Syria: The Dangers of the Chosen Path

The United States, with France, and Great Britain, was right in responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons and, in doing so, defend the Chemical Weapons Convention. America’s longer-term Middle East strategy, however, is on the wrong path.

The U.S. does have an alternative path, however, and we should take it. America should develop a transatlantic and regional approach that focuses on six goals.

The recent allied strike to degrade the Syrian chemical weapons program was not just a retaliatory strike. It was a defense of an international agreement signed and ratified by almost 200 sovereign states. When Russia sought U.N. Security Council condemnation of the strike, only three of the fifteen members stood with Russia: China, North Korea, and Bolivia. International conventions like the ban on chemical weapons don’t enforce themselves. The U.N. Security Council vote affirms the international community’s desire not to live in a strategic environment where the use of such weapons becomes normalized in any war. The question is how does enforcement of this convention fit into America’s larger Middle East strategy? The answer is troubling.

On a flight to Brussels Feb. 13, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters the fight against Islamic State militants "is not over." (Washington Post)

Judging from recent comments, the path the U.S. seems to be on—and it’s not a path all of our European allies and regional partners share—is withdrawal from Syria except for the occasional airstrike if Assad again uses chemical weapons. This path is not good.

Withdrawal would yield the area to already expanding Russian and Iranian influence. Most likely, an American withdrawal would not help reduce ISIS capacities, nor would it reduce the capacities of al Qaeda and other radical jihadist organizations. Remember, Syria under Assad—which is what American withdrawal will de facto produce—birthed ISIS to begin with. It was through Assad’s Syria that hundreds of foreign fighters flowed to fight with al Qaeda in Iraq. 

Posture of Syrian Regime and Allies, as of April 2, 2018 (Institute for the Study of War)

Perhaps worst of all, withdrawal also presents Russia with an opportunity to complete their arc of influence from the Baltic Sea to the Persian Gulf. Look at the map carefully, for Russia has redrawn it in recent years. Threats to and cyber-attacks in the Baltic nations, an anti-air and area denial system placed over most of the Baltic Sea, expanded influence in the Ukraine through the use of “grey zone operations,” control of the Black Sea via seizure of Crimea, establishing a firm presence in the Eastern Mediterranean by Russian bases and presence in Syria, arms sales to Turkey, and an alliance with Iran—all expand Russian influence from the Baltics to the Persian Gulf. Such expanded influence is antithetical to U.S. strategic interests as well as the interests of our European allies and regional partners.

Additionally, the American withdrawal and the establishment of this Russian arc of influence will move Turkey, a key NATO ally, further towards Russia; put more pressure on Israel and Jordan; and push Iraq even closer to Iran. Withdrawal also abandons our Kurdish partners, or at least puts them in a more difficult position. And withdrawal further reduces America’s trustworthiness as an international leader. Finally, U.S. withdrawal de facto rewards Assad’s brutal and ruthless behavior toward the citizens of Syria. 

The U.S. does have an alternative path, however, and we should take it. America should develop a transatlantic and regional approach that focuses on six goals:

  1. Continuing to reduce ISIS, al Qaeda, and their ilk in Syria and the region and to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  2. Blocking the completion of Russia’s hemispherical arc of influence.
  3. Reducing Iranian regional influence.
  4. Expanding political and humanitarian support to moderate Syrian forces as well as increasing their military capacity to prevent Assad from furthering his control of Syrian territory. 
  5. Creating a durable cease-fire, realizing (a) that such a cease-fire will not be possible as long as Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies believe they can succeed militarily in subjugating all of Syria—which they now believe, (b) that enforcing a durable ceasefire will require a multinational peacekeeping force in which the U.S. must participate, and (c) that Assad will remain in position during this cease-fire. A durable cease-fire will end much of the fighting, provide the security that humanitarian assistance requires, reduce and maybe reverse the flow of refugees, and set the conditions for goal number six.
  6. Using the cease-fire to negotiate a more complete settlement to the Syrian Civil War which must include an arrangement for replacing Assad.

The present path of U.S. withdrawal is one to nowhere good. The alternative is difficult, but at least secures a peace which, over time, may become a just peace.

James M. Dubik, PhD, Professor in Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies and Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War; author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory; retired as a lieutenant general from the U.S. Army in 2008 following his position in Baghdad as Commanding General, Multi-National Security and Transition Command, Iraq and NATO Training Mission, Iraq.

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Header Image: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif.