Trump’s Syria Dilemma

It is hard to see how the direction of the Trump administration’s policy toward defeating ISIS can have a positive outcome.

During the presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump criticized President Obama as being “out of touch” with what it would take to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He promised to unveil his “secret” and “foolproof” plan to “quickly defeat ISIS.” Now, after arriving in the Oval Office, he is discovering that the situation is much more complicated than he anticipated and the old political axiom that “promises made in the heat of a campaign are retrievable” applies in this case.

From its onset six years ago, the Syrian Civil War quickly became a bloody conflict among numerous disparate rebel groups, with differing agendas and objectives, and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. As the years have passed, various outside forces, governmental and non-governmental, have intervened on behalf of their favored faction, thus prolonging the conflict and increasing the number of casualties and refugees.

While the United States searched in vain for “moderate” rebel groups to support, Iran and Hezbollah intervened on behalf of the Syrian government and managed to stabilize the military situation and to make it clear that the Syrian government was not going to fall. In September 2015, Russia intervened at the request of the Syrian government. Russian airpower and advanced weaponry quickly changed the military balance and gradually the Syrian government has reclaimed territory lost to the rebel forces and ISIS. The success of the Russians and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has significantly complicated the positions of the other states supporting the rebels and ISIS. This is the situation that the Trump administration is trying to deal with.

In northern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Defense Force (YPG), backed by the United States and in cooperation with the SAA, is engaged in a three-way struggle against ISIS and Turkey, a member of NATO. As the YPG and the SAA, with U.S. and Russian support, close in on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, Turkey, fearing the establishment of an independent Kurdistan allied with Kurdish rebels inside of Turkey, is pushing back. Turkey has made vague promises about retaking Raqqa, but without a major role for YPG forces, there is no chance that the Raqqa operation can succeed absent a significant U.S. force commitment. The United States has recently deployed over 1,000 ground forces in support of the YPG, a move that the Syrian government has condemned as an invasion and vowed to resist.

In southern Syria, an area that has been relatively stable, Israel, a U.S. ally, has taken advantage of the fluid situation to attack Hezbollah and Syrian government forces. This has opened the door for ISIS and jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda to regain lost ground and re-establish a presence on the Jordanian border. Jordan, also an American ally, sees this as a major security threat that may require military intervention in coordination with the SAA.

At this stage, it appears that that the Trump administration has delegated decision making concerning the force levels, strategy, and tactics required to “quickly defeat ISIS” to military commanders on the ground. This approach, devoid of any diplomatic concerns or input, runs a major risk of unintended adverse consequences. President Trump has announced a 68-nation summit on defeating ISIS; however, Iran and Russia, the most effective forces fighting ISIS, have not been invited. It is hard to see how this can have a positive outcome. Perhaps Trump’s task force can develop a coherent plan, but in the end, Obama’s approach of minimizing America’s footprint in this complex and multifaceted conflict may turn out to be the best of a bunch of bad choices.



Also published on Foreign Policy Journal

What Next After Paris?

While the outrage at the inhumanity of these attacks is certainly understandable, rage is not a strategy.

Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015 (credit: Mstyslav Chernov)

Syrian refugees strike in front of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 3 September 2015 (credit: Mstyslav Chernov)

In the days since the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, Egypt and Beirut, politicians and pundits have filled the media with angry statements and threats. French President Hollande responded to the attacks by declaring war on ISIS and stepping up aerial bombing of ISIS sites. U.S. presidential candidates proposed banning Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. and deporting those who are here, closing mosques, forcing Muslims to carry ID cards, deporting Muslims, expanding the already intrusive surveillance system and invading Syria.

While the outrage at the inhumanity of these attacks is certainly understandable, rage is not a strategy.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. let anger dictate the response. The subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were not only costly disasters, but did not solve the problem of radical Sunni Muslim jihadist threats to security. If we are to learn the lessons of history, now might be a good time to ask and answer some important questions:

  1. Who were the perpetrators of the attacks? While the investigation is in its early stages, the information that we have now indicates that one, maybe two, were Syrian immigrants who entered the EU through Greece, posing as refugees. The rest of the attackers were French nationals living in France or Belgium. Some were of Algerian extraction. Based on the sophistication of the attacks and the social media claims by ISIS, it is likely that they were inspired by and given technical and financial assistance by ISIS.
  2. Why did they do it? While I don’t pretend to have an inside track into the minds of ISIS leaders, it is possible to draw some conclusions from recent events in the Middle East. From its founding as a separate entity from al-Qaeda, ISIS has focused on conquering and holding territory rather than using high profile attacks to draw western forces into the region where they could be defeated. Over the last year, the Obama administration’s strategy of harassing ISIS from the air and relying on local and regional forces to do the heavy lifting on the ground has made progress. The aerial attacks combined with the efforts of Iraqi and Syrian forces augmented by Iran’s Quds force and Hezbollah have managed to stem the advance of ISIS. The entry of Russia with its singular focus on keeping the Syrian government in place and its ability to better coordinate with Iran, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Hezbollah has been a game changer. ISIS has been pushed out of some areas and increasing numbers of fighters are fleeing. These attacks in Paris, Egypt and Beirut are a sign of weakness and not strength.
  3. What did they intend to accomplish? Terrorism is designed to terrorize and to lead to bad decisions on the part of the targets.
  4. What is the best way to respond? Europe’s problem is not in Syria – it is in Europe. Europe has to deal with its large, alienated, marginalized and ghettoized Muslim population that is ripe for radicalization. This is a long-term, complicated problem. Unfortunately, political leaders of democracies don’t do “long term” and “complicated” well. For the U.S., the current strategy seems to be working. Obama needs to stay the course while increasing cooperation with Iran and Russia and working on a political settlement for the Syrian Civil War. Whatever the faults of the U.S. immigration system, the U.S. does a much better job of integrating immigrants into the fabric of society than does Europe. Following the advice of those advocating for a radical response would create our own marginalized, angry, Muslim population ripe for radicalization and would be a mistake.

As one former ISIS official told al-Monitor, a Middle East news website, “If you really want to finish IS, you need to address people’s concerns, let the sheikhs talk to youths and stop making big mistakes.”

The Russians are Coming

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and gradually morphed into full blown, vicious, deadly civil war, U.S. policies toward the conflict have been affected by some of the faults that have plagued U.S. Middle East policies for over fifty years and which I have described in my recent book, Fault Lines. When the uprisings began as peaceful demonstrations protesting corruption within the government, income and wealth inequality and lack of economic opportunity, the U.S. was faced with conflicting policy choices. On one hand the United States government could work with Iran to influence the Syrian government to negotiate with the opposition forces and to address their grievances peacefully (not likely given the state of U.S.-Iranian relations), recognize domestic political concerns and stay out of the situation, letting the Syrians solve the problem for themselves, or weigh in on the side of the rebel factions in hopes of overthrowing the Syrian government and thereby weakening Iran and Hezbollah and reducing the threat to Israel. The Obama administration decided to try and balance the last two alternatives, providing some support for the rebels while not committing enough American troops to effectively change the facts on the ground.

Continuing its practice of trying to find “good guys” among the myriad of fractious and diverse opposition groups who would become its proxy army, the U.S. tried to organize, equip and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This endeavor was a complete failure as, after millions of dollars spent, the number of troops in the field can be counted on one hand and most of the trainees, arms and equipment have ended up in the hands of jihadist Islamist groups. As the policy gradually fell apart, the conflict deteriorated into a stalemate.

Syrian President Bashar Assad Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Damascus Civil War

Photos of Assad and Russia’s Putin are seen during a pro-Assad protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria (credit Freedom House)

Enter the Russians. Unencumbered by conflicting policy goals, having only the objectives of keeping the Syrian government in power, willing to work with regional allies such as Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, concerned about violent Islamic groups spreading to the homeland, seeing ISIS as its primary adversary and able to rapidly deploy troops and fire power, Russia seems to have quickly affected the facts on the ground.

In fact, Russia already has expanded and upgraded the Syrian Air Base at Latakia allowing it to conduct over thirty five strikes against opposition forces in the first week in October compared with fewer than ten for the U.S. The establishment of a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish border with Iraq and Syria requires the establishment of air superiority. When Turkey agreed to allow U.S. planes to fly combat missions from Incirlik Air Base, the quid pro quo was that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In the first weeks of strikes, Turkey attacked ISIS three times and Kurdish positions over three hundred times. The presence of Russian forces and aircraft greatly complicates Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone. This presence also increases the risk of conflict between Russian and Turkish forces. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, there is risk that the U.S. could be drawn in. Most observers expect coordination among Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces in a major offensive prior to the onset of winter.

The shift in the power dynamic could portend a move toward a negotiated settlement. Iran and Russia now have considerable influence with the Assad government. The U.S. seems to have changed its position on Assad being a party to the negotiations, and abandoning its “Assad must go position.” An Allied offensive against the rebels may bring them to the table with a unified, more flexible position. Negotiated endings to civil wars are rare, but one can always hope. In such an event attention could turn to solving the ISIS problem.

Is the Civil War in Syria Reaching a Tipping Point?

When a policy that makes no sense actually succeeds, the outcome is generally not pretty.


For the last four years the bloody Syrian Civil War has evolved into a multi-party stalemate with small pieces of territory shifting back and forth between the competing forces and with the ongoing killing of fighters and civilians. Recent events may portend a change in this dynamic.

On May 21, Islamic State (IS) forces pushed Syrian government forces out of the ancient city of Palmyra and took control of the strategically located city. While the main-stream media focused attention on the ancient ruins in the UNESCO World Heritage site and the fate of the endangered Arabian Ibis, the potential implications of this event for the medium and long-term dynamics of the war have largely gone unexamined.

Palmyra, located in the geographic center of Syria, astride a major highway linking Iraq in the east with the more populated portions of Syria in the west is geographically situated as a major hub for military deployment. The political and military dynamics that led to the fall of Palmyra also shed light on the shifting power balance in Syria. The shifting balance not only has military implications, but also, and perhaps more importantly, significant psychological implications for the minority populations in Syria.

Syria, Civil War, Iraq, Assad, Al-Nusra, Hezbollah, Iran, ISIS, Syria, US Foreign Policy

Ancient Ruins of Palmyra (Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

Since the beginning of the war, the strategy (if you can call it that) of the U.S. and its western and regional allies has been to harass IS forces from the air and to arm and train so-called moderate opposition forces in Syria opposed to the Assad-led government. This internally contradictory policy has led to a bizarre scenario in which the U.S. fights Assad on one hand and supports him in his battle with IS on the other. The results of this policy have had a negative impact on the Syrian government’s ability to confront IS forces.

The U.S. does not use air strikes to support Assad forces in their battle with IS. It does, however, support the “moderate” rebel forces and the Kurdish militias against IS. This has led IS to conclude that, although it doesn’t have a primary objective of overthrowing Assad, it is safer to concentrate its efforts against the Syrian government forces. The policy also has encouraged the Army of Conquest, an alliance among various Islamist groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Fylaq al-Sham and other smaller groups backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Combining this strengthening of opposition forces with the difficulty that Assad is experiencing in replacing the manpower lost puts the Syrian government in an increasingly difficult position. This played out in Palmyra when government forces were shifted from Palmyra to Idlib to confront a growing rebel threat. This depleted the forces in Palmyra and IS took advantage of the situation to take over the city. Now in control of this central location IS is well positioned to take advantage of similar situations in the future.

The changing dynamic also puts Assad allies, Iran and Hezbollah, in a difficult position.  Unless they are willing and able to go all out to defend the Assad regime, they may need to recognize reality, commit to defending Lebanon and accept the breakup of Iraq into Kurdistan, IS, and Shiastan in southern Iraq.

If the Assad regime does collapse, it likely will happen quickly as minority Alawites, Druze, and Christians lose confidence that Assad will survive and choose to flee rather than wait for the inevitable ethnic and religious cleansing and genocide. An influx of massive numbers of refugees into Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq will surely destabilize these already weak countries. The alliances of convenience among disparate groups in Syria will, inevitably, break down leading to the total collapse of the state and to the rise of fiefdoms ruled by gangsters, warlords, and religious fanatics.

Six things you need to know in order to understand ISIS

(This article was previously posted on Foreign Policy Journal)

The Obama administration continues to struggle in its efforts to craft an appropriate response to the threat posed by the advance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  (ISIS). While Obama has declared that his goal is to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” he has not gone much further in defining what that means in terms of formulating a strategy. The pontificating by neo-conservative and liberal interventionist pundits and politicians is not helpful and, in fact, is counterproductive. Any effort to create a coherent strategy that has much chance of being successful will require a realistic assessment of ISIS, its strengths, weaknesses and goals as well as a threat assessment as it relates to U.S national interest. There are six things to keep in mind in this process:

  1. ISIS did not arise in a vacuum. The milieu in which it arose was a powerful mold that has shaped its world view. The conservative Salafist, takfiri brand of Islam, with its intolerant, rigid interpretation of Islamic law, which has been exported around the world by the Wahabis in Saudi Arabia, has laid the ideological groundwork for the global support for ISIS. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and the subsequent bungled occupation, and nation building effort as well as the chaos of the Syrian Civil War were the triggers that set off the emergence of ISIS as a powerful faction. The majoritarian rule of the Shia government in Iraq, which alienated Iraqi Sunnis, contributed to the increased popularity of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and its growing military strength.
  2. ISIS is a terrorist group and more. The term terrorist has been so misused that it has lost any meaning. For me, any group that kills civilians, intentionally or with reckless disregard for consequences in pursuit of political objectives, is a terrorist group. By this definition ISIS is a terrorist group. It is, however, also a criminal gang, a political party and a proto-state. It extorts citizens, steals property, kills its opponents, spreads its ideology, manages and delivers services, such as water and electricity, and dispenses justice. Any strategy that focuses only on the terrorist component and ignores the others is unlikely to be successful.
  3. ISIS’ global appeal results from deeply imbedded conditions in many countries around the world. Its popularity and ability to recruit followers depends on disaffected Muslim youth searching for adventure and Western Islamo-phobic actions and rhetoric that play into its message that Muslims are under attack in non-Muslim countries and that the only road to safety is to create an Islamic caliphate. Changing these conditions will be a difficult, long-term project.
  4. ISIS is susceptible to declining support. Its conservative, violent ideology of “One leader, One authority, One mosque: submit to it, or be killed” is deeply unpopular in the areas where it rules. It remains in power through fear. While the violence and deprivation resulting from years of war have drawn many to become more religious, Iraqi and Syrian Muslims have long been secular. Sooner or later they will say enough is enough and turn on their oppressors.
  5. ISIS is not a Syrian rebel group. ISIS’ aspirations are transnational. The other Sunni rebel groups are a bigger threat to the goal of creating a Sunni Islamic Caliphate than is the Assad regime in Damascus. The Assad regime is perfectly happy to have ISIS fighting the rebel groups whose objective is to overthrow the Syrian government. Having ISIS weaken the rebel groups, but remain in control of its current large, but sparsely populated, region, would not be a bad outcome for Assad. The question for the Western powers and their regional allies is whether or not this is an acceptable outcome for them.
  6. ISIS is a political movement, not a religious movement. While ISIS uses religious language to attract followers and justify its actions, its ultimate goals are political. Its terrorist actions, while they kill people, are political theater designed to achieve a political outcome. A counter-terrorism strategy alone will not defeat ISIS. A reaction against the larger Muslim community will be counterproductive.

The degrade part of “degrade and destroy” is the easy part. The current tactics of air strikes will probably accomplish this. The destroy part will be much more complicated and long term. I have seen no sign that the Obama administration has a strategy to achieve this.