The Islamic State’s carnage in Paris and other recent attacks have added more urgency to the challenges facing the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian crisis. Critics have labeled the approach indecisive, reactive, pathetic, late, absent, dangerous, and other adjectives that reflect the quandary in which Obama and his national security team find themselves.
The speed with which events are unfolding in Syria and associated battlefields – from Iraq to France – forces the administration to constantly consider variations of the following options. But because none of the choices are optimal, Obama and his team often seem immobilized as they attempt to find solutions to what has become a massive political, military, and humanitarian disaster. While future U.S. policy in Syria cannot be predicted, it is likely that Obama, in the waning days of his presidency, will continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely on Gulf partners to support the fight against Assad.
Direct Military Involvement
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 the administration has resisted becoming militarily involved in what it believes should have been a domestic affair leading to the removal of an autocratic leader and his repressive regime through a peaceful transfer of power. Many opportunities for a reversal of this reluctance to use force have presented themselves: the regime’s chemical weapons use in 2013, its ongoing barrel bomb onslaught against civilian targets, and Turkish and other allies’ pressure to establish no-fly zones to provide safe havens for non-combatants and for a potential opposition provisional government or civil administration.
Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops.
Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops. Calls by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in late 2015 to introduce 20,000 American troops equally to Syria and Iraq increased pressure on the administration. Nevertheless, the outcome of such calls is contingent on whether the countries named by the McCain-Graham initiative – Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – accept fielding the balance of the total number of forces proposed – 100,000. Given these countries’ domestic worries and regional commitments, this would be a tall order. The latest row between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the former’s execution of Shi‘i religious figure Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others, assures Riyadh’s reluctance to engage in such a scheme.
Directly Arming the Opposition
The administration has also resisted pressure to arm anti-regime forces in Syria. It is reluctant, if not outright opposed, to throw its weight behind groups it thus far feels it cannot trust to be moderate and committed to a pluralistic post-civil war Syria. If anything is known about Obama, it is his penchant for asking about the day after. Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Libya, give him pause and prompt strategic recalcitrance.
The ill-fated plan in 2015 to vet, arm, train, and field a CIA-supported force to fight the Islamic State was the administration’s attempt to avoid the potential embarrassment of sponsoring a fighting faction that could later turn on the United States. That the endeavor ended in a fiasco in which, for example, the U.S.-trained rebels surrendered equipment to the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in exchange for safe passage, was as much a result of the administration’s fecklessness as it was bad luck. The 50 Special Forces soldiers currently deployed for training and target spotting will be judged in the weeks and months ahead, but the government’s mandate that all these forces fight the Islamic State without confronting the Syrian regime is more confusing than helpful, for the administration and its supporters and detractors alike.
Supporting the Kurds against ISIS
The Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish factions have fought impressively against the Islamic State in northeast Syria and northern Iraq, with resulting victories. The former have pushed ISIS out of strategic towns on the Syrian-Turkish border, while the latter have regained territory that could be used as a staging ground for a north-south campaign along the Syrian-Iraqi border, thus splitting and weakening the so-called caliphate. The support of Sunni Arab tribal militias from both countries has added much-needed firepower and political support for the endeavor, and the latest victory in Iraq’s Ramadi attests to the useful contribution these militias can make.
The Obama administration has made working with the Syrian Kurds part of its strategy in its fight against the Islamic State. It reasons that the Kurds are so far the only reliable partners on the ground and so it must collaborate with them until suitable alternatives are found and trained.
However, relying on the Kurds is laden with strategic complications. First, Turkey sees Kurdish successes against ISIS as building blocks for potential self-rule in northern Syria. Second, Syrian Kurdish forces fighting ISIS – the People’s Protection Units, or YPG – are on friendly terms with the Syrian regime, and hence their success would not hasten the exit of Assad. Third, Kurdish victories in northern Syria would deprive Turkey of the opportunity to create a safe zone along the border if it so wished in the future. Fourth, the area’s Arabs may see relying heavily on the Kurds in northern Syria as leading to an autonomous Kurdish region at the expense of a unified country.
Despite these issues, the Obama administration has made working with the Syrian Kurds part of its strategy in its fight against the Islamic State. It reasons that the Kurds are so far the only reliable partners on the ground and so it must collaborate with them until suitable alternatives are found and trained.
Joining a Russian-Iranian Alliance
The Obama administration has consistently declared that Assad must play no role in the country’s future. It thus brooks no ideas, pushed by Russia and Iran, for an international coalition to fight ISIS and other jihadi groups that would include the Syrian regime. Indeed, such a coalition has no hope of coming to fruition.
French and Russian discussions about the possibility have come to naught as Paris refuses to deal with Assad, and Moscow and Tehran so far see him as necessary for a Syrian strategy going forward. Although Moscow has suggested that its commitment to Assad could lessen, such intimations do not come close to genuine assertions of sacrificing the Syrian leader for the sake of a successful fight against ISIS and a workable political solution to end the civil war. It remains to be seen what the upcoming UN-hosted negotiations in Geneva will produce, keeping in mind the paucity of what could still be possible in light of the current tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
If the Obama administration has proved anything since the start of the Syrian crisis, it is that it prefers strategic ambiguity to striding brazenly into the Syrian quicksand.
While the United States may be amenable to a change of position regarding an interim period during which the Syrian state can be re-stitched together, it does not see a wholesale reassessment of its stance as possible, or even necessary. As Assad looks weaker as Russian military operations fail to dramatically change the battlefield, and Iran looks over its shoulder lest Moscow strike an unacceptable deal, Washington is likely content – given the extant unpalatable choices – to wait everyone out.If the Obama administration has proved anything since the start of the Syrian crisis, it is that it prefers strategic ambiguity to striding brazenly into the Syrian quicksand.
Conclusion: Limping Forward
The Obama administration, by not committing its military to a ground campaign in Syria – against ISIS or the Syrian regime – will not face bringing bloodied troops home. It has therefore decided to concentrate its efforts in a strategy that it believes causes the least harm regionally and internationally: an air assault on ISIS, with its Arabian Gulf allies materially supporting the military campaign against Assad. Russia and Iran may continue to support Assad, but they risk undermining their regional and international influence if – or when – he exits.