Ambassador Gabriel on Countering ISIL

One year ago this month, I wrote in these pages about the need for US leadership and bold American action in Syria. This appears even more important now in order to stop groups that seek to harm American interests and citizens. Perhaps it took the barbaric acts of ISIL to change the minds of the President and the American public, but this has now created an opportunity for the President to recalibrate US policy options regarding Syria as well as radical extremists in the region.

As I noted then, America already has experienced a significant deterioration in our strategic interests in this conflict. “If Iran, Syria and Hezbollah further tip the balance in their favor, this will result in a strengthened axis of resistance against US interests, stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This will represent an unstable, long term situation for the US, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and our allies in the Gulf.”

I wrote then that a key task for the President is to convince the Qataris and Saudis– who are supplying arms and money to unvetted groups– as well as a broad coalition of partners to get behind this common mission, and to stop supplying arms and money to radical rebel factions.

This is now the US strategy that President Obama enunciated this month, and one that American policy makers and the public should strongly support. Only American leadership can both organize and sustain a strong coalition, including moderate rebel groups and countries, to put boots on the ground and provide the arms and resources to create the anvil necessary, between allied forces on the ground and US and allied strikes from the sky.

The President has clearly explained why it’s in America’s national interest to support the Free Syrian Army and other vetted rebel groups. His leadership is giving our Arab and European allies the confidence to support both a ground and air campaigns. Once begun however, the ultimate goal of this effort should be two-fold: to eradicate ISIL and terrorists who have every intention of destabilizing the region and harming US interests and citizens; and, to force Syria to the table to accept a US-Russia brokered deal that removes Assad from office and puts in place a reform-minded, tolerant, and inclusive governing coalition in Syria. Only a two-pronged strategy like this will ultimately guarantee the successful containment and dismemberment of the terrorist forces, as well as ending Syria’s hostile intentions towards its own citizens, the US and its allies. Unfortunately, only the threat of the use of force against Syria will get Assad and Russia’s attention.

The objective of a coordinated campaign that includes an inevitable regime change in Syria enhances the likelihood of an orderly transfer of power when that occurs. Otherwise, an unfriendly takeover could threaten the very existence of Lebanon and part of Iraq – something that would have serious consequences for Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf. If Assad is to fall, it will be better that the Free Syria Army make that happen with allied support, rather than radical terrorist groups that threaten to harm freedom-minded people and religious minorities of the Middle East.

In my opinion, it will take quiet diplomacy with Russia for them to understand that a stable Syria — without Assad and without a freewheeling group of radical terrorists — is in our mutual interest. Achieving this goal, however, will require a paradigm shift for America: to understand the existential threat that a perceived hostile anti-Russian Crimea presents to Russia, which is the topic for another op-ed at another time. But let us not delude ourselves, they are connected.

Recent barbaric acts by ISIL have created an opening for the US to reset this policy for good. Deliberation and the lost opportunities over the past three years now dictate that it will take several years to achieve these goals, but as predicted last year, we can deal with it now, or be forced to deal with it later. The longer we wait, the fewer acceptable options will remain. President Obama’s new policy can launch the trajectory of a positive legacy and can set in motion the strategy that a future president can continue. A revived and revitalized US leadership in the region will reassure our partners in the Middle East and elsewhere that our shared interests and values are worth fighting for.