With Obama leaving, Washington’s foreign-policy brain trust sees a fresh opportunity to take the fight to Assad.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy's award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. Lynch previously wrote Foreign Policy's Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media., John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security.
Barack Obama’s presidency sent Washington’s foreign-policy hawks, or “the Blob,” as White House aide Ben Rhodes once disparagingly called them, into the wilderness. But the Blob is back, facing its best opportunity in eight years to push for a greater U.S. military role in the Middle East, this time in Syria.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, hold vastly divergent positions on how to bring the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria to an end.
As secretary of state, Clinton favored arming Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad and has proposed installing a no-fly zone or safe zone to protect civilians from Russian and Syrian government bombers. She has also called for providing additional arms and training to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State. It’s less clear, however, how far she would go in arming opposition groups devoted to toppling Assad.
Neither Clinton nor most of the others who are calling for a tougher military response in Syria are advocating the kind of full-fledged intervention, with U.S. ground forces, that the United States has undertaken over the past 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, her proposals have emboldened those who believe that only American firepower is capable of forcing Assad to pursue a peace deal in good faith.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who now advises the Syrian opposition, says he believes both Clinton and Trump would pursue a “more aggressive” Syria policy than the Obama administration — though he has no expectations of U.S. forces entering the war to fight Assad.
And plenty of voices still believe that Obama got it right by withstanding pressure from Washington’s foreign-policy establishment to bomb Assad and increase arms deliveries to a hodgepodge of rebel groups, many of whom have become entangled in alliances with extremists. Some experts say there is even skepticism within Clinton’s tight-knit group of foreign-policy advisors by some who doubt the wisdom of deepening America’s military involvement in Syria.
As for a Trump presidency, the GOP nominee has expressed little interest in taking down the Syrian leader, saying in the Oct. 19 presidential debate that “you may very well end up with worse than Assad” if others vie to fill a leadership vacuum his departure would create. Instead, Trump would prefer to work with NATO allies and Russia to defeat the Islamic State: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” he asked at a rally in July.
As Obama leaves office next January, foreign-policy wonks will have their best opportunity yet to recalibrate and redirect U.S. policy for Syria. Here’s a mix of hawkish and dovish proposals, as outlined to Foreign Policy, the next president could consider.
The no-bomb zones
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes Russia’s deployment of advanced missile defense systems would prove more complicated for a Clinton presidency than when she first began pushing the idea of a no-fly zone from inside the Obama administration. But Lister said the United States and Turkey have already effectively created no-bomb zones for Russian and Syrian aircraft in northeastern Syria and northern Aleppo. He suggested deploying international commandos to other areas in Syria to deter airstrikes.
Lister also estimated that some 70 armed opposition groups, which he deemed “sufficiently moderate,” have been vetted by the CIA and Defense Department to receive military assistance from the United States. “The thing with the Obama administration is that it has been very weary to work with them,” Lister said. “That’s an opportunity that is not going to last forever.”
The White House has been reluctant to support some of those rebel factions because their operations are entangled with extremist groups, including Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which until recently was called the Nusra Front and has had ties to al Qaeda — the sworn enemy of the United States. Lister thinks the factions deserve support nonetheless. A new U.S. administration, he added, is going to have to enforce the cessation of hostilities, either single-handedly or with the help of a coalition.
Lister has some powerful allies. In October, he joined retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the former head of the international coalition against the Islamic State, in penning a Washington Post op-ed that called for escalating U.S. efforts to rein in Assad. They suggested imposing additional economic sanctions on Russia and other backers of the Syrian military and leading a coalition to potentially target and strike Syrian infrastructure.
“I think the Assad regime is intensely sensitive to pressure from the United States but has rarely been placed under any pressure from the United States,” Lister told FP.
Cut off the rebels and force the war to end
Some critics of a military solution in Syria see the crisis from an entirely different perspective: They believe the Obama administration did not move fast enough to cut off allied support for the rebels who are linked to extremists — including the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — a dynamic that prolonged the war in Syria.
“Escalation has failed to win this proxy war. It has only prolonged it and increased the death toll,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
While no fan of Assad, Landis said the regime’s atrocities do not justify providing military and logistical support to rebels in the dim hope of a political transition that might bring a better outcome. Even so, Landis said there’s still time for the next U.S. president to get the policy right.
“The U.S. should help bring the Syrian civil war to a quick end in order to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said. “The U.S. can assist in this by refusing to send more arms and money to the rebels and to encourage our allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to reduce arms shipments and money flows to insurgents.”
Bomb the Syrians until they talk
A new U.S. president will need to impose and maintain a credible cease-fire in Syria, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. By most accounts, a U.S.- and Russian-brokered initiative to stop the fighting in eastern Aleppo unraveled in September after Damascus and Moscow restarted a massive bombing campaign. Tabler said Syria paid no price — nor has it ever — for violating the fighting pause. But he said Washington could enforce future cease-fires by launching cruise missile strikes from U.S. warships, or from a neighboring country, to destroy Syrian airfields and other targets.
To avoid escalating tensions with Moscow, the United States would need to limit its targeting to military facilities where the Russians are not present. In August, Tabler co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who initially supported, but later regretted, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Tabler also favors establishing safe zones near Syria’s borders with Jordan and Turkey. He said doing so will more easily limit the activities of extremists and provide greater security for civilians. Moreover, Tabler said, the new administration will also need to dig deep into its diplomatic toolbox to explore ways to ratchet up pressure on the regime, including by expanding U.S. and European sanctions against Syrian energy exports and clamping down on Damascus for its use of chemical weapons.
But punishing Assad’s regime is easier said than done. Russia has signaled it will use its influence at the U.N. to block attempts by the United States and its allies to further sanction Syria for dropping chlorine-filled toxic bombs on opposition-controlled towns. The new president will have to find a way to overcome Russian opposition, Tabler said, by identifying actions that can “affect the regime’s calculus.”
Step up training and equipping rebels
The Syrian civil war will either end in defeat for one party or it will come to peace as the result of a negotiated settlement that most likely will be based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué, brokered by the United Nations.
Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said he prefers the diplomatic outcome. But getting there will require a military buildup of Syria’s beleaguered rebel forces.
Itani is convinced a Clinton presidency would be more amenable to stepping up the use of force. “In conversations, [the Clinton camp] is more belligerent than I would have imagined,” he told FP. “They seem convinced the Assad regime will never listen to anything but force.”
Itani, however, is skeptical of Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone, saying it would require a “massive military escalation” that would prove too costly in financial and military terms over time to sustain. But he said if the United States is reluctant to supply rebels with game-changing weapons, it will have to participate more directly in the conflict.
“Every time a missile drops on a marketplace or a barrel bomb drops, something on the regime side is going to have to blow up,” Itani said. “We have to get involved directly.”
Cut a deal with Russia and Iran
Getting to a negotiated resolution to the conflict could mean rethinking a key priority that U.S. and Persian Gulf officials have embraced for years: the abrupt departure of Assad. “It’s unrealistic to assume that President Assad’s departure is at this point on the table,” said Andrew Bowen, a Syria expert at the Wilson Center. The regime’s backers, Moscow and Tehran, appear unwilling to let the dictator of Damascus go.
Instead, “a settlement could include Assad serving out his presidential term accompanied with constitutional reform that would give more power to a newly elected prime minister and government,” Bowen said.
A grand bargain would require buy-in from key regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and especially Iran and Russia, Bowen said. The deal should also entail “security service reform including demilitarization of militias and the withdrawal of foreign forces,” he said.
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