How can your strategy collapse when you don’t have a strategy to begin with?

Vox informs us that “American strategy in Syria is collapsing,” and while they’re right, I think they’re overselling things by describing what we’re doing in Syria as a “strategy.” The Obama administration hasn’t had a coherent strategy on Syria from the beginning of the civil war there, and really didn’t have a coherent strategy for responding to the Arab Spring altogether. In principle we should have been all over the Arab Spring, you know? When President Obama went to Cairo and gave his speech to the Muslim world, he said this:

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.

There is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments – provided they govern with respect for all their people.

Now, admittedly, Obama also said that “America will defend itself respectful of the sovereignty of nations and the rule of law” and then instituted a drone policy that virtually spit on national sovereignty, so maybe the Cairo speech shouldn’t be the milestone here. But Obama’s words weren’t all that different from past presidents who liked to insist to the world that America stands for basic human and civil rights while backing repressive dictatorships around the world out of a sense that those dictatorships better served America’s national interest. The difference is that Obama actually had his words put to the test in the very region (hell, the very city) in which he uttered them.

When the Arab Spring came about, you could practically see Washington bathed in flop sweat as it tried to formulate a response that wouldn’t contradict our words and ideals but also wouldn’t really put any pressure on our dictator pals to step aside and open the door to an uncertain democratic future. So we were behind the curve all the way on Egypt, insisting in 2011 that we were “committed to working with the government and the people,” despite the fact that Egypt’s government and her people were diametrically opposed to one another just then. We expressed concerns about violence and talked about the need for “transition” while continually praising Mubarak as an important U.S. ally. When Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohamed Morsi was elected president, instead of focusing on the achievement of a popularly contested democratic election, we declared that we weren’t sure if the new government was a U.S. ally. Maybe they weren’t anymore, but if we’re really committed to the principle of self-government, then so what? Then, when Morsi started to govern less like an elected president and more like an elected dictator, we were pretty quiet about that, presumably because our Egypt policy had genuinely and completely gone off the rails by then. We were even less coherent after Morsi was ousted in last year’s military coup. First we refused to call it a coup, then we condemned the violence that followed, then we resumed sending Egypt hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid. Way to take a strong stand for, ah, something.

In hindsight, the mess that the Arab Spring made of our Egypt policy should have been a preview of what happened, what’s happening, in Syria. Because if we couldn’t manage a coherent response to Egypt, hoo boy.

At first, though, Syria was different. Bashar al-Assad was no U.S. ally, so we had no problem immediately declaring that he “the time has come for President Assad to step aside” once the protests started and he began the crackdown that led to the civil war. This was another Libya, where the leader being targeted by the popular uprising was no friend of America, and so we were totally down with joining an international force to help Libya’s rebels get rid of him (the fact that life in Libya is arguably worse now than it was under Gaddafi is mostly a matter for another time, but it does inform the changes in our policy toward Syria).

We imposed sanctions against Assad and his cronies and our rhetoric was much sharper than it was with respect to Egypt, but then we kind of stopped there. Unlike Libya, there was no emerging international coalition committed to dealing with Assad, and Obama undoubtedly was afraid to head into his re-election campaign having just led the U.S. into yet another major military engagement in the Middle East. Assad also had powerful allies, unlike Gaddafi, and we were reluctant to provoke a confrontation with Russia or Iran over a fight that wasn’t really germane to America’s national interests, even if it was in alignment with America’s national values. There was also the teensy problem that the most active and visible factions of the highly fractured rebel coalition were the most extreme: Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the group that would soon become known as ISIS), and other extremist groups aligned with funding networks from the Persian Gulf states. We were worried that if Assad went he would be replaced by one or a coalition of these extremist groups, which would have been worse than Assad, or by ongoing and bloody chaos (as in Libya), or by a messy Islamist democracy that would invite a quick return to military rule (as in Egypt).

So we did nothing, and meanwhile Assad craftily focused all his military attention on the more moderate elements of the rebellion, dropping barrel bombs on key military targets like Group of Civilians in an Aleppo Market, while leaving ISIS the hell alone. He reasoned, probably correctly, that if the civil war came down to a battle between Assad and ISIS, the whole world, including the United States, would line up behind Assad. Obama came close to intervening in the war when Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against the rebels last year, but he was scared off by the unpopularity of such an action in the U.S. and was undercut by a Russian plan to disarm Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles but otherwise stay out of the war. We even stopped sending the small arms we’d been sending to more moderate rebel factions, out of a not-unjustified fear that those weapons would eventually find their way to Nusra and ISIS, who could someday turn them against us. Then ISIS captured Mosul and our already impossible-to-discern Syria policy was made even more inscrutable. Now, I’m not saying that what happened in northern Iraq justified U.S. intervention or that ISIS rises to the level of a real threat to the U.S., but the fact is that we are intervening and it seems like it would be a good idea if somebody, preferably somebody in the administration, could figure out why we’ve intervened or what we hope that intervention will accomplish.

So what is America’s strategy in Syria now? Can anybody explain it in less than a ten page white paper? Our primary target is ISIS, which we only want to strike in Syria insofar as doing so weakens their ability to project force into Iraq, except that we’re also heavily bombing the northeast Syrian city of Kobane to help defend it from ISIS, and Kobane has almost nothing to do with Iraq (two weeks before we really started bombing there we were saying that Kobane was “not a major concern” for us). We also want to build up the capacity of the moderate rebels to fight ISIS, but they keep telling us that they’re going to use whatever weapons and training we provide them to fight Assad, not ISIS. And why wouldn’t they? ISIS isn’t the one dropping bombs on refugee camps. Assad is the enemy for these rebels, period. Most of them have no love for Nusra or ISIS, but given the choice between attacking them or attacking Assad, it’s not even close.

That may be a moot point, because Nusra has now dealt the moderates such a massive defeat in northwestern Syria (in which Nusra seized a bunch of U.S.-supplied small arms, go figure) that it may be impossible for the U.S. to salvage a capable fighting force out of what remains. We’re now “weighing whether to broaden the air campaign in Syria” to include Nusra, which is an odd way to phrase that since we’ve already hit Nusra before (albeit to little effect), even though we decided for some reason to call them by another name when we did. We’ve almost completely stopped even talking about Assad, though presumably we’d still like it if he shoved off as soon as possible, because for one thing we’re trying to conclude a sensitive negotiation with Assad’s Iranian allies, but more importantly because there is no possible way for the U.S. to degrade ISIS without helping Assad, and we’d rather not talk about that if we can help it. We’ve even stopped paying the paltry $500,000/year we were paying the Commission for International Justice and Accountability to sneak into Syria and collect the ample evidence of Assad’s many war crimes, so we’re not even doing a good job of maintaining the pretense of opposing Assad anymore.

So look, this is a complete mess. We can’t fight ISIS without helping Assad, but we can’t ally overtly with Assad because, well, the war criminal thing, but also because we’d lose any support we are able to build up in the Syrian and Iraqi Sunni communities, support that is vital to the mission of eventually dislodging ISIS. We can’t target Assad, because the immediate beneficiaries of that would be Nusra and ISIS, and also because it would have a very negative impact on the nuclear talks with Iran, which are still the most important thing we’re doing right now in the Middle East. We’re hoping to defeat ISIS by creating a moderate opposition army that doesn’t really exist right now and that will almost certainly attack Assad, not ISIS, if it ever does come into existence. Where’s the strategy? Is there any strategy that could tick off all these competing boxes?

But by any measure Assad has to go. He will never be able to regain enough control over Syria to reimpose some measure of stability there, not after everything that’s happened over the last 3+ years. In fact, the instability he inherently creates in Syria feeds ISIS and Nusra, so the longer he continues to cling to power in Damascus the longer those groups will have a space in which to operate. And, to circle back to the beginning of this piece, opposing Assad, and supporting the goal of a Syrian democracy, is the only choice for an America that wants to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk. The only path out of this mess is a negotiated settlement to the Syrian war that replaces Assad with a moderate coalition government that can then partner with the international community and the Sunni tribes to get rid of ISIS, much like the government in Baghdad is supposed to be doing (it’s not, but again that’s a rant for another time). But why on Earth would Assad negotiate right now? The only enemy that has been a real threat to him is currently being targeted by America, so until the moderate rebels can field a real army there’s no military reason for Assad to back down. He’s also not feeling any pressure from his backers in Moscow and (more importantly) Tehran to come to the table, something that could, conceivably, be changed after a nuclear agreement is reached with the Iranians, but that’s pure wishful thinking right there.

So the answer is to fight ISIS from the air while building an army from the ground up that can take on both ISIS and Assad, but only after we’ve finished negotiating with the Iranians and can hopefully convince them to tell Assad that it’s time to go. We can’t finish off ISIS as long as Assad is in power and we also can’t contain ISIS without tightening Assad’s hold on power in the sliver of Syria he still controls.

Again, is there anything here that looks like a strategy? It seems a lot more like a wishlist or a daydream (nightmare?) to me.


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