Four Steps to Smother the Chaos in Syria
We can add Iraq—yes, deeply-divided, barely-sovereign Iraq—to the growing list of outside forces that have engaged in military action in Syria, as the Pentagon confirms that Iraqi F-16s crossed into Syria to strike Islamic State (ISIS) positions in April and again in May. The list of belligerents in the Syrian Civil War now includes the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Israel, Turkey, Russia, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran, as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah and proto-states such as Iraq’s Kurdish region. That’s 18 foreign military forces that have engaged, at one point or another, in Syria’s civil war. They’re not all targeting the same enemy, and they don’t agree on the objectives—which explains the silliness of Vladimir Putin’s warning that further action against Assad would trigger “chaos in international relations.” Syria—with five million refugees, 500,000 dead, the Pandora’s box of chemical warfare reopened, a cesspool of terror groups, and Russians and Americans, Israelis and Iranians shooting at each other—is the very definition of chaos. The challenge now is to smother the chaos.
God does not like chaos. Genesis tells us He brought form and order out of chaos. Paul writes that He is not a God of disorder, governments are in place for our own good, and we should pray for “all those in authority that we may live peaceful and quiet lives.”
The implication is clear: government serves an essential function in God’s plan. Legitimate governments exist to protect life and property, be instruments of justice, and maintain law and order within and between nation-states. As the Providence declaration on faith and foreign policy puts it, “upholding order is the first function of government.”
Bringing some semblance of order to Syria requires intense and focused effort on the part of the White House (not exactly President Trump’s strong suit), which brings us to our first action item: the president should appoint a seasoned leader to steer the US through Syria’s chaos and into a tolerable, durable postwar status. Names like Leon Panetta, David Petraeus, James Jones, and Ryan Crocker come to mind. This person would need to be given broad authority to identify and pursue the least-bad endstate for America. The key phrase here is “least bad.” Postwar Syria is not going to be perfect or pretty.
Washington should use the process that ended the wars in the former Yugoslavia—another artificial post-World War I construct—as a model for a partitioned peace.
Partition should never be entered into lightly. It’s at odds with the Enlightenment notion that character is more important than creed and tribe; it always looks better on paper than how it plays out in practice; and it can undermine international stability. For centuries, the world has been governed by nation-states with clearly defined, internationally recognized borders. This has served as the very foundation of international order. However, when trying to hold a state together becomes bloodier and more disruptive to international order than allowing it to break apart, the sensible course is to let that state dissolve.
That’s what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The peoples there (some Catholic, some Muslim, some Orthodox, some oriented toward Europe, some toward Russia, some toward Turkey) were held together by brute force until 1991 (not unlike Syria under the Assads or Iraq under Saddam). Over the next eight years, the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia claimed 250,000 lives.
Thanks to the hands-on efforts of NATO, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), those wars were smothered. Yugoslavia is now seven countries, and Europe is more stable and more peaceful because of Yugoslavia’s dissolution.
We’re nearing such a moment in Syria. It’s already partitioned in practice; the next step would be to make the new borders official via an international effort.
Washington must speak plainly—albeit privately—with Turkey’s government. Since Erdogan’s values do not align with the West’s, the focus should be on his interests. The message, best delivered by a retired flag officer experienced in dealing with Ankara, should be conveyed in a series of questions: Are you with Russia—your ancient foe—or the West? Do you trust Putin—serial violator of treaties, patron of Assad, and self-interested opportunist—or NATO—which has stood by you for almost seven decades? Do you want your country to be alone again—accepted by neither Europe nor Asia and outside the protective friendship of NATO and the US?
Hopefully, such a message would get Erdogan’s attention. But Washington should be prepared for Erdogan responding in a manner that accelerates Turkey’s drift away from the West—and Erdogan should be prepared for the consequences of such a response. These include withdrawing US forces from Turkey and relocating them to existing bases in Jordan and Iraqi Kurdistan (something Iraq’s new powerbroker Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been a US foe since 2003, may not like); downgrading Turkey’s position within NATO; canceling Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program (something Congress is already contemplating); and, most worrisome of all for Ankara, formally endorsing an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
Policymakers spanning the political spectrum—from President Obama’s vice president to President Trump’s national security advisor—have argued that Iraq’s Kurds deserve independence. For now, Washington is right not to hasten Iraq’s dissolution. But when/if Iraq finally comes apart, the United States should be prepared to help the freest, most stable, most pro-American piece of Iraq join the family of nations—regardless of what Erdogan thinks.
The counterargument that America needs more allies in the region—not fewer—is sound in theory but shaky in practice because Turkey doesn’t act like an ally. Losing an authoritarian, pro-Putin, pro-Tehran, anti-American, paranoid, and increasingly Islamist “ally” would seem to be a case of addition by subtraction.
Unless we want to fight a war against Russia, we must come to grips with Russia being part of postwar Syria. This is one of the consequences of President Obama’s failure to intervene at an early stage in Syria. But don’t take my word for it.
Zbigniew Brzezinski blamed Russia’s lunge into Syria on “American political impotence.” Panetta argued that the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” Pointing to years of “inaction,” Petraeus called Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl—spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world.”
Petraeus wasn’t exaggerating. With half-a-million dead, Assad ensconced in Damascus, Russia digging in, and Iran gaining a new beachhead, Syria is a geostrategic catastrophe for America.
After Putin intervened, President Obama warned that Russia would end up “stuck in a quagmire.” What he failed to grasp is that Putin wanted to get “stuck” in Syria. By intervening, not only did Putin rescue a puppet regime and circumscribe US influence, he also secured Moscow’s long-term presence in a region it had been locked out of since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Assad recently agreed to grant Moscow access to Syria for half-a-century.
There are two sides to this coin, however. If Putin wants to prop up the beastly Assad regime and revert to the Cold War practice of recruiting client states, he can foot the bill for reconstruction. Moreover, the US is not obliged to make Russia’s unwelcome return to the region easy. US military and intelligence assets should harass Russian assets as they move in and out of Syria. Likewise, diplomatic, military, and economic tools should be used to persuade Iraq and, if possible, Turkey that Russian military movement into Syria should not be permitted through their airspace. Those same tools should be used to persuade Baghdad to block Iran’s continued overland access to Syria (something Sadr, who opposes Iranian influence, may agree to).
If that fails, the Iraqis need to know there will be a price for siding with Tehran—and the Iranians need to know that America will frustrate their efforts to sow more chaos in the region.
Photo Credit: A Coalition member hangs an 81-millimeter mortar prior to launching it at a known ISIS location near the Iraqi-Syrian border on May 13, 2018. The Coalition provided fire support and air strikes to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces as they continued Operation Roundup, the military offensive to destroy ISIS and liberate all land east of the Euphrates River. US Army photo by Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster.