‘We need a course of action. We are going to have to commit to something.”
That’s how Jim Reese, former Delta commander, described his take on U.S. policy in Syria, speaking with National Review yesterday. Reese’s point is well made — because today, as Russia’s offensive in Syria rumbles on, the U.S. still lacks a strategy.
As I noted last week, Russian air strikes are probably designed to pave the way for an Assad-axis ground offensive into Syria’s northwestern Idlib governorate. After all, weakening the various rebel groups operating in Idlib would significantly strengthen Bashar al-Assad’s regime and expand his territorial control.
Of course, Russia continues to insist that its focus isn’t on securing Assad, but rather in targeting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. As the U.K. foreign secretary told Reuters yesterday, referring to Russia’s position that it is targeting ISIS: “You try talking to the Russians, they just keep repeating their position — that is by the way also the Iranian position — and it is just incredible.” But the U.K. foreign secretary is wrong. Russia’s lies are logical. As I noted recently: “Russia persists in claiming that it is targeting the Islamic State because it hopes that doing so will buy time to distract the White House and dominate Syria’s western battlespace. Once the axis offensive is underway, it will secure the strategic initiative.” But Russia’s gall is a wakeup call for the United States and its allies. Because if a rejuvenated Assad-axis offensive proceeds uncontested, any near-medium-term hopes for Sunni political moderation (which is necessary to bring durable peace to Syria) will go up in flames.
#share#But there is hope. Acting quickly, the U.S. could influence President Putin’s strategy.
First, the U.S. could provide anti-tank and anti-air missiles to rebel forces operating in Idlib. While the practicalities of such support are complicated and risky — absent reliable American support, hardline Salafi-Jihadist entities such as Jabhat al-Nusra have absorbed fighters from more-moderate groups — any new support would at least signal American resolve to counter Russia’s moves. And that matters. After all, while the principle is derided by some (and neglected by President Obama), perception of resolve matters greatly in shaping Middle Eastern political realities.
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Second, the U.S. should urgently enforce a small but robust safe zone in north-central Syria. This is important because it would further disrupt ISIS supply lines near the ISIS capital, Raqqa. A safe zone would also secure territory — refugees could find support there, and anti-Assad groups supported by the U.S. and its allies would have a new staging position from which they could deploy. In addition, a safe zone would send a much-needed signal of American confidence to Russia and Iran, and a message of resilience to America’s allies in the Sunni Arab monarchies.
Equally important, it might encourage President Erdogan of Turkey to take robust actions that would push Assad to reevaluate his strategy. There is a real opportunity here. Erdogan despises Assad, has a legacy-building ambition to counterbalance Iran’s regional influence, and is enraged by Russian air strikes. At present however, Turkey believes the Obama administration is an unreliable partner.
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Third, President Obama and his allies should also shine a light on the hypocrisy of Russia’s overt support for Iranian terrorism against the Syrian people. As Mideast analyst Kyle Orton put it to me on Twitter, “Russia’s propaganda is obsessed with ‘terrorists’ and accuses the U.S. of supporting al-Qaeda and even IS. . . . [The U.S.] should play it back to them.” This campaign should also be coupled with a broader effort to isolate President Putin from the international community. For starters, America should impose new sanctions on Russia’s military and intelligence leadership. The U.S. could also lead efforts to boycott Russia’s hosting of the 2018 World Cup (prestige matters to Putin).
Ultimately, regardless of what President Obama does (if anything), the U.S. response to Russia must focus on forging a path toward realistic compromise — namely, a cease-fire that leads to Assad’s removal from power within one year, the protection of minorities (including Alawites) in a post-war Syria, Russia’s continued possession of its mercantilist interests and military bases in western Syria, and a united strategy in opposition to the Islamic State. To be sure, these ambitions are grand. Yet, if the United States leads, we will find greater support from Turkey and the Sunni monarchies, and more hesitation from Assad, Russia, and Iran. But if we continue to do nothing, the Assad axis will continue suffocating, starving, and skinning Syria’s future. The refugee crisis will only grow, Sunni political moderation will disappear into the hands of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and any hope for medium-term peace in the Middle East will disappear.