Calls for US Syria Strategy Increase as Push on Idlib Promises Civilian Bloodbath

Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The siege of Idlib has focused the world once again on the humanitarian and moral tragedy of Syria, this time in response to the likely high cost of rooting out the remaining extremist militias in the north. The proposal of the Astana partners – Russia, Turkey, and Iran along with Syria – to lock in a compromise alternative that will lessen the civilian casualty toll, limit the number of new refugees fleeing into Turkey, and protect the Assad regime from increased international sanctions is marginally credible.

In an article published in Defense One, Representative Adam Kinzinger (Rep. IL), an Air Force veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, noted in exasperation that “We [the US government] cannot turn a blind eye and ignore the horrific reality in Syria right now. We cannot isolate ourselves from this crisis.” Contained by Syrian forces and their allies, the people of Idlib, including Syrian refugees from other areas of the country, are certain to sustain high numbers of casualties in the coming weeks as the Salafi-jihadi militants are literally holding the civilians hostage in what is considered their last stronghold.

Kinzinger, well aware of the quagmire that Syria poses, is not asking for more US troops but rather that the US develop a coherent game plan for the longer term and then decide what resources are needed. “We need a long-term strategy in Syria that leads to a solution of peace and an end to the ongoing, deadly conflict. This strategy should also include the end of the Assad regime and a place at the table of government for the Syrian people.”

The Congressman has already mounted an effort to convince the Administration of the need for a coherent strategy. “In July, I sent a letter, with support from my colleagues in Congress, urging the White House to develop an official strategy for the US to maintain a strong presence in Syria, implement no-fly zones along the southern and eastern Syrian borders, and ultimately position the United States as the global leader our world needs right now.”

He is concerned that the lack of a credible US policy in Syria indicates to other countries that the US has abandoned the high ground in providing hope to the people of Syria and elsewhere. For him, Syria is the opportunity to rebuild trust in America’s role, “We are still that shining city on a hill, and a beacon of hope for peace and prosperity.” To achieve that, Kinzinger believes that the US must confront Iran and Russia, call down the Assad regime for its excesses, and “speak out for the freedom-loving people who so desperately need America’s voice. Let’s shine our light on the oppressive darkness around the world. And let’s save Syria.”

In a policy brief released by the Brookings Institute, five well known analysts argue for a slight shift in US policy that will ”prevent the re-emergence of ISIS or a related extremist group, limit Iranian influence in Syria, and address humanitarian and refugee stresses in the region that severely affect U.S. allies….” Their prescription includes working with Syria’s allies and other critical players to develop a political succession process to move away from the Assad regime before any serious reconstruction efforts begin with the assistance of international donors; threatening credible aerial retaliation against excessive actions by the Assad regime including chemical weapons and barrel bombs on civilian targets, with a similar warning to Iran should it use its proxies to threaten the US or its allies; providing localized humanitarian and reconstruction efforts in the areas under US influence without an increase in US forces; and working with Turkey to “weaken” extremists around Idlib and continue to fight against “ISIS elements in the country’s east until the battlefield defeat of ISIS is complete.”

The analysis, which is detailed and useful as a basis of discussion, examines the current situation on the ground including the various military forces and their zones of influence, noting, “As Assad consolidates his authority, his regime continues to rule with methods that drove the creation of ISIS in the first place, making further Sunni extremism a likely consequence of his empowered regime.” It also points out that the US needs a robust policy that counters Iran’s expanding influence in the region and it provides insights into Turkey’s stake in resolving the conflict so that its interests in reducing refugee flows, repatriation and reconstruction, and limiting the independence aspirations of the Kurds are recognized and included in resolution options.

Perhaps the most important question concerning a US Syria strategy in the medium to long-term has to deal with the consistency and sustainability of a policy enunciated by one administration and then challenged by its successor. The recommendations in the report will take years to unfold across the many issues raised in its analysis, bringing up the challenge of developing a policy that has credibility over time.

Relevant questions regarding reconstruction are broached in an article on the Carnegie Institute’s site Diwan, which pointedly suggests that “Reconstruction in places such as Syria is especially complicated by the questions of how assistance can be given to a regime that was in large part responsible for the country’s devastation and has been implicated in war crimes. International actors today are struggling with whether and how to support reconstruction for Syrian communities while ensuring that this does not end up privileging political supporters of the regime. Standing aside from reconstruction efforts may avoid offering support to the Assad regime, but at the cost of perpetuating Syrian suffering and ceding postwar influence to other actors.”

Given the vastly complicated and intermixed issues regarding Syria’s immediate future, there is a clear need for US policies that are realistic; seek political transition and transitional justice; define and protect US interests in the medium and long term; support repatriation and reconstruction efforts that are comprehensive, inclusive, and community-based; and reestablish trust among the US and its partners in the region. A tall order for an administration dealing with threats of nuclear war, trade war, and diminishing credibility as a global leader.