Thinking Aloud: America’s Much-Needed Syria Policy Rethink

Oct. 4, 2015 by Darius 

Five days ago, the Russian air force began conducting airstrikes in Syria. Those under falling Russian bombs were not ISIS, as the Russians claimed, but moderate rebels, including some trained by the United States. At the same time, hundreds of Iranian soldiers (not advisers, soldiers) arrived in Syria in preparation for a major regime ground offensive. It is clear: everyone with a stake in Bashar Assad’s regime is going all in. Everyone but the US, that is.

I have avoided criticizing general US policy towards Syria in the past because I shared many of the Obama administration’s reservations about weapons falling into the hands of extremists, no clear goals, insufficient intelligence on rebel groups, and generally muddling up a bad situation. However, events in Syria have changed. Almost all of the “worst-case scenarios” of US intervention have already happened: other outside powers have gotten involved, terrorists control huge swathes of territory and have captured hundreds of US vehicles and countless other armaments, and thousands of civilians are still dying.

It is clear that US policy, whatever it is, is not working. It still isn’t clear what success in Syria looks like, but it is painfully clear what failure looks like: the present reality. The US needs to fundamentally revisit its Syria policy and commit to a much more active military stance, not necessarily to promote regime change (which Turkey and the Gulf States want and Russia and Iran oppose) but to finally protect Syrians. This should include the establishment of “safe havens,” areas currently controlled by moderate opposition, which should be enforced by US air power, directly targeting Syrian regime forces and their supporters if necessary. No-fly zones should accompany these safe havens. It is true that no-fly zones remain as difficult to implement and unpalatable as they were two years ago, but, short of continuing to sit it out, the US has tried and run out of alternatives.

Part of the long-standing problem with US policy in Syria has been a lack of clear objectives and clear allies. The US would have liked for Assad to leave power and be replaced with a broad-minded coalition of moderate, pro-Western pluralists, but that ship sailed long ago. The US would still like Assad to leave power, but having no clear what-next plan and Libya fresh in mind, US calls for his ouster (by whom? in favor of whom?) have become more feeble. Moreover, US interests and ambitions are not necessarily the same as Turkish or Gulf State interests and ambitions. They had their own reasons, political and religious, for wanting to topple Assad when the opportunity seemed to present itself.

To start afresh, the US should make “a stable Syria for Syrians” the cornerstone of its policy, instead of focusing on regime change, and then see where the chips fall.

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