While at the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey on November 16- President Obama spoke about Islamic State’s (ISIS) terrorist attacks in Paris and America’s strategy in Syria. He assured the audience, “we have a comprehensive strategy using all elements of our power — military, intelligence, economic, development, and the strength of our communities.” The strategy he has pursued has been “the right strategy” and is “going to work”. When a reporter from Agence France-Presse asked if the United States should change its strategy since the Paris attack had changed the equation, Obama answered, “Well, keep in mind what we have been doing,” and he then listed what America had already done. Translation for America’s French allies: “Non.”
The President then responded to his critics:
In the aftermath of Paris, as I listen to those who suggest something else needs to be done, typically the things they suggest need to be done are things we are already doing. The one exception is that there have been a few who suggested that we should put large numbers of U.S. troops on the ground.
Now, to give the President credit, many Republican critics have not been forthcoming with comprehensive strategies for how to deal with ISIS or Syria. Criticizing a vague policy is harder than a specific policy, so voters should not be surprised the presidential debates have not produced a comprehensive strategy. However, Obama is disingenuous when he describes his critics:
I think that when you listen to what they actually have to say, what they’re proposing, most of the time, when pressed, they describe things that we’re already doing. Maybe they’re not aware that we’re already doing them. […] Now, there are a few exceptions. And as I said, the primary exception is those who would deploy U.S. troops on a large scale to retake territory either in Iraq or now in Syria.
This rhetoric style, which many politicians use, is a classic example of how Obama discredits his critics. He first lays out his position; he explains an extreme straw-man view as an alternative option that seems unreasonable; he finally says his position is the only reasonable option. In this rhetoric he ignores the fact that there are other options and/or better explanations of the alternative option than his straw-man characterization. In contrast to Obama’s insistence that his critics either do not understand what the United States is doing in Syria or just want to send in tens of thousands of American troops, a panel of research fellows from Brookings explained three alternative foreign policy options.
Before explaining the three alternative strategies, one should understand the problem with Obama’s strategy. First and foremost, it is not a coherent strategy. At least it is not a “goal-oriented policy”, as Christopher R. Hill- former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and former Ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Macedonia, and Poland- argued in Project Syndicate. Obama has said things he would like, such as “Assad must go” or ISIS must be stopped, but during the press conference he mostly described what the United States was doing. He did not describe, at least not convincingly, how what America was doing would achieve any specific goal. In fact, some of these actions are counter-productive if America wants to “stop ISIS”, whether that means completely degrading and destroying the organization or simply stopping terrorist attacks on American soil. Obama admitted that Assad’s “war against the Syrian people is the primary root cause of this crisis” and that removing ISIS from Syrian territory “does not solve the underlying problem of eliminating the dynamics that are producing these kinds of violent extremist groups”. As Tamara Cofman Wittes noted at the Brookings event, if the root cause of the crisis is the Syrian dictator Assad and his horrendous war crimes, then degrading and destroying ISIS cannot solve the crisis. Another ISIS-like group would replace it because the “underlying problem”, Assad, remained. Therefore, the second major problem with Obama’s strategy is his over-emphasis on ISIS. The panelists were all in agreement that Assad’s mass murder of his own citizens, especially when they were protesting peacefully, is the primary driver in this civil war and that large portions of the country will not accept his continued rule. However, during the press conference Obama mentioned Assad by name only once.
The President does hope that the peace conference in Vienna could create a settlement to deal with Assad and Syria, but the hope is greatly misplaced since no Syrians participated at the conference, except for maybe a waiter.
Given that Obama’s strategy is incoherent and will not work at achieving a specific goal, whether that goal is stopping ISIS or removing Assad, American voters should consider the three alternative options proposed at Brookings. Michael O’Hanlon proposed a “Confederal Syria” with an “ink-spot” strategy. Kenneth Pollack proposed building a “New Syrian Army” without sending a large number of American troops to Syria. Then Daniel Byman proposed a strong containment strategy. All of the panelists admitted that none of the strategies was perfect and that a better solution could have been found years ago when Obama was dithering on the crisis. The proposed options would all be difficult and should not be consider an easy-fix. However, according to the panelists, continuing the status-quo would lead to worse outcomes that threaten everyone’s safety, not just for Syrians but also for their neighbors, Europeans, and Americans.
O’Hanlon’s Confederal Syria model assumes that Syria, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together again. Not only has Assad shelled peaceful protesters, used chemical weapons on civilians, and dropped barrel bombs on his people, but other actors have committed atrocities that would make any peaceful reunification under a strong central state unsustainable. Therefore, the United States should follow an “ink-spot” approach to build different enclaves where American-backed and -armed fighters could provide security for themselves and prove that they can govern their territory. A couple thousand foreign troops could provide training to the Syrian soldiers inside the enclave instead of outside Syria. The enclaves would start on territory next to potential allies, such as Turkey and Jordan, and then expand slowly into surrounding territory like ink spreading on blotting paper, which would put pressure onto Assad and ISIS. The model’s great advantage is that it would not require cooperation with Iran or Russia. Plus, even if the American-supported enclaves could only control half the territory, that control would be sufficient to put enough pressure on Assad to accept a negotiated and sustainable peace deal. This deal could allow Assad to keep control of an Alawite enclave. In the end, the product would look more like Bosnia or Somalia today. Neither are great countries, but they are both better than Syria today. However, the enclaves would be weak. ISIS has proven it can enter enclaves for quick strikes that kill rival leaders. Moreover, Turkey is unlikely to accept a Kurdish enclave on its border, which would likely be necessary for the United States.
Pollock’s New Syrian Army plan is not entirely different from O’Hanlon’s proposal. The biggest difference is that a large conventional army would be trained outside of Syria instead of in an enclave. The proposal is also different than Obama’s rebel training program because the new army would not be so picky about whom to accept. According to Pollock, around 5,000 to 10,000 rebels volunteered to join Obama’s program, but only 50 were deemed suitable. Training would not have to create a spectacular army because neither ISIS nor Assad has a great military. The new army would have to be just good enough to win while using western air power and special forces support. Once a stalemate can be created, a peace deal can be settled. This plan’s advantage is that, unlike in O’Hanlon’s proposal, the United States would have more direct control over the actors. Moreover, in spite of claims that military intervention does not work, similar strategies have been used successfully in Africa. The problem is that the plan would be more expensive than the other plans, even though large numbers of American troops would not be deployed to Syria. Many political elites inside the Beltway fret about Americans’ war weariness, which would make them unlikely to support this plan.
Byman has considered America’s war weariness and concluded that a containment strategy would be the best option since a half-hearted intervention has caused multiple disasters. The main purpose of the containment would be to prevent the civil war’s chaos from spilling-over into neighboring countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and so forth. The containment would be different than what Obama’s strategy, which could not stop chaos from spilling over into Iraq, has thus far accomplished. For instance, the large refugee camps in neighboring countries would be broken up, and smaller refugee camps would be built further away from the border. This move would help prevent fighters from turning the camps into pseudo-bases from which they could enter and leave at will. The refugee camps would also need better policing and monitoring to prevent militias from finding safe harbor in them. Byman notes that there have been some improvements at the camps in Turkey, but more needs to be done. In addition to moving and reforming the camps, neighboring countries would receive massive military support, including counterterrorism training, to prevent the instability from spreading into other countries as it did in Iraq. This strategy’s advantage is that it requires the least amount of resources while still protecting allies and preventing terrorism better than Obama’s strategy has done thus far. There are two main disadvantages, though. First, the civil war and chaos would continue, and ISIS would remain in control over large amounts of territory. Though Byman did not mention how long the chaos would continue, several years or perhaps longer seems reasonable. This continued chaos would likely mean that terrorist attacks would remain a risk and that refugee flows to Europe would continue. Second, even though most Beltway elites assume that the American public is war-weary, the truth is more complex. Public opinion is unstable, and events like the Paris attacks can shift public opinion rapidly, especially if an attack happened in America. There would be a strong temptation for “mission creep”, and Obama’s approach to Syria gives an example of how this gradual escalation could occur. Judging from Obama’s actions and speeches, he never really wanted to get involved in Syria. According to another panelist, Will McCants, Obama unwillingly intervened in Syria just enough to appease voters and blunt criticisms, and each time Obama stepped up the U.S. military campaign in Iraq or Syria, there have been almost no meaningful public opposition. Therefore, the American public is likely to eventually push for more intervention under a containment scenario. This escalation could easily slide into the half-hearted intervention Byman dreads.
Considering all of these imperfect strategies, which one is most likely to be implemented? Obama’s strategy, because he is still the President. Therefore, Assad will remain in power (unless the Russians decide otherwise), and no one should expect conditions to improve in Syria. Citizens across Europe and America should hunker down and batten down the hatches. The past month has proven that ISIS is capable of launching quick attacks on soft targets, and no one should assume they will not try to attack the United States. Obama may be able to “squeeze” ISIS out of Syrian territory, but if Assad remains in power, another organization will follow ISIS’ example and fill the void ISIS leaves behind. Meanwhile, no one will suffer more than the Syrians themselves.
Mark Melton is the Deputy Editor for Providence. He earned his Master’s degree in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews and has a specialization in civil conflict and European politics. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Language & International Trade from Mississippi College. Prior to moving to DC, he worked as a political science adjunct professor at community colleges in Mississippi. He is Providence‘s resident Millennial (don’t let the premature salt and pepper hair fool you- he’s still a Millennial).
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