n September 10, in Geneva, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced a cease-fire agreement in Syria—the second one this year. It was supposed to be a breakthrough for diplomacy, but within the hour of its implementation, the ceasefire began collapsing. The predictable failure of this “peace plan” offers yet more evidence of the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Obama administration’s approach to this conflict, which has become the greatest strategic and humanitarian disaster of the 21st century.
Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011, more than 400,000 people have been killed and a greater if unknown number injured. Another 11 million people have been driven out of their homes, including 4.8 million who have been forced to flee the country. The war has turned more than half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million people into fatalities or refugees. That mass migration has severely affected not just neighboring countries but Europe as well; the influx of refugees is sparking fears of terrorism and leading to a right-wing backlash across the Continent that may have helped convince British voters to leave the European Union.
Those fears are rooted in the fact that the Syrian war has created a breeding ground for extremist organizations, the two most notorious being ISIS and the Syria Conquest Front (formerly the Al Nusra Front, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria). ISIS has become a magnet for jihadists from all over the world, some of whom have already returned to their countries of origin to commit acts of terrorism. The group’s propaganda and its aura of success have inspired another breed of terrorists in such places as St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Orlando, Florida. And Syria has attracted not only Sunni extremists but their Shiite counterparts as well. The Bashar al-Assad regime has been able to hold on to power only with the help of Hezbollah and other Iranian-controlled Shiite militias that play an increasingly prominent role in government-held areas. Moreover, with its actions in Syria, Russia has now assumed its largest role in the Middle East since the height of the Cold War.
Former CIA Director David Petraeus has aptly dubbed Syria a “geopolitical Chernobyl.” The Kerry-Lavrov plan adopted on September 10 was supposed to cap the toxins spewing out of Syria and begin the cleanup process. It stipulated that if there was a significant reduction in violence for seven days and if humanitarian relief supplies were allowed to reach the besieged city of Aleppo, Russia and the United States would work together to target Islamic State and Syria Conquest Front extremists. Seven days without violence didn’t seem a lot to ask, but then, those involved in the negotiation had wildly different purposes for pursuing it.
As soon as the cease-fire began on Monday, September 12, there were reports of violations, primarily by Syrian government forces. Five days later, on Saturday, September 17, U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zour province. The pilots apparently mistook the soldiers for Islamist militants. As soon as the U.S. command center realized its mistake, it stopped the bombing. The U.S. then issued a craven apology to the Russian government: “The United States has relayed our regret through the Russian Federation for the unintentional loss of life of Syrian forces.” Thus it was that Barack Obama’s administration openly apologized for bombing Assad’s forces, which have become notorious for dropping “barrel bombs” on civilian neighborhoods, torturing prisoners, and starving rebel-held towns.
The situation turned from farce to tragedy two days later, on September 19, when a humanitarian aid convoy heading from the Turkish border to the besieged city of Aleppo was repeatedly bombed by marauding aircraft. At least 18 trucks with large “UN” markings on them, carrying tons of flour, medicine, and other relief supplies, were destroyed and more than 30 people killed, including at least a dozen aid workers. A nearby hospital was also struck. It did not take U.S. intelligence long to conclude that the strikes were most likely carried out by two Russian Su-24 jets based in Latakia, Syria.
The Russian and Syrian governments had been fully informed of the route and location of the aid convoy, yet one of them bombed it anyway, whether by accident or design. Even in a conflict known for shocking atrocities, the destruction of aid supplies and the murder of aid workers stood out for its inhumanity. To add insult to injury, neither Assad nor Putin owned up to what their aircraft had done, with the Russians preferring to deflect blame with a variety of unbelievable and ever-shifting cover stories, including unfounded allegations that an American drone had destroyed the convoy.
And how did Secretary of State Kerry react to this outrage on the part of his negotiating partners? By clinging to the hope that the cease-fire was “not dead,” even as Syrian government forces were resuming their full-scale assault on Aleppo. Not until October 3—two weeks after the destruction of the aid convoy—did Kerry finally concede the obvious and call off his ill-fated talks with Lavrov. By that point, the Assad regime and its Russian enablers were pulverizing the rebel-held section of Aleppo, notwithstanding the fact that 250,000 civilians, including 100,000 children, remain trapped there. Russia aircraft dropped incendiaries, cluster munitions, and even giant “bunker buster” bombs on homes and hospitals, killing and maiming at random. “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism,” the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, charged.
She’s right, but Power’s condemnation only underlined the yawning chasm between the administration’s tough talk and its ineffectual actions. It would not be hard for the U.S. to act to impede, and even stop, the Assad war machine at scant risk to American lives. U.S. aircraft, which are already flying over Syria, could ground Assad’s air force by threatening to destroy any Syrian airplanes that take off or by destroying them on the ground. Grounding the Russian air force, which has been operating in Syria since September 2015, would be trickier without running the risk of a major power conflict, but it could be done by providing Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles such as the Stingers that the U.S. supplied to the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s. (Electronic safeguards could be added to these missile systems to prevent them from being used outside of Syria.)
Why hasn’t the U.S. taken such steps? The responsibility for this inaction rests with one man—Barack Obama. It will forever mar his legacy. And it has created a vastly greater mess for his successor than George W. Bush left him with Iraq—which had been a mess until Petraeus under Bush’s guidance turned the war around with the “surge” and all but won it.
In August 2011, President Obama said: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” But the president rejected suggestions early on to impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force and to set up “safe zones” where rebels could organize and civilians could live without the fear of attack. He also rejected suggestions, including a detailed plan put forward by Petraeus in the summer of 2012, to train and arm the Syrian opposition to overthrow Assad. If such action had been taken, there likely would have been no outflow of refugees to destabilize neighboring states—and extremist organizations such as ISIS might never have come into existence.
Rather than trying to address the underlying cause of the conflict—the determination of Assad to hang on to power at all costs—Obama dithered and acted around the edges. In August 2012, he announced that the U.S. would not take any military action unless “we start seeing movement on the chemical-weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.” That, he said, in words that would come back to haunt him, would be a “red line for us.”
A year later, copious evidence had accumulated of the Assad regime using sarin gas on defenseless civilians. In early September 2013, Obama appeared to be days away from ordering air strikes. But then he blinked. Rather than bomb Assad, he reached a deal with him and his Russian sponsors: Assad would agree to voluntarily give up his chemical weapons in return for a promise from the U.S. not to attack him. Assad did—but not all of them. As recently as September 2016, there have been reports of the regime attacking civilians with poison gas. (ISIS also continues to use chemical weapons, including against U.S. troops, although it’s unclear whether the poisons come from an Assad stockpile or are newly manufactured.)
“I’m very proud of this moment,” Obama later told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. He’s the only one. To the rest of the world this was a devastating demonstration of irresolution that empowered the Assad killing machine and did incalculable harm to American credibility in ways that echo far beyond the Levant. The prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, told Goldberg: “By not intervening early, we have created a monster. We were absolutely certain that the U.S. administration would say yes. Working with the Americans, we had already seen the targets. It was a great surprise. If we had bombed as was planned, I think things would be different today.” Bashar Assad himself testified, inadvertently, to how much damage was caused by Obama’s refusal to act when he explained to the Associated Press on September 22 why he was resuming his offensive against Aleppo despite Kerry’s calls for a cease-fire: “American officials—they say something in the morning and they do the opposite in the evening,” he said. “You cannot take them at their word, to be frank. We don’t listen to their statements, we don’t care about it, we don’t believe it.”
Eschewing serious military action, Obama opted for a low-level program to train Syrian rebel forces—but only to fight ISIS. Rebels were told they would be supplied with American arms but could not use them against the Assad regime, which was bombarding their homes and killing their families. Few volunteers were willing to sign up under those conditions. In September 2015, General Lloyd Austin, then head of Central Command, had to admit to Congress that a $500 million train-and-equip program had resulted in only “four or five” rebels actually fighting ISIS.
Since then, the administration has all but given up training Arab fighters, preferring to lavish its largesse on the Kurds, who have the considerable appeal of being secularists. The U.S. has provided air cover and Special Forces advisers to assist the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that has liberated part of northern Syria from ISIS’s grip. But the YPG is more interested in establishing its own Kurdish state, known as Rojava, than in defeating ISIS. And U.S. support for this group has badly strained relations with Ankara, because the YPG is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist group that is waging war on Turkey (and that has close ties to Iran). This is a major problem because it will be difficult to bring about any lasting resolution of the Syrian crisis without the active support of Turkey. Yet the U.S. and Turkey are now operating at cross-purposes. In late August 2016, the conflict reached another level of absurdity when the troops of one U.S. ally, Turkey, were fighting another U.S. ally, the YPG, in northern Syria.
If the U.S. continues to do little, the conflict will continue to spiral out of control, destroying more lives inside Syria and spewing conflict and instability far beyond its frontiers.
The flimsiness of Obama’s arguments suggests that something deeper is going on. What could it be? In the first place, he came to office determined to reverse his predecessor’s interventions in the Middle East. In pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq in 2011, Obama claimed, “The tide of war is receding.” That’s not true as a statement of fact—the U.S. pullout predictably restarted a war in Iraq. But it is an accurate depiction of the aspirations of this president who won a Nobel Peace Prize simply for being elected. Doing more in Syria would have shattered his self-image as a man of peace who never wanted to be a wartime president like George W. Bush.
A decisive victory by a U.S.-backed army of Syrians would force all parties to the negotiating table and give the United States the leverage to broker a power-sharing arrangement among the competing factions.
All of these risks are real and need to be managed, but what Obama never recognized is the risk of inaction—the greatest danger of all. If the U.S. continues to do little, the conflict will continue to spiral out of control, destroying more lives inside Syria and spewing conflict and instability far beyond its frontiers.
The policy that the Obama administration is pursuing—of bombing ISIS and supporting Kurdish militias to fight it while engaging in on-and-off negotiations with Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad—is a recipe for futility. Even if ISIS is defeated, other extremist groups such as the Syria Conquest Front will simply expand into the resulting vacuum as long as the civil war continues and large swathes of the Syrian countryside remain ungoverned. The only way to defeat the extremists is to end the civil war and create a moderate state, or possibly multiple states if the existing state can’t be reassembled, capable of effectively policing Syria’s territory.
The most credible path forward has been offered by Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst and NSC staffer who now works at the Brookings Institution. He argues that “the United States could create a new Syrian military with a conventional structure and doctrine, one capable of defeating both the regime and the extremists. A decisive victory by this U.S.-backed army would force all parties to the negotiating table and give the United States the leverage to broker a power-sharing arrangement among the competing factions. This outcome would create the most favorable conditions for the emergence of a new Syrian state: one that is peaceful, pluralistic, inclusive, and capable of governing the entire country.”
Ah, a skeptic may reply, but hasn’t the U.S. already tried to train and arm the Syrian opposition? Not in a serious way. The requirement that U.S.-backed rebels battle only ISIS, not the Assad regime, has kept away most potential recruits. And even those who have signed up have gotten only a few weeks of training in weapons handling and small-unit skills and then been sent back to fight as part of ill-organized militias.
Pollack is proposing something much more ambitious: to build a conventional Syrian military force in Turkey and Jordan that would receive at least a year of training in combined-arms warfare. He writes: “Washington would need to provide the new army with heavy weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and surface-to-air missiles—vital tools for eliminating the regime’s current advantage in firepower. The new army would also need logistical support, communications equipment, transport, and medical gear to mount sustained offensive and defensive operations against the regime.”
The members of this new army, who could be recruited from among Syrians both inside and outside the country, would “have to be willing to leave their existing militias and become reassigned to new units without regard for religion, ethnicity, or geographic origin. Loyalty to the new army and to the vision of a democratic postwar Syria for which it would stand must supersede all other competing identities.” Because American trainers would work with this force on a daily basis, they would be able to root out extremists far more effectively than the current screening procedures that have made it all but impossible to approve recruits for training.
Once this force reaches critical mass, it can surge out of its bases in Jordan and Turkey, and, with American air support and American advisers, begin to take back ground from both the pro-Assad and anti-Assad militias. If this army shows that it is capable of winning military victories and of bringing law and order to the territory under its control, it will see a flood of new recruits. It can then grow to become the most potent military force in Syria—one that eventually will be capable of threatening the other factions with defeat and thus compelling them to reach a settlement.
This may sound like a far-fetched notion, but there is a precedent: In the 1990s, U.S. equipment and training for the Croatian army, along with American airpower, threatened the Serbs with defeat and made possible the success of the Dayton Peace Accords.
Russia and Iran will be tempted to play spoilers’ roles, just as Russia tried to do in the former Yugoslavia, but if the balance of power shifts against them on the ground, they will have no choice but to join in serious negotiations. The U.S. can make the process, which will involve ousting Assad, less painful for Moscow and Tehran by promising to look after their legitimate interest—for example, by safeguarding the rights of the Alawite minority (who belong to a Shiite-like sect), preventing a takeover by Sunni extremists, and allowing Russia to maintain a naval base at Tartus.
Moscow ultimately acquiesced in the Dayton Accords, and it likely would acquiesce in a settlement in Syria if the U.S. shows that it is serious about ending the war and ousting Assad. So far it hasn’t. All that Obama and Kerry have offered is a lot of empty verbiage without doing the hard work of laying the foundations for a durable peace. That task will await their successors.