It’s Not Too Late to Save Iraq and Syria

For years, this administration has dithered as the Middle East burns. We need a plan to stop the Islamic State and end Assad's regime now.

Iraqi men look at the damage following a bomb explosion that targeted a vegetable market in Baghdad's northern Shiite district of Sadr City on August 13, 2015. The truck bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed at least 38 people in the Shiite-majority area of the capital, in one of the deadliest single attacks in the city in months. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi men look at the damage following a bomb explosion that targeted a vegetable market in Baghdad's northern Shiite district of Sadr City on August 13, 2015. The truck bombing claimed by the Islamic State group killed at least 38 people in the Shiite-majority area of the capital, in one of the deadliest single attacks in the city in months. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

August has always been an especially sad month in the history of the catastrophic conflict in Syria.

On Aug. 20, 2012, one year after stating that “Assad must go,” President Barack Obama warned Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad that he would be “held accountable by the international community” if his government used chemical weapons. At the time, the death toll from the conflict in Syria was estimated to be around 20,000 people.

Almost exactly one year later, the Assad regime used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, brutally killing men, women, and children. President Obama’s reaction was to propose halfhearted military strikes against the Assad regime, only to backtrack and then cut a deal with Assad that supposedly deprived the regime of its chemical weapons. For the first time in recent memory, an American president laid down a red line to a rogue dictator and then failed to enforce it.

By August 2014, the chaos in Syria had drawn in jihadis from all over the world who exploited the failed state that Syria had become, and the United States began military operations against the Islamic State, a terrorist group masquerading as a “caliphate.”

Now, one year after the initiation of military action against the Islamic State, the progress is far from sufficient. The Islamic State continues to draw recruits from around the world and holds significant territory in Syria and Iraq. Assad remains in power, backed by Russia and Iran, even as his forces commit atrocities against the Syrian people on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, U.S.-led efforts to train Syrian rebels, Iraqi Army soldiers, Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen to retake territory in Syria and Iraq have run into significant challenges. Barely more than 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria have been trained.

Those paltry numbers cannot do much to stop the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters that the Islamic State has mobilized to expand its bloodthirsty rule across a swath of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s affiliates are also increasingly rearing their ugly heads as afield as Libya and Afghanistan.

Given that the Islamic State has already inspired homegrown terrorists in the United States, President Obama’s failure to defeat this threat and his continued neglect of Syria should be viewed with considerable alarm by all Americans.

As I have argued for years, the United States should do more to train and support anti-Islamic State fighters in both Iraq and Syria. I warned well before jihadis ever filled the void caused by the conflict in Syria that we needed to try to identify moderate members of the opposition that we could train and equip to take on Assad.

Years later, the Obama administration has failed to do this effectively in Syria and is struggling to carry out training of anti-Islamic State forces in Iraq. We need, for example, to lift the self-defeating restrictions that prevent U.S. personnel from calling in airstrikes to support Iraqi military operations and embedding with the units they have trained.

To enable military success against the Islamic State, we must first have in place a political strategy to mobilize significant Sunni Arab opposition to this terrorist group, both within Syria and Iraq and in the broader region.

The biggest impediment to such a strategy is the administration’s ill-considered and unreciprocated outreach to Iran. Our allies are alarmed that the president plans to grant Iran generous sanctions relief, potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars, without demanding the dismantlement of its nuclear program.

Their concerns are only magnified because our failure to do more to stop the jihadis rampaging across Iraq and Syria has allowed Iran to claim the lead role in the anti-Islamic State coalition. Iranian-backed militias are at the forefront of the fight in both Syria and Iraq — a development that leads many Sunnis to conclude that the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, are the lesser evil.

We must make clear that the United States does not have a secret plan (as many conspiracy theorists in the Middle East imagine) to trade Islamic State domination of Iraq and Syria for Iranian domination.

In Iraq, it is imperative that we use all of the leverage at America’s disposal to negotiate a power-sharing deal that will give predominantly Sunni provinces, such as Anbar and Nineveh, assurances that their rights will be respected by Baghdad even after the defeat of the Islamic State. Sunnis do not want to risk a repeat of the fiasco that occurred when the Obama administration pulled out all U.S. combat troops in 2011.

Reaching such a deal will require sending high-level American representatives to Baghdad, on par with the dynamic team of Gen. David Petraeus, now retired, and then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, both of whom oversaw the “surge” in 2007. Even now, Washington still has leverage in Iraq, as the administration showed by helping to oust the sectarian Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister last year. But ever since then, a distracted White House has not been exercising our influence to the maximum extent possible.

In Syria, meanwhile, it is little wonder that the United States is unable to find more than 60 recruits to train given the conditions imposed on our training program and uncertainty about the lengths to which we will go to support them once they are back on the battlefield. To get American training, rebels must pledge that they will only fight the Islamic State and not the Assad regime that is responsible for the vast majority of deaths in a war that has claimed more than 240,000 lives. We must make clear that the United States will fight the evils represented both by the Islamic State and Assad.

The United States should work with our allies, both Arab and European, to impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria that will prevent Assad’s air force from dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas bombs on civilian neighborhoods. We should also work with our allies, particularly with neighboring states such as Jordan and Turkey, to set up safe zones in border regions of Syria, where the moderate opposition can begin to govern free of the threat of regime (or Islamic State) attacks.

Finally, we should begin intensive planning now, in cooperation with allies and multilateral organizations, to prepare for a post-war settlement in Syria once Assad is overthrown — as eventually he will be. This is the kind of planning that the Obama administration failed to do in Libya and that the Bush administration failed to do in Iraq — both failures for which we continue to pay a heavy price.

Even with these actions, the ongoing failure to fully address the threat posed by the Islamic State and by the Assad regime’s brutal hold on power will present challenges to U.S. security for decades to come. From the tens of thousands of traumatized children in refugee camps throughout the region to the sexual violence and cleansing of religious minorities, the conflict in Syria has metastasized into a regional nightmare with profound implications for future generations in the Middle East and overseas.

As yet another August comes and goes in this conflict that now has generational implications for global security, U.S. strategy remains an incoherent mess. Reversing the gains that both Iran and the Islamic State have made as they have sought to fill the void left by American disengagement will be difficult. Ending Assad’s reign of terror once and for all will be, too. And both will be much more difficult than if we had acted at the outset of the civil war in Syria, as some of us urged President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But it is still not impossible.

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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