Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Nance: Plan now for a New Syria

The most painful lessons learned from the war in Iraq stemmed from the fact that U.S. leadership never planned for postwar stability.

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.
Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.51.05 AM
Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 9.51.05 AM



This is excerpted from Defeating ISIS, by Malcolm Nance, which is being published this week.

The most painful lessons learned from the war in Iraq stemmed from the fact that U.S. leadership never planned for postwar stability. The destruction of infrastructure, the dissolution of the army, the burning of all the historical records by the Ba’ath party, the refusal to recognize the insurgency, and the rejection of anyone who spoke Arabic or was an expert — all should be burned into our minds. This must never happen again. That said, we should harness political diplomatic engagement and relations across the Middle East, and make every effort to create an international framework that will call for establishing a larger Syrian government in waiting. Though the United States supports the Syrian Interim Government established in 2013, every Syrian worldwide, both refugee and in country, should be asked to place their futures on a new national unity government using the Syrian Interim Government as a basis for deeply detailed political and humanitarian planning for the future stability, security, and return of refugees to the region.

The Syrian people now come in two categories: trapped in a diaspora or captive to two brutally murderous regimes. Before the war the population was 22 million people. Count 200,000 less who were killed in the civil war. According to the U.N.’s International Organization of Migration there are 4.5 million registered refugees in the Middle East alone. 53 percent of all refugees to Europe are Syrian. 1.9 million refugees live in Turkey and 7.6 million are internally displaced in Syria due to warfare. ISIS controls 8 million people, the Assad regime about an equal number.

It is time for the majority to create a third way. The world should be encouraged to establish the new Syrian government in exile and start now to draw up the plans, provide the resources, and encourage participation from the Syrian diaspora that has abandoned their country and migrated to the greater world. The citizens have suffered greatly over the last five years of war. They know full well what has happened there, what was destroyed, what it remains, and what the future could be. Instead of treating them like a plague that has descended upon Europe and America, we should welcome them as the Syrian government-in-exile. The international assets of the Assad government in Syria should be seized and distributed as social welfare to the refugees. Syrian political organizations should be funded to plan for their eventual return to the nation. We should encourage the future leaders who will be educated in Europe and the West to take the role of political guidance, using the lessons learned of both the oppressive Assad regime and ISIS. The Syrian community has lost enough to know that these two forms of government are just murder and mayhem behind the flag of two equally brutal dictators. The greatest fear of both groups is that of a democracy based on an informed electorate.

The new Syrian government should meet in the Middle East and establish a new constitution to be pro-rule-of-law, pro-education, pro-stability, pro-health care and focused on restoring electricity, water, sanitation and trade. Syria should operate as a true republic with democratic principles but safeguarding minority rights and representation that is fair and impartial. It should establish and guarantee special protected status for Kurds, Druze, Turkmen, and Alawites, and where necessary, give them autonomy. Like the Kurds, they should maintain the right to see after their own security and natural resources. Better to be a confederation than to return to the chaos that spawned ISIS.

Form a New Syrian Armed Forces (NSAF) 

The expatriate Syrian community can choose officers and train them at the joint Arab military force headquarters in Saudi Arabia or at the Zayed Military City in the United Arab Emirates. The best personnel can be brought in from around the world if there are promises of education and visa preferences to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for those who join this force. The equipment should be purchased through the Gulf States’ industries and suppliers well in advance of any intervention, and the logistical tail should be extensive. No derelict or ancient US equipment should be given. Pay top dollar, take care of their families, and provide excellent kit and you will get good solders. ISIS captured some the best equipment we had to offer and look at the results–even though the army was poorly led, badly paid, and essentially a welfare organization. The NSAF must have the burning desire to go home and stop ISIS and any other future terrorist group from destroying their nation. This army should be trained and equipped to be an undefeatable foe in the post-civil war.

The New Syrian Armed Forces should contain current loyalist units, rebel units and volunteers who should be offered a chance to be paid the highest military salaries in the Middle East. Currently ISIS pays $500 more per month than the Syria rebels. This same error was found in Libya. When the civil war ended the only jobs were in militias; the nation never formed a unified army because the army paid so poorly. The NSAF must be paid first-world salaries to perform dirty jobs that won’t be per- formed by the US Army. It’s worth the investment. In order to prevent wage theft or “ghost soldiers,” an electronic payment system and European-standard debit cards that goes right to the families of the soldiers should be established. Should they die in training or combat, their families should receive death benefits that are the envy of the Middle East. As we saw in Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, despite the best intentions, military units did not maintain cohesion when salaries were cut or leadership, life support, family support, or health care was not provided. We must make a bold commitment to establish an entire system of soldier support to the NSAF before it is needed. With this system in place, it may perhaps be possible to entice entire military units from the al-Assad government to join loyalist units for the betterment of Syria. These programs for the NSAF should be given plenty of resources and time so that they may be implemented on day one, and be prepared to enter and fill all voids and vacuums.

If ISIS territory starts to fall, this force will be critical to establish unity and stop retaliation, as well as collect weapons, and secure military bases. This army would have two requirements: they must not run, and they must be ideologically committed to restoring the nation to great- ness. They must have the best weapons, training, and commitment to defeat anyone that comes before them.

If a political settlement is achieved then the New Army can marry up with regime forces and reestablish security in the nation alongside of a pan-Arab stability force. Pro-Assad Syrian Arab Army military units, police, and militias should remain cohesive, given back pay and raises, improved life support, free family housing, and access to hospitals. Over fifty thousand local Syrians should be immediately hired and paid top dollar as contractors to clear and clean scrap, concrete debris, and war remnants, and to rebuild military bases and police stations. All of this was proposed to the Libyans in 2011, and despite a $160 billion bankroll they rejected it because they didn’t want to “play favorites” to any group of people or tribe. As a result, the militias seized the bases and turned them into havens for pirates, human traffickers, and warlords. The NSAF should be the only dominant force in the nation.

Establish Middle East–Wide Marshall Plan with Gulf State Backing 

The Gulf States and an international coalition should prepare a Syrian, Libyan, Iraqi, and Yemeni Marshall-style plan for the restoration and reconstruction of these nations, just as they did for Lebanon after the civil war. The more prosperous these nations are, the better the Arabian Peninsula will become. Commit a plan to rebuild Syria, Libya, and Yemen, and make a commitment to the re-modernization of the Middle East. The next decade will present a chance to provide opportunity and remove the economic basis of radicalism. If the rich Arab states miss this chance, then they are next on the radicalization chopping block, and their money may not save them.

The humanitarian and medical needs in Syria will far eclipse all potential military missions. The United Nations, the International Red Crescent, and other humanitarian organizations should prepare to assume the overwhelming responsibility of assisting the Syrian Red Crescent in saving Syria from a postwar humanitarian catastrophe. The United States can lead this effort by contributing a $1 billion grant to the international committee for the Red Crescent to bring an international pan-Arab medical assistance group to Syria that will take over, equip, and manage the Syrian medical system. Tens of thousands of Syrians can be trained to run the humanitarian cities and medical/nursing services to help return the millions of internally displaced persons to their homes.

All efforts should be made to establish a new Syria and guard against the immediate collapse into a failed state. The personnel and workers who maintain the national infrastructure, the army, the government bureaucracy, the school system, and the healthcare system should remain in place and expect not only to remain on the job, but to receive substantial increases in pay—even if not working — in order to retain the national intellectual capital. This should be met with an international effort to identify and categorize all refugee workers using UNHCR and IOM rolls. Critical skill workers should be prepared as part of a Syrian National Restoration Group, readied to return and start work when the political situation allows.

(Excerpted with the permission of the publisher.)

Image credit:

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

Read More On Military

More from Foreign Policy

Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.
Children are hooked up to IV drips on the stairs at a children's hospital in Beijing.

Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak

Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.

Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.
Henry Kissinger during an interview in Washington in August 1980.

Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage

The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.

A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.
A Ukrainian soldier in helmet and fatigues holds a cell phone and looks up at the night sky as an explosion lights up the horizon behind him.

The West’s False Choice in Ukraine

The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.

Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi
Illustrated portraits of Reps. MIke Gallagher, right, and Raja Krishnamoorthi

The Masterminds

Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.