Bluffs are not credible. No one proposes going to war with Russia; Syria is not worth it. Still, in the eyes of many, a forceful American response must include boots on the ground. Combining some of the more ambitious proposals would mean the deployment of up to 25,000 American troops to Iraq (assuming Iraq allows this) and sending another 10,000 or more to Syria to lead a larger allied regional army to destroy ISIS. (American military commanders warn that American combat troops, while effective in battle, would still face a long-term pacification problem as seen a decade earlier in Afghanistan and Iraq.) More realistic steps could include declaring no-fly zones off-limits to Syrian government or Russian airstrikes — an idea considered before Russia’s direct intervention — and manning them with American forces to discourage Russia from testing American resolve.
The United States could also openly deploy American ground forces — as opposed to covert operatives — to assist secular rebels in Syria, but despite some progress, it is still not certain that independent, viable and effective secular rebel formations can be built up. The United States could exploit Europe’s unhappiness with Russian intervention to further increase targeted economic sanctions already imposed in response to Russia’s moves in Ukraine. Thus far, these have not altered Russian behavior, although they may weaken Russia in the long run by further undermining its economy, which is already hemorrhaging due to the collapse of oil prices.
2. An international peace conference. This option seems dead on arrival. Although the United States wants Assad out immediately, it might accept an overall settlement resulting in his eventual departure and his replacement by a new government that is able to reconcile with the rebels and restore its authority throughout Syrian national territory. In July at the Aspen Security Conference, a citadel of America’s security establishment, organizers tabled the questions of “whether the … the pre-revolutionary Assad regime in Syria … [was] more in line with American interests and whether, as a consequence, the best outcome now is as close to the status quo ante as possible.” But Aspen is not Aleppo. For Syrians, the conflict has gone beyond regime change — it is now almost entirely sectarian and existential. Even if Assad departs, the regime’s Alawite and Christian stalwarts are unlikely to lay down their arms. It is difficult to imagine Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist rebels abandoning their struggle against infidel foes. And ISIS will remain outside any agreement.
3. An incremental cease-fire. Instead of a grand war-ending agreement, the United States could support a series of local cease-fires. Putting pre-2011 Syria back together is next to impossible for now. This option would mean accepting de facto partition of Syria into a series of cantons that leave the armed parties in place. Assad would get to stay and rule a miniature state in the western part of the country and Damascus: his Republika Syrianska. The rebels, including al Qaeda’s local affiliate, would get to hold the territory they currently command with the choice of keeping their little emirate or remaining the target of Russian or coalition bombing.
Local cease-fires, withdrawals and exchanges of territory would be negotiated individually. As local agreements are reached, international forces, which might include both Russian and American observers, would help to keep peace on the perimeters. Participating entities would receive generous aid. Military action against ISIS by both coalition and Russian aircraft would continue. However, there should be no illusions: The fighting will continue in many areas, and there will be continued terrorist attacks. But local accommodations that allow reconstruction and commerce and that slow the flow of refugees might emerge in other localities.
4. Afghanistan redux. ISIS has survived coalition bombing for more than a year — that’s more than 12,000 airstrikes. It may be weakened, but it has not been defeated. Anti-Assad rebels now facing Russian bombing will suffer some setbacks but also may be able to adapt and remain effective. Even if Russia is able to drive back or scatter the rebels pressing on the remaining Syrian government-controlled territory, it will face a continuing insurgency, always the more difficult task. Like Syria, Russia is willing to use its military power indiscriminately, but that comes with a cost and does not always work.
After nearly four years of ruthless bombing by the regime and assistance on the ground from Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias and Iranian advisers, Assad is still unable to defeat the insurgents. While it cannot halt Russia’s bombing, the United States could increase its support for rebel forces other than ISIS by lowering its strict vetting, which thus far has limited American support. The Gulf monarchies that now support the rebels may be persuaded to do even more. The aim would be simply to put more weapons and more ammunition into rebel hands, accepting that some of these supplies may end up in jihadist possession — hopefully not ISIS, which, in this option, would remain the exclusive target of the coalition’s bombing campaign.
5. Containment. This option starts with the premise that the United States has limited objectives in Syria and Iraq and limited ability to shape events in these two countries without making a substantial military commitment — one that may turn out to be far greater than proponents of more-ambitious efforts admit. For now, there is no disagreement: American investment increases or American objectives are scaled back. The question is whether the American public, which now supports the bombing campaign as long as there are no U.S. casualties, will support (and continue to support) going to war and all that entails. That does not appear to be the case, a fact that critics of Washington’s current caution ignore. Under this option, the United States would continue its bombing campaign since ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra are viewed as a direct threat to American interests, and it would continue U.S. support for Kurdish fighters defending their territory against ISIL.
However, the United States would not deploy ground forces, set up safe havens or no-fly zones, significantly increase its support for the other Syrian rebels, or make major investments in other military efforts to bring down Assad. Instead, the United States would pursue what can be described as a prudent course of action, limiting its involvement in a civil war it cannot resolve but can only make worse. America’s primary mission would be to assist neighboring allies in containing the conflict and defending themselves, especially Jordan and Saudi Arabia. ISIS’s black flag flying over Mecca would guarantee a long-lasting clash of civilizations. Helping the neighbors also means devoting more resources to the refugees. This is close to current U.S. policy.
Today’s politicians and tomorrow’s historians will debate whether, as some allege, America’s timidity and inaction allowed the current mess and created the vacuum that Russia has now entered. That does not tell us what America should do now.
There may be other options or preferable variations of these. Since these options are not mutually exclusive, perhaps some combination would make more sense. The purpose of laying them out is to encourage rational thinking based upon realistic presumptions, not media or campaign-driven hype. Right now, the situation in Syria presents a grim picture. Syria must be seen as a long-term problem that will resist any short-term solution, but circumstances will change and opportunities may arise that allow more promising interventions. America can then act wisely in its own national interest.