Day: August 29, 2016

Dear Mr. President,

HossamalSaadiSecretary Kerry last week failed to reach agreement with Moscow on coordinating attacks on extremists in Syria. Even his effort to reinstate the cessation of hostilities and ensure humanitarian access has proven a bridge too far for the Russians.

Syria is now in the sixth year of a war that has killed half a million people, displaced more than half the population, threatens the stability of friends throughout the Middle East, and has damaging repercussions among our European allies. Your remaining months in office provide an opportunity to steer this horrendous conflict towards a peaceful settlement. If you refuse to do more than you have done so far, it will discredit your efforts to reduce and reshape US commitments in the Middle East and haunt your legacy.

Your policy has been a judicious one. You have tried hard to keep the US focus on the most serious threats to our national security: the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. You have avoided military clashes with the pro-Assad coalition, including the Russian air force, the Syrian armed forces, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as its surrogates. You have provided military assistance to non-extremists prepared to fight the Islamic State as well as billions in humanitarian and other assistance to civilians.

The results in the past year have been good when measured narrowly against your objective: to block the main threats to the US. The Islamic State is losing territory, especially along the northern border with Turkey. The successful operation with Turkish support took Jarablus and blocked an unwarranted move there by the Kurds. This will cut off ISIS’s vital supply lines and reduce its revenue. An attack on ISIS’s capital Raqqa next year is a real possibility. The Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria has disowned its loyalty to Al Qaeda central, though it maintains goals that are anathema to US interests. We are currently talking with the Russians about jointly targeting what is now call Jabhat Fateh al Sham (JFS).

Your judicious approach has however had unintended consequences. Fully backed by Russia and Iran, Assad is gaining ground. Attacks on JFS, should the talks with Moscow eventually prove successful, will give him an opportunity to gain more. Over a million civilians are besieged. Few new refugees are escaping. Talks on a 48-hour humanitarian truce for Aleppo have bogged down. The stalwart rebels of Daraya have surrendered, after a four-year siege. It is clear the Syrian regime is again using chemical weapons. The Assad forces and their allies are killing the non-extremists America supports, driving others to make common cause with extremists. There is declining hope for a political transition to a non-Islamist, democratic regime that will preserve Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The US should not abandon that goal. Here are three things you can do in the next few months that will demonstrate American will and reignite diplomatic efforts in favor of a negotiated political solution to the Syria conflict that meets US requirements:

  1. Support legislation in Congress that imposes sanctions on those responsible for harm to civilians.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 would levy financial, trade, travel and arms sanctions on those who are responsible for human rights abuses and those who facilitate them. While its practical impact might be limited, because few of the perpetrators are likely to come within US jurisdiction, it would send an important signal and could raise doubts in the Syrian security forces about carrying out illegal orders to harm civilians. We should invite the EU to join us in imposing sanctions.

2. Ground the Syrian air force, both fixed wing and helicopters. 

John Kerry is still trying to get the Russians to do this, as the quid pro quo for cooperation with the US in attacking the former Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. If he fails, you should tell the Russians and Syrians that any Syrian aircraft responsible for bombing civilians will be subject to attack by the US. Few Syrian pilots will be prepared to take the risk. If they do, even shooting down one or two such aircraft, or striking them on land, would likely ground the entire fleet.

3. Get Hizbollah out of Syria. 

Lebanese Hizbollah has provided vital ground forces to Assad, especially in the fighting around Aleppo and along the Lebanese border. This Shia militia also contributes to Islamic State and Al Qaeda recruitment of Sunnis, as its activities illustrate all too clearly that the fight in Syria now has a sectarian dimension. Hizbollah is a terrorist organization that has killed Americans and will likely do so again in the future. If the US is fighting terrorism in Syria, it should not be immune. We should tell the Russians and Iranians that we want Hizbollah out of Syria or it will be subject to US attacks, like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

You could also consider a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, to protect opposition-held enclaves in the north and south for example. But that would create target-rich areas that have to be continuously defended, both on the ground and in the air. The options above are less burdensome and would signal more unequivocally US determination to protect Syrian civilians wherever they live.

These moves would also improve the odds for a diplomatic solution. Once Assad is deprived of the air and ground assets that have enabled him to survive and even given him an edge in the fighting, the conditions will ripen for a negotiated outcome early in Hillary Clinton’s presidency. That would be a worthy legacy.

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