The Administration is finally having another look at its Syria strategy. A reexamination is overdue. While coalition forces have been attacking the Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian regime has focused its remaining firepower against relatively moderate forces, especially in Aleppo and surrounding areas. The net result is not good: Kurdish forces that in the past have supported the Assad regime have gained ground in the Kobane, on the Turkish border, while the relative moderates have been losing ground farther west. Now UN envoy Stefano De Mistura is proposing a ceasefire in Aleppo, hoping to prevent catastrophe there.
It has become all too apparent that
- The moderate forces need more help if they are going to be able to hold on to significant territory in Syria;
- Assad benefits from the current coalition attacks on IS since they weaken his strongest opponent, allow him to concentrate against moderate forces, and strengthen Kurds who have been unwilling to attack the regime.
President Obama has offered to cooperate with Iran in Syria against ISIS once a nuclear deal is done, but there is no sign Iran is prepared to abandon Assad. Such cooperation would offend the majority Sunni population in Syria and guarantee more recruits for ISIS.
Bottom line: we are getting nowhere fast in Syria.
Things aren’t much better in Iraq, where ISIS is consolidating control over territory. Prime Minister Haider al Abadi has been busy firing military commanders and installing new ones, but it is far from clear whether his choices will be any more effective on the battlefield than former Prime Minister Maliki’s were. Abadi has managed to appoint Defense and Interior ministers, but creation of the provincially-based National Guard is still stalled in parliament. Next spring is the current best hope for an Iraqi offensive against ISIS.
The Americans need to find a better approach. Refocusing coalition attacks at least in part on the Assad regime is one possibility, but there are limits. Doing too much in that direction risks collapsing the Syrian state and opening the way for an IS takeover, even in Damascus. That is something we should want to prevent, not cause.
Another possibility would be taking the Turks up on their favorite proposition: creation of one or more liberated areas inside Syria, protected from air and artillery attacks as best can be done by coalition aircraft. The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) and its Interim Government (SIG) could then move into those areas and begin governing, creating an alternative to fleeing the country for thousands of desperate Syrians. Prime candidates for liberated areas would be in the north, along the Turkish border, and in the south, along the ceasefire line with Israel and the border with Jordan. These areas would then constitute buffer zones protecting key coalition partners from ISIS incursions.
This is essentially what the US did for the Kurds in northern Iraq under Saddam Hussein. That experiment was eventually successful in creating an area of relative stability and half-decent governance. It also of course created the pre-conditions for what may eventually be secession of Iraqi Kurdistan from Iraq. That would also be a risk of creating a liberated area in Syria. It would therefore best be done with boundaries not determined by ethnic or sectarian lines, which is easy enough in Syria because the population in most areas is even today quite mixed, at least at the provincial level. Maintaining a diverse Syrian polity is vital to ensuring that the country remains whole.
Some will ask why we should worry about partition. The short answer is this: even Syrians who might want to separate won’t agree with their adversaries on the lines along which separation should occur. There has been much blather about a possible Alawite state in western Syria, along the Mediterranean coast. But much of the population that lives there is Sunni, and there is a large population of Alawites in Damascus. Those who advocate partition are advocating massive population movements that could only be accomplished by violent means.
There are no good options in Syria, but recalibration to undermine the Assad regime and provide stronger support to the moderate opposition, including in moving it into Syria, would be better than what we are doing now.