The US Can Still Help Save Syria — and Iraq

Is President Obama’s announcement that he wishes to ‘ramp up’ support for the rebels a serious policy change or more obfuscation?

Features Middle East
Responsibility to protect: Obama's 2012 decision not to send military aid to Syrian rebels was made against the advice of his officials (credit: Getty)

After the 20th century’s list of events of mass murder — from the Ukraine famine of the early 1930s and the Holocaust in the 1940s, to the Balkans wars and the Rwanda genocide of the 1990s — the cries of “never again” and the assertion of a “responsibility to protect” gave some hope that mass killing would not recur in the 21st century. Then came Darfur in the new century’s first decade, and now Syria in the second. Mass killing has very clearly not been eliminated, nor has the “international community” developed a response that will avert it or bring it to a quick end.

Simultaneously, Syria has become the test of another international agreement: to outlaw the use of chemical weapons. It is clear that the Assad regime used such a weapon — sarin gas — time after time, and on that basis the Obama administration prepared a military attack to punish the regime last summer to deter and prevent further use. At the last minute it turned from that attack to a deal, negotiated largely via Russia, under which the regime promised to eliminate its chemical weapons arsenal and never again to use chemical weapons. What portion of its chemical weapons it has in fact shipped out is open to debate, but the regime has been widely reported to have used a different form of chemical weapons repeatedly in 2014: this time, bombs laced with chlorine. So like mass killing, use of poison gas turns out to be a feature of this new century as well. If we face a new century in which the use of poison gas and mass killing recur regularly, Syria will be the place where they reappeared — and the policies of Barack Obama will be a central reason why they have returned.

The facts about the humanitarian situation in Syria are well-known. A minimum of 160,000 have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 6.5 million Syrians have been forced to leave their homes and are displaced inside Syria, and 2.7 million are refugees in neighbouring countries — altogether, nearly half of Syria’s population of 22 million. The refugee burden on neighbours is immense: there are a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, whose population is only a bit over 4 million, and 600,000 in Jordan, with a population of just over 6 million. The official refugee figures may be far lower than the real numbers (there are almost certainly over a million Syrian refugees in Jordan), and do not begin to express the misery in which so many Syrians now live.

In the beginning of this conflict, when protests commenced in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, there were two sides: the Assad regime and its peaceful Syrian opponents. The regime quickly reacted with great violence, killing hundreds of demonstrators, and in August that year President Obama said: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” The regime instead chose to increase the killing, and soon there was what amounted to a civil war between the regime and those Syrians rising in force against it. Iran and Hezbollah moved to back the regime fully, over time actually sending in fighting forces, and Russian arms shipments were readily made available. President Obama’s demand that Assad must go was not matched by any actions to make him go, and the regime’s slaughter of Sunnis — not only of rebels, but of civilians — only grew.

Soon the cause of defending them and attacking the Shia-backed regime itself grew in popularity, and jihadis, young Sunni extremists from all around the globe, came to Syria. Today, these foreign fighters are said to number anywhere from 8,000, the estimate given by General Lloyd Austin, US Central Commander, to 12,000, and several of the groups are linked to al-Qaeda. Among the foreign jihadis now fighting in Syria there are believed to be 70 Americans, one of whom became a suicide bomber and blew himself up in May.

The refugee flows and the jihadi presence, which are both growing, constitute a threat to Syria, its neighbours, and both Europe and the United States. As to the US and Europe, the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, said in April that “Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” and the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said in January that one of the al-Qaeda-aligned Syrian jihadi groups “does have aspirations for attacks on the [American] homeland.”  The European contingent is far larger than the American, perhaps 2,500 jihadis in all — with an estimated 700 from France and 400 from the UK as a minimum. It’s a kind of jihadi EU, with representation from every member country in the ranks of the jihadi forces. New fighters, new training, new networks. “The Syrian war is therefore likely to be an incubator for a new generation of terrorists,” one recent analysis concluded. While security officials are well aware of the threat, the flow of young men to fight in Syria and then back home continues. And the measure of the threat is that for thousands of these jihadis, “home” is not Karachi or Benghazi, but Marseilles or Leeds or Milwaukee.

But the jihadi threat to Syria’s neighbours was always more immediate and it moved in June from spectre to reality. The al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group called ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, was formed in Iraq in 2013 but began fighting inside Syria. It then moved east, recrossing the border, and conquering territory and cities in Iraq. Iraqis, including hundreds of thousands of civilians plus Iraqi soldiers trained and equipped at great expense by the US, fled. From Aleppo in Syria to Fallujah and then Mosul in Iraq, ISIS presents a challenge neither the West nor the government in Baghdad has yet been able to meet.

How has President Obama handled these dangers? The American government’s Syria policy has been reactive and almost entirely humanitarian: not to deter or prevent violence or punish the regime, but to give succour to victims. The US has given large sums to alleviate the suffering, through aid to countries neighbouring Syria and to various UN and private agencies. Soon the total will reach $2 billion. But on the political and military front the Obama administration has been slow to lead or to act, and extremely wary of any role beyond providing humanitarian assistance.

In the early days of the conflict American policy discussions centred on how to persuade or force Assad to leave and how, afterwards, to build a stable democracy in Syria. Few analysts believe that internal peace and democracy are now a viable option for Syria or will be for many years to come, and the Obama administration appears to have given up on forcing Assad out. That led it to leap into the deal with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons, which had the side effect — no doubt calculated carefully in Moscow — of making Assad into America’s partner. Simultaneously the Geneva negotiations sought a “political settlement”, and the Americans strong-armed Syrian rebels into appearing at the talks. But the negotiations got nowhere, for the goal of Assad and his backers in Iran and Hezbollah (and Moscow) was to win the war, not negotiate a golden exile for him. The rebels could not gain in Geneva what they could not win on the battlefield, yet the Americans seemed absolutely unwilling to provide the support that would change the balance of forces on the ground.

This left US policy in a complete shambles: unwilling to act to change the military balance, yet unwilling to accept a rebel defeat. The focus increasingly turned to how to prevent the jihadi groups from becoming a source of terror both in the countries near Syria and in the countries from which they come — including a growing group from the US and Britain. ISIS will not conquer Iraq, but it has shown growing strength and demonstrated that the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi army are incompetent sectarian entities dependent on outside support. ISIS has also created a de facto alliance between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran, both seeking to save Baghdad and stop the Sunnis — a disastrous alignment of interests that strengthens Iran and alienates all of the West’s Arab allies in the Gulf.

Why did the President not act? Though fully aware of the magnitude of the crisis, in human terms and as a security problem, Obama has repeatedly rejected advice that might have contradicted the master narrative of the administration: that it has ended two wars and enmeshed us in no others. The fear, presumably, was that deep involvement in the Syrian civil war through covert aid to some rebel groups or air strikes on regime chemical weapons assets would bring the US into a battle, against jihadis and against Iran and Hezbollah, that might prove long, dangerous, and unsuccessful. In late May Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated that if “the US tried to interject itself in a military way, that will only make it worse”. Moreover, this policy debate has taken place against the backdrop of the President’s decision to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of his administration. Deeper involvement in Syria would, logically, contradict the “no more war” message. So a fortiori would a return to military action in Iraq.

But in refusing to act, he has been isolated within his own administration. Obama’s 2012 decision against sending military aid to the Syrian rebels was made despite the contrary advice of his then top national security officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. As the Washington Post put it, “President Obama has resisted advice from inside and outside his administration to abandon his passivity and do something to help Syria — not to send ground troops, the straw man his spokesmen regularly erect to fend off criticism, but rather to train and equip the rebels or help patrol a safe zone for them to evade Mr Assad’s depredations.” Obama’s last-minute decision not to strike Syria in 2013 after its use of chemical weapons was popular in the Pentagon and with the public but clearly went against advice from Secretary of State John Kerry. In June 2013 the administration announced the provision of some military aid to the rebels, but from all the evidence little or no such assistance actually followed — so it cannot be said that there was a real policy change.

Finally in late May this year the President himself announced in his speech at West Point a decision to give additional aid to the rebels: “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators.” This decision to aid the Syrian rebels followed months and indeed years in which defenders of Obama’s inaction claimed that aid to the rebels would be pointless because they were too weak and were untrustworthy. But in June the former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who had been a special coordinator on Syria policy for the Obama administration, resigned from the Foreign Service saying that he “was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy”. Ford was asked about the claim that aiding the rebels was almost impossible because we did not know whom to aid. He replied: “We’ve identified them quite well now. Some people say, well, we don’t know them well enough; we can’t depend on them. We know them quite well. We’ve worked with them for years.” Why Obama rejected this view for years, and then reversed himself at West Point, remains mysterious.

Defenders of the President’s inaction have always claimed that all the proposed lines of action in Syria, from bombing Assad’s airforce to arming the rebels, are risky. Tragically for Syrians, and now for Iraqis, and perhaps soon enough for the rest of us, the consequences of a failure to act were given far too little weight. Regime brutality against the majority Sunni population of Syria and intervention by foreign Shia forces (Iranian and Hezbollah) have attracted a far larger and more dangerous group of jihadis than ever existed in Afghanistan, one whose threat to European and American allies and interests keeps growing. That the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention has elicited no serious American response has not only favoured the regime’s survival but shaken faith in American reliability among all US allies in the region and beyond it. That Iran has appeared far more determined to win in Syria, defined as keeping Assad in power, than the US has appeared in achieving its stated goal (that Assad must go) similarly shakes confidence in American power and willpower. The last-minute reversal in the summer of 2013 about bombing Syria made the US appear uncertain and unreliable, if not quixotic. The huge and growing refugee burdens threaten stability in Jordan, long a key American ally, and in Lebanon. And the fact that Assad is an Alawite trying to rule a 74 per cent Sunni country suggests that with him in power there will never be stability, only more war — in Syria and Iraq, and presumably elsewhere soon enough unless the contamination is fought.

Less tangibly but of equal importance, America’s willingness to enforce the norms of international conduct has been undermined, as has American moral leadership. Pledges such as “never again” and doctrines such as the “responsibility to protect” are worthless without an American commitment behind them. The complete lack of reaction to Assad’s continuing use of chemical weapons in 2014 undermines both the viability of the ban of chemical weapons and the belief that the US is willing to enforce such rules. Older rules against armed aggression, enforced by the US when it led a coalition of states to restore Kuwait’s sovereignty and independence, are unlikely to survive without American insistence. And the association of the US with the cause of human rights and democracy, going back at least to Woodrow Wilson, has been weakened by Obama’s unwillingness to act in the Syrian case. America’s soft power is linked to its reputation for idealism and the defence of human values. The refusal to use hard power in the Syrian case has contributed to a diminution of “soft power” as well.

What can the US and its European allies actually do at this juncture about Syria? Another grand diplomatic effort is useless now. The efforts made by the US in Geneva to reach a political accord did not succeed because diplomacy will always reflect the power relationships on the ground. It is those that must be changed, by strengthening the anti-Assad, anti-jihadi forces composed of nationalist Syrian rebels.

First, if we are serious about toppling Assad, defeating Iran in a proxy war, and building a rebel group stronger than the jihadi groups, we must establish a large, serious, coordinated and multi-national programme to train and equip those rebels. Their weakness is largely linked to their lack of guns and other equipment, and money with which to pay fighters, while jihadi groups appear to have far more of both. The balance of forces will change when anti-jihadi groups can arm and train all the men they can attract, including attracting them from other forces which were able to feed and clothe them and supply modern weapons. This must come first because without such a fighting force, there is no hope that the power of the regime or the jihadis can be countered. The only other possible outcomes are continuing war, with more deaths and more refugees and with a further metastasising of jihadi forces, or an Assad victory. These outcomes should be unacceptable to us.

Whether the Obama administration has now decided on an adequate programme to train and equip rebel groups remains unclear. How many men will be trained, for how long, and how well, and what weapons they will be given, and when the programme will seriously get under way, are all uncertain. Given the President’s long record of reluctance to become involved in Syria’s war, there is room for scepticism. But perhaps he has turned a corner and the new programme will be serious and effective.

Second, the US and if possible the UK and France should do now what we should have done last summer: punish Assad for the continuing use of chemical warfare. This means an air strike robust enough to damage chemical weapons targets, including units that have used them and any air assets ever used to deliver them. Any strike should at this point be broad enough to restrict greatly Assad’s ability to use air power as an instrument of terror. More broadly, punitive air operations should be considered in order to force the regime to allow humanitarian aid to reach those who need it fast. And even more broadly, air strikes can both change the military balance on the ground, and affect the political and psychological dimensions of the conflict by demonstrating a new American policy and new determination. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning in the State Department in Obama’s first term, wrote in April: “A US strike against the Syrian government now would change the entire dynamic. It would either force the regime back to the negotiating table with a genuine intention of reaching a settlement, or at least make it clear that Assad will not have a free hand in re-establishing his rule.” Is such use of American air power feasible? Yes; outside the Damascus area air defences are quite limited and so would be the risk to the US. This conclusion is supported by Israel’s series of successful air attacks on Syria without losing one aircraft. But it should be added that such air strikes to weaken Assad’s forces will only benefit the jihadis unless there is a simultaneous effort to strengthen non-jihadi Syrian rebel groups.

As a corollary, air strikes and stepped-up military aid to Syria’s neighbours should be considered whenever ISIS or other jihadi groups cross into their territory. Iraq was first; Jordan or Turkey may be next, and we should be prepared to help them defend themselves.

Third, the US, the EU, and other donors are still not delivering sufficient aid to Jordan, and other neighbours of Syria, to enable them to cope with the refugee crisis there without severe political and economic strains — for example, on schools and hospitals. The US and our Gulf allies, some of whom are actively funding rebel groups in Syria, should undertake a serious joint review of Jordan’s needs, and then act together to meet them. At West Point, President Obama pledged to do so: “We will step up our efforts to support Syria’s neighbours — Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq — as they contend with refugees and confront terrorists working across Syria’s borders.”

Fourth, the US with France, Germany and Britain should make it clear to allies in the region such as Israel and the Gulf Arab states that any nuclear deal we reach with Iran will not stop us from confronting Iranian subversion and aggression — such as its sending hundreds of Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force combatants and advisers to Syria. There are many suspicions in the region that a “grand bargain” with Iran is still in the cards, and that if a nuclear deal can be reached Western resistance to other aspects of Iranian conduct would be softened just when sanctions relief would be giving Iran more economic resources. These fears should loudly be laid to rest. The Obama administration should clarify that we seek only a nuclear deal with Iran, have no illusions about or intentions to negotiate a broad rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, and will help those nations that are resisting Iranian misconduct.

Fifth, current efforts to prevent attacks by jihadis returning from Syria must be expanded, including the efforts to track (and, of course, stop) those leaving for Syria to fight, and find those returning — now with a network of contacts and new skills. This will require close international coordination, because national police and security forces will have pieces of information that must be assembled, analysed and shared. Much information will be in the hands of the families and communities of these Western jihadis, who must be asked for help in finding them and in countering jihadi recruitment efforts. The messaging used by the jihadis and their backers must be countered, perhaps above all by stressing the strife and indeed the murderous violence among the various groups. Returning fighters must be assessed for possible use in counter-messaging, to see if they have returned disillusioned and willing to prevent other young men from making the mistake they made. All this is obvious to security officials in the West, but the effort they have under way is not yet adequate to the danger we face.

What has been missing in Syria since 2011 is Western, and especially American, leadership and determination, but it is not too late for a new policy. The early goal of a quick departure for Assad and transition to democracy in Syria is now impossible to attain. More disorder and suffering are certain. But Syria need not be an endless source of refugees, a centre of inhuman suffering at the hands of a vicious minority regime, and a worldwide gathering place for jihadi extremists. Needed now are a serious and coordinated effort to assist the nationalist elements of the rebels, and organise assistance for them from others in the region — Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar are the most critical — and American (and if possible British and French) willingness to use force directly to punish chemical warfare and erode Assad’s air power. Those remain essential steps of a new policy that can over time diminish the tragedy being suffered by the Syrian people and the threat Syria now poses to regional stability and European and American security interests.

It remains unclear whether President Obama’s announcement at West Point that he wishes “to ramp up support” for the rebels marks a serious policy change or yet another obfuscation. Certainly that speech gaves no signal that a broad reorientation of administration policy is coming. One can only hope that the growing humanitarian disaster, the spread of war to Iraq, the damage to allies like Jordan, and the dangers of “blowback” to the home front from the growing jihadi presence in Syria will lead to a change of Syria policy in Washington, London, and Paris. The question we face now is which happens first: that policy change, or the explosion of bombs set by our own citizens who returned from war determined to make our capitals the next front.