Much has been made of the Obama Administration’s decision to reduce the scope of its train and equip program in Syria. While the decision to dramatically overhaul the failed initiative was certainly correct, its successor seems even less likely to achieve meaningful results. Instead of discussing how best to interact with Syrian rebels, the nation should be discussing what it seeks to gain in doing so. The United States has pursued a confused and reactionary strategy in Syria that has failed to identify a clearly defined goal or objective. In order to assess how the United States can move forward in achieving its regional objectives, it must first define its end goal.
The United States has failed to state a clear objective for its actions in Syria. While the Administration called for Assad to step down and placed economic sanctions against his regime, it has since done little to affect the outcome of the conflict.
The Administration’s messaging has not matched its actions throughout the conflict. In a shift away from its initial position, the Obama Administration forced some rebels to swear not to fight Assad’s forces in Syria. Instead, the United States has pursued a muddled strategy of supplying TOW missiles to some groups and, now, providing small arms and ammunition to others. While the Obama Administration’s recent actions indicate a shift from removing Assad to degrading ISIS, the lack of a public declaration of this priority shift has limited the scope of the nation’s possible responses. In light of recent events, it is more important than ever that the United States pursue a clear goal in the region.
In moving to support the Assad regime, Russia is simply doubling down on an old bet — not expanding its influence into a new state.
With the recent influx of Russian troops, and their A2/AD equipment in Syria, the window of opportunity for removing Assad from power has passed. While it may have been possible to gather an international coalition to overthrow Assad after he used chemical weapons, the recent increase of Russian presence in Syria makes the risk of any attempt to openly overthrow Assad too great. The American public does not want to see boots on the ground in the Middle East, and it certainly does not want a shooting war with a major power. Some argue that the increase of Russian troops in Syria will greatly increase their influence in the region. However, this view ignores Russia’s historical relationship with and influence in Syria. Russia enjoyed a strong influence in Syria before the revolution with some 100,000 Russians living in Syria in addition to the Russian naval base at Tartus. In moving to support the Assad regime, Russia is simply doubling down on an old bet — not expanding its influence into a new state.
If the United States cannot pursue its former objective of removing the Assad regime, then what can it do to further its interests in the region? It is clear that the United States’ best interests lie in defeating ISIS and improving stability in Iraq. A reduced train and equip program in Syria does little to accomplish this goal. Instead, the military and intelligence communities will need to reevaluate their entire approach to the conflict. Instead of arming groups antagonistic towards Assad and his foreign backers, it would best serve the Administration to support Assad, and in turn Russia, in combating ISIS. While this will surely cause a loss of face for the administration, the blow-back from such an action would not be considerably more than that from the decision to back down from the “red line” ultimatum.
Some see siding with Russia as anathema to US interests. They desire to see Russia mired in a new Afghanistan, arguing that this is a zero sum game. As mentioned earlier, this ignores a proper reading of history. Russian influence in Syria is simply a return to the status quo antebellum. However, Russia will be mired in a long and costly conflict in Syria whether the US continues to arm rebels or not.
Instead of berating Russia for attacking some rebel groups more than ISIS, the Administration should allow Russia to foot the bill for taking on rebel groups and ISIS in Syria…
It is likely that the Gulf States and Turkey will continue to back their chosen proxies in the conflict and provide them with advanced weapon systems. Others argue that Russia is not attacking ISIS, but instead focusing on other rebel groups. This is true, but those groups also pose a threat to the US national interest; Jabhat al-Nusra has supported the Khorasan Group whose purpose is attacking Western targets. Instead of berating Russia for attacking some rebel groups more than ISIS, the Administration should allow Russia to foot the bill for taking on rebel groups and ISIS in Syria and refocus its efforts on supporting Iraqi ground forces in their announced offensives in Ramadi. Doing so would drain Russia’s resources while furthering the US’ interests in the region to the furthest extent.
This strategy leaves the United States in no worse a diplomatic situation than it was before the Arab Spring. The opportunity to break the so-called Shiite Crescent and roll back Russia’s influence in Syria was lost when the Administration failed to take decisive action against the Assad regime’s use of the chemical weapons. Now, it is in the United States’ best interest to combat ISIS, which represents the greater of two evils in Syria and Iraq, through whatever means and with whatever allies present themselves.
John Miller holds bachelors’ degrees in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic from the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on authoritarian resiliency and terrorism. His work has previously been featured in the Small Wars Journal.
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