A Plan for Winding Down the Syrian Civil War: Surge, Freeze, and Enforce Charles Lister, 30 September 2016
[Posted by Lara Keller 8/10/16]
[Original article with links = http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war/]
Five years of horrendous conflict in Syria has given birth to a menacing array of threatening and destabilizing repercussions. From the rapid proliferation of terrorist groups, to mass civilian displacement and an international refugee crisis, not to mention the disintegration of a major nation state at the heart of the Middle East, the consequences of the conflict’s apparent intractability are clear for all to see.
Until now, the United States has adopted an inconsistent and largely half-hearted approach to the crisis. Despite publicly proclaiming that President Bashar al-Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, the Obama administration has not once determinedly sought to push that political statement towards being a reality. Despite near-daily war crimes for over 1,800 days in a row, the United States has done little to prevent their continuation. Diplomatic statements of concern and non-binding and open-ended initiatives for dialogue based on non-existent trust have all fallen far short of what is necessary to at least slow the rate of killing and destruction.
The inherent mismatch between U.S. rhetoric and practical policy has contributed in part towards the prolongation of Syria’s conflict and to the amplification of its deleterious consequences — locally, regionally, and internationally. The perceived vacuum created by a lack of full U.S. commitment has been filled by Iran, Russia, and countless terrorist organizations. The consequences of that are clear for all to see, particularly this past week around Aleppo.
This is not to say that the United States and the Obama administration have not done anything in response to the conflict in Syria. They certainly have, but not nearly enough. Obama’s insistence on pursuing a diplomacy-first approach is right, brave, and something to be lauded. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to operationalize that diplomacy-first approach, without the threat of any harder U.S. power behind it, are nothing short of extraordinary. However, when diplomacy by itself demonstrably fails for five years in a row and as the consequences of continued conflict worsen by the week, new and alternative policy approaches must by necessity be considered.
To many American policymakers, the Syrian crisis may be seen as distressingly violent, but it is not perceived as an issue of immediate strategic importance. Unfortunately, this ignores the long-term effects of seeing a country at the heart of the Middle East gradually consume itself and begin to destabilize surrounding countries and regions. Terrorism and immigration may be the immediate consequences of concern in the U.S. homeland, but more and much worse may still be on the horizon, if Syria is not dealt with more resolutely.
In line with existing U.S. strategy, the objective should not be unilateral or rapid regime change. Instead, the focus should be setting the conditions on the ground that would best enable a meaningful and extended process of intra-Syrian dialogue and political negotiations. There is no single actor in Syria that has the capacity to win outright and, even if there were, an absolute victory on either side promises only further conflict and instability. It is also wholly unrealistic to expect any future political settlement to result in the sudden re-uniting of opposing territories. In the medium term, the U.S. focus should be on freezing the conflict and its frontlines through a firmly enforced cessation of hostilities, in effect, forcing already fatigued actors to the table.
Civilian protection must be the centerpiece of any holistic strategy that aims both to create conditions that are more amenable to meaningful political negotiations between Syria’s warring parties and to undermine the dynamics that feed extremism. That the international community has consistently focused on introducing a cessation of hostilities is the right approach, but such attempts lacked any enforcement mechanisms or clear consequences for violation. Given the track record of the Assad regime and the highly problematic behavior of its two state backers in Russia and Iran, the feasibility of such trust-based initiatives is questionable. Precedent shows that such arrangements do not work and, in all likelihood, will continue not to. Moreover, each effort that fails makes the next even harder to secure and sustain.
Faced by the increasing complexity in Syria and the challenges of starting a political process, the Obama administration has shifted towards a counter-terrorism focused posture. This is, in effect, a strategy of containment, which seeks to treat a symptom without challenging the disease: the continued brutality of the Assad regime and its stalwart refusal to negotiate. So long as Assad remains in power in Damascus and as long as his armed forces and foreign backers continue to commit daily war crimes against his own people, terrorism will exist and grow for the foreseeable future across Syrian territory. In securing a political transition – even a prolonged one – the United States and the international community would at least be removing a key obstacle to an effective effort against extremism and terrorism.
Under today’s conditions, having an external state intervene solely to fight terrorism will only create more extremists and make an ultimate solution that much harder to attain.
An Alternative Policy Approach
The United States must accept that it is now necessary to buttress a policy that seeks civilian protection with discernible consequences for violators. It can no longer be morally, ethically, or diplomatically acceptable for the international community to stand by and watch such brazen acts of indiscriminate brutality being conducted by a government against its own people. Adopting a more assertive approach to Syria would undoubtedly bring with it risks, but if managed carefully and aimed in justifiable directions, the benefits could potentially be manifold. Perhaps more importantly, the risks that result from continuing to push the existing policy approach may eventually outweigh those posed by a more assertive approach.
Certainly there are no “good” policy options at this point, but at the very least the idea of enforcing a ceasefire and punishing those conducting war crimes within a cessation of hostilities should be considered for the value it would add. At its core, the policy approach spelled out below would be U.S.-led, but its framework would aim to ensure that as many state and non-state actors retained or assumed positions of influence over determining the ultimate objective: political negotiations.
What is presented below is one of a number of potential avenues for increased U.S. assertiveness on the Syrian issue. Rather than aiming to directly induce the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad or even to invade Syria and force his rapid removal, this policy proposal aims to strengthen the administration’s current approach with some necessary “muscle.” Without a doubt, some will deride the suggestions made herein, but to dismiss them out of hand would be to ignore the need for a debate on this urgent issue. Five years of failure shows clearly that a re-think of some sort is necessary and consequently, this article aims to encourage an urgent policy review and the consideration of alternative options.
Day 1 to 20: Opposition “Surge” and Sanction Expansion
On Day 1 and amid continued hostilities in Syria, the United States and allied nations would initiate a substantial increase in assistance to vetted opposition groups. This would principally take the form of increased supplies of small-arms and light weapons, mortar and medium-range artillery systems, as well as anti-tank guided missiles. To add to the existing supply of semi-portable BGM-71 TOW anti-tank systems, the United States and allies should consider adding shoulder-launched anti-tank systems for added tactical in-theater utility. Until now, there has been little indication that the United States plans to end its long-standing veto on the provision of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to opposition forces, given their risk of proliferation. Providing less portable anti-aircraft systems appears a potentially viable option, but remains unlikely given the taboo they represent.
In addition to U.S.-led assistance, allied regional states would be encouraged to supplement this with additional support to independent opposition groups (without links to Al-Qaeda or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) with whom they maintain strong relationships. The inclusion of regional states within this strategy would help continue to restrain them from sending MANPADS themselves, which remains a possibility amidst the continued deterioration of conditions on the ground.
This effort would focus on two battle fronts: southern Syria through the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front and northwestern Syria through the region’s collection of FSA factions. For a period of two-to-four weeks, this enhanced assistance effort would aim to exert discernible pressure on Assad regime positions around Aleppo city and south of Damascus. A supplementary assistance effort could also be added to vetted FSA factions involved in the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield offensive against ISIL, with the objective of sending a signal to the regime that the opposition will expand its de facto safe zone and to eventually re-open a meaningful front in Aleppo city’s northern periphery.
Thus far, the CIA has been responsible for managing the United States’ support to “vetted” opposition forces in Syria in coordination with regional allies, while the Department of Defense has attempted to run its own train and equip program for solely anti-ISIL purposes. For the CIA, its program of direct military assistance to over 70 armed opposition groups (at my count) across the country comes as part of its covert “Timber Sycamore” program, though this has never reached a sufficient level to have a truly qualitative effect. The majority of these 70 factions would fall under the scope of an expanded assistance effort such as the one described above. Although they may be collectively weaker than Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and its Islamist allies, all CIA-vetted factions remain deeply rooted within their respective societies. And it is these exact communities that we need most to reject extremist narratives.
In Idlib province, where Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is especially strong, the most powerful remaining vetted factions —commanding at least 4,000 fighters, at my estimate —recently came together and merged, founding the Free Idlib Army. Meanwhile, the leadership of the conservative Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, long an invaluable military ally of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra before it, has begun pivoting increasingly close to Turkey and to the mainstream opposition, thereby creating escalating tension at a rhetorical level with the jihadi group and other extremists. Such developments reveal potential cleavages worthy of exploitation.
Given the immediacy of battle, military cohesion has long been prioritized by armed groups across a range of ideological spectra in Syria. Although they rarely fight directly alongside each other on the battlefield, CIA-vetted FSA factions and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are known to coordinate within broader operational fronts, particularly in the north. Absent a major change (such as large-scale Western intervention) this broad-spectrum tactical cooperation is unlikely to diminish significantly, though it can potentially be reduced over time through a holistic and more assertive policy, such as the one proposed here. That the FSA’s Southern Front has long maintained a noticeably more wary and distant relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra amid an internationally unified and determined assistance effort to its constituent forces demonstrates a nuanced potential for practical distancing from extremists.
Enhanced levels of U.S. support to the opposition should not be limited to the military sphere, however. In fact, rather than solely seeking to coerce the Assad regime to enter negotiations and shift the calculations of its international backers, the objective should be to combine support for civil, judicial, and military factions of the mainstream opposition. This would best ensure the formation of a more cohesive and resilient opposition movement and narrative, that in times of calm and negotiations, would have an advanced chance of out-competing extremist competition.
Though it breaks all foreign assistance taboos, this support should be provided because the military, civil, and judicial spheres are intrinsically interconnected and interdependent. Islamist governance has succeeded to a greater extent in opposition Syria at least partly due to the fact that regional states supportive of such groups instinctually accept this dynamic. To continue today’s distinctly separate channels of assistance to the various strands of opposition activity in Syria may be motivated by a desire to safeguard traditional ethical concerns for the independence of civilian governance initiatives. However, in reality, it forces the “moderate” opposition to exert its influence with one hand tied behind its back.
In parallel to the expansion in opposition assistance, the United States, coalition partners, and allies should substantially expand sanctions targeting (1) the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), (2) Hezbollah’s activities in Syria, and (3) Russian arms exporters involved in bolstering Assad regime capabilities. With regards to the first component of sanctions, the objective should be to impose escalatory sanctions on SAA officers known to be or to have previously been involved in criminal actions, beginning at lower ranks and steadily over time rising to higher levels of command. This would seek to induce a level of internal pressure within the single most important structure for Russian influence in Syria; lowering morale and confidence and undermining Russia’s own position of leverage.
Day 21 to 30: Negotiate an Enforceable Cessation of Hostilities
Provided that this 20-day expansion of opposition assistance resulted in a discernible level of increased pressure on regime positions, the United States would convene all respective members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) for a meeting. In that meeting, the United States would seek to negotiate the introduction of a new cessation of hostilities in Syria, beginning from Day 31. In contrast to previous cessations, this one would have to contain within it the explicit threat of highly limited and targeted punitive consequences for especially flagrant violations, to be conducted by stand-off U.S. military assets.
This cessation of hostilities would cover all territories not controlled by ISIL or that are under ISIL attack. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would not be invited to be a party to the ceasefire, but given its embedded nature within broader mainstream opposition dynamics and the practical impossibility of de-coupling it within current circumstances, its fighters should not be targeted in the early stages of this plan.
In addition to seeking immediate protection of civilians, this potentially more durable cessation of hostilities would seek to freeze battle frontlines between the opposition and regime. In the ISSG negotiations, mutually-agreed mechanisms for the verification and assessment of violations would need to be designed. Ideally, this would take the form of a multilateral structure that included at minimum both the United States and Russia as well as, beneath them, a body of four additional actors: the U.N. Special Envoy, the United Kingdom, France, and Iran. In the event that Washington and Moscow were to disagree on an alleged violation, these four actors would assume responsibility for secondary verification and assessment, by majority vote.
Were Russia to resolutely veto an ISSG-led enforcement mechanism, the United States and allied “Friends of Syria” governments would necessarily then consider forming a “coalition of the willing” to enforce the very same agreement — an enforced cessation of hostilities — under the principle of humanitarian intervention. Although such a justification is situated within a blurry legal space, even the intensely legalistic President Obama declared himself as being in a position to unilaterally intervene in Syria without Congressional approval in the immediate aftermath of the August 2013 Sarin gas attack outside Damascus. Although the United States would likely end up being the lead military actor, such a joint initiative would also lend the effort more legitimacy and send a unified signal to Russia, Iran, and President Assad of the international community’s determination to stop the violence.
For the United States, pre-selected targets could include non-critical Syrian military infrastructure located far from populated areas, excluding Damascus or the coastal provinces of Tartus or Latakia and areas staffed by Russian personnel. This objective would be to select targets significant enough to send the necessary signal to the Assad regime, but not so critical as to over-escalate. To avoid any airspace conflicts, the United States would plan to use stand-off military weapons, like cruise missiles, for any necessary punitive measures after Day 15. Such assets would likely be launched from sub-surface vessels deployed in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid geopolitically sensitive use of Turkish or Jordanian airspace.
Given that Russia would be unlikely in such a scenario to freely share the locations of all of its deployed military personnel, a mechanism would also be put into place through which Russia’s military headquarters in the Latakia-based Hmeymim Airbase would be pre-informed several hours in advance of any U.S. cruise missile strike. The plan to issue warnings to Russia would be made explicitly public to prevent Russia from moving its forces or even civilians or prisoners to an intended target in a cynical attempt to deter a strike. The United States would also make clear that once a warning had been issued, the planned stand-off strike would take place. That any such strikes would be targeting non-critical regime military infrastructure away from populated areas or otherwise sensitive areas would also minimize the necessity for Russia to take what would be an extraordinarily bold move in counter-escalating.
Since Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015, the threat of force has undoubtedly acquired an additional level of risk. However, the question remains: to what extent does Russia have any interest in counter-escalating against the United States and risking open conflict with a superior military actor? Skeptics of an assertive U.S. approach to Syria have frequently used this question as an automatic veto, but they themselves have never justified in any level of detail why they think Russia itself actually would seek a “World War III” scenario.
Certainly, the U.S. threat of punitive military action against the Assad regime would need to be credible enough as to deter any Russian advocates of counter-escalation, but the logic behind the Russian counter-escalation argument appears extraordinarily minimal at most. Russia’s intervention in Syria has been conducted at minimal cost, given the country’s economic struggles and the fact that its economy may now be no bigger than that of Spain. To militarily counter limited punitive measures against non-critical regime military infrastructure resulting from especially flagrant violations of a ceasefire would seem to contradict Russia’s own calculated intervention in Syria.
Turkey’s 2016 intervention against the Kurdish YPG and against ISIL in northern Aleppo demonstrates the strategic limits of Russia’s action and presence in Syria. Although framed as an operation targeting ISIL, Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield has directly undermined the YPG’s geopolitical project, which Russia overtly supported because it threatened the opposition’s standing in northern Syria. More importantly, the operation’s core fighting force is composed of more than a dozen explicitly anti-Assad armed opposition groups, who have now effectively established a slowly expanding safe zone, over which Russian and Syrian aircraft no longer fly. While maintaining a long-term eye on re-opening a front against the Assad regime on Aleppo city’s northern boundaries, opposition forces in the area are more immediately seeking to establish a stronghold of the internationally-recognized political opposition that is both located inside Syrian territory and explicitly protected from external attack. Despite what this represents in terms of an overt challenge to the Assad regime, Russia has been in no position at all to counter it.
Up until now, and despite its highly problematic military actions and diplomatic posturing, Moscow has made it patently clear that it wants to be seen as a great power alongside the United States and as a partner in solving the crisis in Syria. Russia has also shown no indication that Assad is ultimately a critical long-term component of its strategy, and recent reports would suggest that Moscow has also become increasingly skeptical of the durability of Syria’s armed forces as a long-term partner. It is therefore extraordinarily hard to imagine any scenario whereby Russia would risk jeopardizing its prominent status in Syria over what would be a limited intervention focused on protecting civilians amid an enforced ceasefire. Syria in this policy scenario is not being invaded and President Assad’s most critical assets in the capital and on the coast would be explicitly excluded from the potential target set. Consequently, it is time that the United States called Moscow’s bluff.
Both during and after the agreed upon cessation, Russia and Iran would have until day 30 to prepare conditions on the ground to ensure the Assad regime abided by its terms. Having declared its intent to conduct limited military strikes on non-critical Syrian military infrastructure in the event of flagrant violations, one would hope that assessments made by both supporting countries would be qualitatively more serious than with previous cessations containing no consequences for violation. During this time, sanction expansion would add further to that pressure, indicating additional costs to spoiling actions.
Day 30 and onwards: Conflict Freeze and Enforced Cessation
From the 30th day onwards, the enforced cessation of hostilities would begin and all assistance to any party on the ground would contravene the agreement. Given the nature of ceasefires, its first hours would undoubtedly be messy and unclear, but within 24-hours, the threat of punitive military measures should ensure a more meaningful level of calm than seen before. Throughout the cessation, the previously agreed-upon ISSG mechanism for monitoring reported violations — by any Syrian or non-state actor — would receive reports, verify and assess them, and determine any necessary response. Such a process would clearly be a challenge given the lack of clear on-the-ground intelligence, but this would be why only the most flagrant examples of violation (such as an airstrike on a hospital, but not a mortar strike on recognized battle frontlines) would qualify for potential punitive measures.
Ultimately, civilian protection means a reduction in violence and the free flow of humanitarian aid to all corners of the country. Should it prove possible to sustain, this would in and of itself result in conditions at least more amenable to discussions over Syria’s future. In addition to simply saving lives and freezing frontlines, the more immediate benefit from an international standpoint may also be the effect that an internationally-enforced calm would have on the balance between moderate and extremist actors on the ground.
Extremist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham rely intrinsically upon intense levels of conflict and perceptions of international inaction to sustain their relationship of interdependence with mainstream opposition forces. At their core, these relationships are highly unlikely to suddenly disappear, although a re-empowered moderate movement can discernibly undermine extremist narratives over time. That protesters so quickly re-took to the streets during the first cessation of hostilities earlier in 2016 underlined this counter-extremist potential. This was added to yet further when some protesters held placards opposing Al-Qaeda for the first time since 2011.
It is for this reason that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would – at least at first – not be a target of continued military action during the cessation of hostilities. A more durable strategy for countering this de facto Al-Qaeda group should focus on creating conditions in which mainstream Syrians re-realize that the jihadi group’s military value on the battlefield is in fact not sufficient to make it a long-term political partner. During the first cessation of hostilities earlier in 2016, some Syrians in Idlib came to this conclusion in a matter of weeks but this ended when a lack of enforcement mechanisms meant violations were consequence free..
With a more durable cessation of hostilities, backed up by discernible enforcement mechanisms, the undermining of extremist narratives stands a better chance of being more than a temporary dynamic. Moreover, the likelihood of extremists lashing out against the empowerment of moderate actors and their non-extremist vision would also increase, thereby encouraging armed factions to express their positions of support or opposition to foreign intervention. These kinds of behaviors will help identify the salvageable Syrian Islamists from the unsalvageable and committed jihadists.
Consequently, it would be within an enforced and hopefully more extended period of calm that mainstream civil, political, and armed actors would find a more amenable operating space in which to begin forming a more Syrian alternative to extremist narratives that thrive in times of intense conflict. While ISIL would remain explicitly outside the frame of this scenario, the role of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in anti-Assad operations has the potential to pose challenges to a ceasefire. However, should any international initiative to enforce a cessation of hostilities be credibly and determinedly presented, Syria’s mainstream opposition would be highly unlikely to oppose it. From the moment that opposition forces saw a Western cruise missile strike neutralize a regime airstrip, severe limitations would be placed upon Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s ability to actively spoil the initiative, given the resulting loss of favor it would inevitably suffer from doing so.
Calm across regime-opposition frontlines would also provide a window for Turkey and allied states to encourage vetted opposition forces to reinforce the Euphrates Shield operation against ISIL in northern Aleppo, thereby expanding what appears to be a de facto safe zone. Should that safe space then prove sizeable enough, the arrival of Syria’s political opposition and the establishment of a forward-deployed Interim Government office would allow the beginnings of a genuinely credible moderate alternative to opposition Islamist governance to begin taking shape.
Assuming that the credible introduction of an enforcement mechanism did guarantee a more durable period of calm in Syria, the influence of extremist groups would almost certainly decline after a period of months. As that trend developed, the likelihood for tensions to develop between Syria’s mainstream opposition and extremists alongside them would rise, thereby presenting opportunities to encourage their isolation.
Over an undeterminable period of time, this process could eventually “re-sort” insurgents, whereby all those willing to abide by a continued ceasefire and engage in an eventual political process would become more and more distinguishable from those who would not. It would only be after such a process played out that external military strikes could be considered against those unsalvageable extremists more clearly delineated on the ground. Delaying this phase of kinetic operations against Al-Qaeda-linked factions would give the international community a better chance of ensuring that opposition forces would not perceive such action solely as a counter-revolutionary move. It would also ensure that as many insurgents as possible had an engaged and [hopefully] constructive role in a political process, while certain spoilers would be both constrained and minimized. Isolated from this dynamic, extremists would become outliers in determining the political trajectory of the crisis, rather than militarily taking the lead as they have until now.
Placed within a period of more durable calm facilitated by strict enforcement mechanisms, the Assad regime in Damascus would arguably for the first time be presented with clear limits of maneuver. Provided Russia and Iran were at best also constrained in terms of their potential to spoil, one would hope that Bashar al-Assad would be in a position in which he had to treat a political process with an extent of seriousness.
After all, If the Assad regime does have one weakness, it is sensitivity to genuine pressure. In September 2013, following the Sarin gas attack outside Damascus, merely the threat of limited punitive U.S. military action sparked a near-total collapse in regime and state unity, with as much as half of the country’s parliamentarians packing up their homes and fleeing to neighboring Lebanon. It would be under such a scenario that a more meaningful political process may have some hope of beginning. This does not necessarily require a vast military effort, but merely the integration of a punitive strike mechanism for flagrant ceasefire violations.
By placing Assad and his backers under a heightened level of pressure framed not around ‘regime change’ but civilian protection and a political process, this policy would also explicitly aim to empower the vast “gray zone” of Syrians whose voices are drowned out by the loyalist and opposition camps during conflict. Substantial portions of Syrian society have hedged their bets amid five years of conflict, but would advocate for at least some minimal level of change in their country. Amid all-out war, Assad is in a position to present much of this “gray zone” as belonging to his loyalist camp, but in reality it represents a critically important third party. Should an enforced ceasefire help to encourage some of this largely invisible populous to engage more publicly in the discussion over Syria’s future, Assad’s capacity to simply veto any political process would also be constrained.
No Certain Options
To re-iterate, this entire alternative policy scenario is not aimed at overthrowing Assad from power militarily, but it instead merely seeks to generate an improved context for a potentially more viable negotiation process. In the event that Assad still refused to engage constructively with a political process, the United States and its allied partners would re-energize hard-nosed diplomatic efforts to constrain the regime’s room for maneuver, while sustaining the threat of punitive measures for flagrant war crimes. Over time, it is hard to imagine this increased pressure not having at least induce some recalculation of interests.
This policy proposal does not seek to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Instead, it seeks to constrain his freedom of military maneuver while sustaining his “strong-enough” negotiating position so as to ensure negotiations appear a viable consideration. In short, it would be an attempt to force negotiations, but not necessarily his immediate defeat or removal from power. That would become a decision for a broadly representative negotiation process, led by Syrians and guaranteed and protected by the international community. Within this hypothetical context, the Assad regime would be in a strong enough negotiating position, backed up by its respective backers, to not be negotiating its own total defeat, although some extent of transition would necessarily have to be included within an extended roadmap.
Given that the cessation itself would be aimed at freezing the conflict and hardening semi-permanent frontlines, the process itself would appear to be facilitating a soft partition in so much as the resulting temporary boundaries would provide delineated zones of decentralized governance by different local actors throughout what would inevitably be an especially prolonged negotiation and transition process. For that phase to last a decade or more would be entirely within the realm of possibility.
No approach to “solving” Syria can be perfect, especially given the consequences resulting from the previous five years. However, the United States is currently faced by two options: stay the course and risk further diplomatic failure, which by itself will make an eventual solution even harder to attain; or initiate a more assertive policy aimed at coercing actors into more responsible behavior and at manipulating conditions on the ground so as to undermine extremist narratives.
The time to act is now. To suggest that an Assad regime victory is either inevitable or would lead to an enforced stability in Syria is nothing short of fantasy. Whatever is or is not done to save Syria, the country will experience intense instability for many years to come. The challenge that we face now is to ensure that what comes next is at the very least manageable. Though fraught with risk, more must be done to rescue what – if any – hope remains for an eventual resolution to a crisis whose menacing effects continue to be felt further and further afield.
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States seems keen to absolve itself of the “global policeman” label, but with great power comes great responsibility. We are already five years too late and our chances of success diminish every week, but the killing machine in Syria must be stopped. The price for doing so today will almost certainly fade in comparison to what we may face five more years from now. Contrary to Obama administration loyalists, there are other options available to us today – it is up to us whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.
Charles Lister is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative. He is also the author of the critically-acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford: 2016). The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of his employers.