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

Live Interview With Stu Taylor

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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.

Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Change the Geopolitics of the Middle East?

First published by Foreign Policy Journal

As the September 17 deadline for Congress to act on the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) approaches, the media has been flooded with editorials, op-ed pieces and blogs making the case for or against the agreement. Those in favor of the agreement have made the case that, while an imperfect agreement, the deal was the best that could be achieved and, through intrusive inspections, will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful and will not achieve a nuclear weapon. Those opposed have made arguments such as “It’s Iran, we can’t deal with them, we just like sanctions”, “Iran shouldn’t have any nuclear capability”, “Iran is Israel’s enemy”, and “the agreement only lasts 15 years”. Both sides of the debate seem to agree that this agreement will drastically change the geopolitics of the Middle East. But is this really true?

The underlying assumption of those critical of a change in the geopolitical alignment is that the current alignment has been successful in maintaining peace and stability and promoting economic growth, a dubious proposition at best. Those in favor of a geopolitical realignment see a new world in which Iran becomes an important player in bringing stability and order out of the current chaos. While this new world would certainly be an improvement over the current situation, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the chances for realignment.

First, and probably most important, is that one of the founding principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran was resistance to U.S. domination of the region. The U.S. and Iran are fundamentally at odds over the geopolitics of the Middle East. While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani is more open to engagement with the west, any thought that Iran will give up its independent foreign policy and follow the American lead is unrealistic. Iran and the U.S. may cooperate on issues where their interests align (Afghanistan, ISIS, drug trafficking, etc.), but Iran will continue to lead the so-called “axis of resistance”, and that will not sit well with U.S. policymakers.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

Second, the much discussed idea that Israel will react to the nuclear deal by allying itself with Saudi Arabia and Hamas in opposition to Iran is also unrealistic. Despite all the rumors of high level meetings, it is hard to see how Saudi Arabia, whose radically conservative, Wahhabi version of Islam, provides the ideological underpinning for the Islamic State (ISIS), can ever align itself with Israel. With respect to Hamas, the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza is getting long in the tooth. Israel has not implemented much of what it agreed to, and thus the same conditions of poverty, deprivation, and lack of hope that led to the last two wars still exist in Gaza. The next war may not be far away.

Third, despite the best efforts of Russia, Iran, and the U.S., the situation in Syria will remain a festering sore and a source of instability and chaos. It is hard to see a solution. With major regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, seeing the region through a sectarian lens, committed to the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Assad and, at best, ambivalent about ISIS, a coalition of western and regional powers to stabilize Syria is very unlikely. As long as ISIS remains in place, a solution to Iraq’s collapse as a contiguous and sovereign state is impossible and the Kurdish problem will remain unresolved.

Fourth, the window of opportunity to realign the Middle East will soon close. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, and given the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy, the next administration is likely to be less open to growing Iranian influence in the region. Israel will certainly not elect a more accommodating government. Whatever rapprochement is achieved by the Obama administration in its last year in office will be short lived. Iran, seeing its hopes of greater integration with the west dashed and strengthened by the removal of sanctions, will be forced to look east to Russia and China for allies.

In 2006, the Secretary of State, following the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq and Israel’s destruction of Gaza, famously declared the destruction of Lebanon by Israel as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” and confirmed the U.S. policy of “creative chaos” in which the old order is destroyed and in its place a new order arises which will serve the goals of U.S. policy. The U.S., having created the “new Middle East,” will have to live with the consequences for some time.