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A Bold New Strategy for Syria

Even now the administration continues to pursue a strategy of tactics in which the most important consideration is to limit the number of “boots on the ground” rather than thinking through a politico-military campaign plan for accomplishing American objectives. In the case of both Syria and Iraq, the U.S. has been so narrowly focused on defeating ISIS that it is ignoring the very real danger that ISIS’s demise in the current climate will simply create an opening for Shiite jihadists backed by Iran and for other Sunni jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda. Yet the administration keeps feeding forces in dribs and drabs into the current fight against ISIS without thinking about what end state it wants to achieve or how it can achieve it.

In the case of Syria, the U.S. faces a formidable challenge — not just to defeat ISIS but to end the fighting, which is killing hundreds of thousands of people, sending millions of refugees fleeing, destabilizing nearby states, and creating a safe space for extremists such as Hezbollah, the al-Nusra Front (the official al-Qaeda affiliate), and Ahrar al-Sham, another Sunni group that wants to impose fundamentalist rule. Whether ISIS is defeated or not, as long as the civil war goes on and on (and it could rage for decades) Syria will remain a “geopolitical Chernobyl” (as David Petraeus termed it) spilling its toxins across the region and around the world. It is hard to see how the dispatch of 250 troops — or even 2,500 troops — will accomplish very much to ward off this danger.

What the U.S. needs is a much more ambitious strategy of the kind proposed by former Ambassador Frederic Hoff and Brookings Institution fellow Kenneth Pollack. They have called for the U.S. to train, arm, and support a new moderate military force — Hof calls it a Syrian Stabilization Force, Pollack a Syrian Opposition Army — that, with the help of U.S. air support and advisers, could defeat the other major factions inside Syria, and pave the way for a negotiated settlement that would respect the rights of all of Syria’s ethnic/sectarian groups.

This would be dramatically different from the administration’s current policy of providing limited support for a few militias inside Syria that have been steadily squeezed into irrelevance by the twin pincers of Assad/Syria/Iran/Russia on one side and, on the other, by ISIS/al-Nusra/Ahrar al-Sham. A true army would need to be created in Jordan or other nearby states with the initial manpower coming from refugees who are military-age males. The forces that Hof and Pollack envision would not just defeat the current extremists but also police the country afterward to prevent a resumption of violence or the kind of chaos that has unfolded in Libya.

That is obviously too overarching a goal for this president who never wanted to do much in Syria to begin with and is now plainly intent on running out the clock before he leaves office — even as the body count in Syria continues to mount (as many as half a million people have already been killed in the war, which has been going on since 2011). But what Hof and Pollack have independently proposed is a viable strategy for the next administration to implement. In the meantime, no one should be fooled into thinking that the dispatch of a few hundred Special Operations Forces here or there will make much of a difference in changing the horrific status quo in Syria and Iraq.

Cross-posted from Commentary Magazine.

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