Monday, April 10, 2017

Altering Assad's Course


Also available in العربية
April 6, 2017
As the Trump administration decides whether to pursue a limited military response, it should use existing international legal mechanisms to pressure Damascus and Moscow right away.
On April 4, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria's Idlib province, creating an early and potent test for the Trump administration's foreign policy. While Washington has prioritized defeating the Islamic State in eastern Syria, the regime's ceasefire violations and use of CW in the western part of the country show that President Bashar al-Assad is continuing his effort to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory, despite lacking the forces to do so. As long as this dynamic persists, the use of CW and other strategic weapons will likely continue, impeding efforts to reach a negotiated settlement that keeps the country intact. This in turn will worsen the humanitarian crisis and allow U.S.-designated terrorist groups to expand their safe havens.
The administration has already begun formulating its public response to the attack, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicating a potential policy shift during an April 6 press conference: "Assad's role in the future is uncertain clearly, and with the acts that he has taken it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people." If the president decides to back this rhetoric up with robust action, he can draw on several existing international mechanisms.
As the Fact Finding Mission established by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) gathers evidence on the substance used in this week's attack and those responsible, Washington and its partners should demand that the Assad regime comply with the mission's mandate, particularly the so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism. To date, this mechanism has helped the OPCW determine that the Assad regime used chlorine gas on at least three separate occasions. These are clear violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria joined as part of the much-touted 2013 CW deal brokered by Russia and the United States. If the suspected use of sarin gas on April 4 is likewise verified, it will prove what the OPCW has long suspected -- that Syria has not disclosed all of its CW stockpile as required under the 2013 deal, an equally serious matter with deep consequences for international nonproliferation efforts.
More broadly, these developments show that Assad is escalating his ruthless bid to stay in power. By indiscriminately gassing opposition-held areas and obstructing a political resolution, he is ensuring that the country remains in a permanent state of partition, hemorrhaging people and filling up with terrorist organizations on all sides. And by not following through on his commitments under the CWC, he threatens to supercharge the conflict -- the longer he uses such weapons, the more likely they are to fall into terrorist hands, not to mention the fact that such outrages boost radicalization and recruitment efforts. In short, the situation continues to pose a clear threat to regional and international security.
The United States should therefore turn the tables on Assad, using his CWC violations as leverage to gain compliance on three other issues:
·         A sustainable ceasefire that would allow genuine political talks to take place
·         A political transition as outlined in the 2012 Geneva Communique and UN Security Council Resolution 2254
·         The creation of safe zones in Syria to protect civilians.
Compliance with the OPCW and the Geneva Communique are both enshrined in the same Security Council document: Resolution 2118, which is enforceable by measures such as sanctions and use of force following the passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. Resolution 2235, which created the Joint Investigative Mechanism, is a Chapter VII resolution. Among other benefits, pushing for enforcement of these resolutions would compel Russia to reveal whether it is unable or simply unwilling to goad the Assad regime into stopping its CW use and negotiating a political transition. This approach would also prepare Americans for a possible military showdown with Assad over his CWC violations. Moreover, the resolutions could serve as a means of gaining Russian acquiescence on the necessity of safe zones in Syria.
Focusing on the effort to rid Syria of CW would help Washington determine exactly where it stands with both Damascus and Moscow. The best way to prevent Assad from escalating the crisis and dominating the transition is to pressure him into complying with the CWC, particularly the provisions regarding use and disclosure. This would also take away a strategic weapon that the regime has repeatedly used and keep it from falling into terrorist hands. The sequencing of this strategy could unfold as follows:
Create diplomatic pressure around Resolutions 2118 and 2235. This effort should focus on two issues: destroying CW and facilitating the transitional governing body outlined by the Geneva Communique. The CW problem is the only Syrian issue on which there is clear Security Council agreement regarding the steps Assad must take. Similarly, the transition process outlined in the Geneva Communique has broad international acceptance. Emphasizing these two issues by focusing on compliance with Resolution 2118 would keep the regime on agenda and steer it away from justifying its onslaught against civilians as a war on "terrorism." At the same time, the U.S. government should continue pushing for adoption of UN draft resolutions that would hold regime figures accountable for any involvement in CW attacks. Such resolutions should have clear consequences in the event of noncompliance.
Build public pressure on Damascus and Moscow based on Assad's CWC noncompliance. By highlighting the regime's use of CW and repeated ceasefire violations, Washington can determine once and for all whether Russia will convince Assad to meet his commitments on CW and political transition. Such an approach would also prod Moscow on the humanitarian and political front, giving it an excuse to truly pressure Assad.
Increase political support for a viable Syrian settlement and efforts to combat terrorism. Diplomatic and public pressure could help restore opposition support for the United States following its nadir under the Obama administration. Washington could in turn use this goodwill to obtain rebel guarantees concerning a ceasefire and political talks. This could also serve as a good first step toward creating political support for safe zones in order to protect civilians and push out terrorist groups.
Warn Russia to stay clear of Syrian bases. In order to manage the risk of escalation and Russian retaliation for collateral damage from possible U.S. military strikes, Washington should warn Moscow to keep its forces away from all Syrian bases involved in the planning of CW attacks or the mixing/deployment of CW agents.
Assad's record since 2013 shows that he does not change course substantially unless he is confronted with the credible threat of U.S. military force. His response to Israeli military strikes is instructive in this regard. In the past, the regime did little when Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace and bombed convoys attempting to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah. More recently, however, it has used antiaircraft systems to fire on Israeli planes as they conduct such missions, seemingly self-assured by its growing military support from Russia and Iran. It is imperative to get Assad off that dangerous course. This is not just a matter of American credibility: by prolonging and escalating the war, the regime is perpetuating direct threats to the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.
The domestic political timing increases the urgency: President Trump will face growing scrutiny over his handling of the crisis, constraining his ability to take assertive steps on other pressing international issues (e.g., the North Korea situation). As the administration decides whether to pursue the relatively low-cost option of a limited military response (e.g., cruise missile strikes), it can take effective international action against the Assad regime's behavior right away, mainly by pressing for implementation of Resolutions 2118 and 2235 and demanding the creation of safe zones.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Vienna Declaration: Precision Is Key to Avoiding a Slippery Slope


Also available in العربية
November 5, 2015
For all the sound principles laid out in Vienna, future talks cannot evade the timeline and mechanism of a transition in Syria, and Russia needs to prove its goodwill on the ground.
An October 30 multilateral meeting in Vienna has produced a nine-point statement of "mutual understanding" on how to end the violence in Syria "as soon as possible." The Vienna Declaration, which complements and refers to the 2012 Geneva Communique, seeks to provide a more inclusive mechanism to "narrow remaining areas of disagreement and build on areas of agreement," and thus could be a starting point for involving supporters of the opposition and the regime (including, for the first time, Iran).
Yet while inclusiveness in Syria necessarily implies a certain degree of ambiguity -- as reflected in the declaration's wording -- finding a workable way out of the crisis will require much more precision on the issue of transition, particularly in terms of establishing a timeline to test Russia and the Assad regime. For example, the current declaration omits the word "transition" in favor of "governance," and it fails to acknowledge that a sustainable settlement is a prerequisite for defeating ISIS and other terrorist groups. Such imprecision could allow Russia and Iran to argue that the Vienna Declaration gives them a diplomatic imprimatur to pursue a military solution, one based solely on keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power. This scenario would only perpetuate the war, fuel terrorism, create more refugees, and likely lead to Syria's long-term partition.


In some ways, the Vienna Declaration seems like diplomatic progress. Seventeen countries (including Iran) joined the UN and European Union in signing onto nine points of understanding:
  1. Preserving Syria's territorial integrity and secular character (the first time the latter point has received such recognition).
  2. Maintaining state institutions.
  3. Protecting civil (read: minority) rights.
  4. Accelerating diplomacy to end the war.
  5. Ensuring humanitarian access.
  6. Defeating ISIS and "other terrorist groups."
  7. Establishing "governance" via UN-supervised elections pursuant to the Geneva Communique and Security Council Resolution 2118. The ever-growing Syrian diaspora has the right to participate in these elections, which will determine the country's new leadership (a point that has elicited worries in Damascus).
  8. Ensuring a Syrian-led political process.
  9. Implementing nationwide ceasefires.
But the declaration is far more ambiguous on transition than the Geneva Communique. For example, point seven speaks vaguely of a process leading to "credible, inclusive, non-sectarian governance" without mentioning the word "transition" or related mechanisms. In contrast, the Geneva Communique centered on the creation of a "Transitional Governing Body" with "full executive powers" formed by "members of the present government and the opposition and other groups." And while it allowed regime members to be included in the transition, Geneva precluded the possibility of the sort of Assad-led "reform" process that his backers are now pushing toward.
In addition, the Vienna Declaration does not reiterate Geneva's call for a national dialogue process and the release of political prisoners, freedom of movement for journalists, and the right to demonstrate -- all preconditions for a genuine transition. Also missing is a transition timeline. The talks are due to resume in a fortnight, and other meetings are likely to follow, so setting a timeline is vital to determining whether Russia -- now Assad's most important patron at the negotiating table -- is able and willing to deliver a bona fide transition. Otherwise the default deadline will be 2021, when Assad's current term in office comes to an end following his "reelection" last year. The modalities of transition are unmentioned as well -- while the declaration notes that Syria's state institutions should remain intact, devolving executive powers to a transitional governing body will be crucial, especially regarding the security apparatus.
The international community also needs to sober up about what kind of election is really possible in Syria, and under what kind of supervision. The current regime is one of the world's biggest electoral manipulators, with Assad winning a laughable 94.6 percent of the vote in 2000, 97.6 percent in 2007, and 88.7 percent last year. Parliamentary votes in favor of his Baath Party supporters are a certainty as well. This means that any plan based on the argument "Assad stays until new elections" is really a formula for his continued rule. Only a new government that creates a safe environment for public debate and mobilization can lay the groundwork for new elections at the local, provincial, and national level. As in Bosnia and Kosovo years ago, the UN should seek a more serious and sustained formula than the awkward wording in point seven of the Vienna Declaration: "These elections must be administered under UN supervision to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability."


Explicitly outlining a transition process (as described in the Geneva Communique) and setting a firm timeline will help avoid the mistakes made last year, when battlefield developments overtook diplomacy. In early 2014, when Washington anticipated regime "victory" and advocated "de-escalation" and "local ceasefires," UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura put forward his "Freeze Plan" for Aleppo, in which the regime would halt its attempt to encircle that city in exchange for a ceasefire and negotiations with the opposition. The plan failed, largely because the regime lacked the manpower to retake and hold Aleppo and the various Sunni-dominated areas where opposition forces were strongest. While Russia's intervention has now propped up Assad for the time being, lack of manpower remains a hard reality, and moving the diplomatic goalposts from "transition" to "governance" will not alleviate that shortage, leaving no viable alternative to a negotiated solution.
Agreeing on these issues will likely require more than one round of negotiation. Although it is unclear whether Assad's allies can actually bring him into such a settlement, their willingness to try should be put to the test. Regarding Iran, questions remain about the Foreign Ministry's mandate to negotiate a true transition given that the Supreme Leader's Office and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have primacy on Syria policy and have invested a great deal of blood and treasure in preserving the Assad regime. Meanwhile, Assad has repeatedly thumbed his nose at the opposition during attempts to negotiate a settlement in Moscow, most recently in April.
Other tests should come on the battlefield: Russia claims that its intervention is aimed at fighting terrorists, so its forces should abstain from striking groups that are not recognized as such by the UN Security Council. Moscow's military role also puts it in a unique position to pressure Assad on renouncing assaults against civilian-populated areas (including through the use of barrel bombs) and allowing humanitarian access throughout Syria. Both efforts could serve as short-term confidence-building measures to facilitate diplomacy toward agreement on a stable end state. Without such agreement and a plan to achieve it, the war will not only perpetuate human suffering and displace more people, it also risks becoming a mechanism for Syria's permanent partition into regime-controlled areas and durable terrorist safe havens.
Last but not least is the importance of the declaration's penultimate point: "This political process will be Syrian led and Syrian owned, and the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria." The next rounds of talks should consult with the widest possible circle of Syrians other than those internationally condemned as terrorists. Gone are the days when ending the war required a two-sided negotiation between the regime and a single opposition body. Future declarations should stipulate that any solution to the crisis must be broadly accepted as legitimate and appropriate by this wide circle of Syrians, or else the "solution" will be an empty piece of paper.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics. Olivier Decottignies is a French diplomat-in-residence at the Institute.

The Not-So-Great Game in Syria - Foreign Affairs

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The New Great Game - Foreign Affairs

The New Great Game
How Regional Powers are Carving Up Syria

Just two weeks ago, the first 54 graduates of Washington’s trumpeted program to train and equip the Syrian opposition crossed from Turkey into Syria. They were immediately attacked by al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra, which killed and captured a number of the trainees. The media and Congress rightfully focused on the inauspicious start to a program conceived well over a year ago, but lost in the shuffle was the fact that the unit’s commander is a Syrian Turkmen—an ethnic Turk with Syrian citizenship—and that the area through which the unit marched into Syria, the same territory that Turkey now proposes as a safe zone, is dominated by the very same sect.
Turkey is hardly alone in efforts to carve out friendly zones in the mayhem of the Syrian war. For over two years, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq, has worked with its own local affiliate to establish Rojava, the Western province of Kurdistan. Jordan, whose intelligence services have been active in southern Syria for years, has been reaching out to local fighters and tribesmen in a bid to keep the Islamic State (also called ISIS) at bay. And some in Israel are considering working with Syria’s Druze community, parts of which straddle the Golan frontier. On a regional level, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also supporting groups in both northern and southern Syria, and Iran is sending record numbers of Hezbollah and Shia militiamen and billions of dollars annually to assist the Bashar al-Assad regime in western Syria.
As most of the world has stood by and watched Syria’s disintegration, regional powers have been busy claiming spheres of influence in the country in the name of security and humanitarian assistance. Bit by bit, Syria’s neighbors are redrawing that country’s map, the balance of power in the Middle East, and U.S. foreign policy.
Perhaps the most prominent country planning to carve out a sphere of influence in Syria is Turkey, which recently reached a tentative agreement with the United States to establish an “Islamic State Free Zone.” The 60-mile-wide zone, extending from the northern Syrian border town of Azaz eastward to Jarabulus on the Euphrates River, is designed to insulate Turkey from ISIS and seal the Syrian-Turkish border. The catalyst was a massive bomb blast in late July, claimed by ISIS, which killed 32 and injured 100 in the Turkish town of Suruc. In theory, Syrian insurgents, supported by Turkish artillery and possibly protected by Turkish and U.S. air cover will secure the zone. The agreement is a culmination of years of Turkish proposals to establish a no-fly zone in northern Syria that would serve as a staging area for rebels aiming to topple Assad.
Initial reports indicate that Turkish forces will not enter the zone. But the territory roughly overlaps with Syria’s largest pocket of ethnic Turkmen, so Turkey could be planning to rely on them as a local base of support.Initial reports indicate that Turkish forces will not enter the zone. But the territory roughly overlaps with Syria’s largest pocket of ethnic Turkmen, so Turkey could be planning to rely on them as a local base of support. Turkmen, who number only 300,000 in Syria, are ethnically distinct from Syrian Sunni Arabs, who represent about 65 percent of the Syrian population and make up the lion’s share of the armed opposition. 
Also on Syria’s northern border, the PKK is vying for influence. Two years ago, Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) set up the Kurdish Supreme Committee, which declared the de facto autonomous region of Rojava. The new autonomous region consists of three cantons in Afrin, Kobani, and Hassakah. Although the Supreme Committee and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), insist that they are not the PKK, Turkey has sealed its border with Rojava over concerns that the units are but a fig leaf for the PKK. Ankara, as well as other Kurdish factions, openly dislike the support PYD receives from Iran and its tolerance of Assad regime forces in Hassakah.
Last month, the United States launched airstrikes against ISIS to support the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and conducted an operation to seize the border region of Tal Abyad from ISIS. This key battlefield victory united the long separated cantons of Kobani and Hassakah, giving the Kurdish sphere perhaps the most territorial integrity in Syria outside of Assad regime areas. Some in the PYD now advocate pushing west to Afrin to form a Kurdish belt across the northern border of Syria. In response, Turkey and the United States agreed to keep the PYD out of Turkey’s proposed safe zone.
On Syria’s southwestern border, Jordan is also preparing to carve out a sphere of influence. For years, Jordanian intelligence, which closely coordinates with the United States, has actively tracked and worked with rebels in southern Syria. As the conflict has worsened, Jordanian officials increasingly find themselves in a no-win situation. If the rebels take Damascus, further chaos just 60 miles from the Jordanian border is almost certain. If Assad wins and tries to retake the south, thousands more refugees would pour into Jordan. And, given the Assad regime’s lack of manpower, Syria would still be extremely unstable. If the country’s chaotic partition continues, the regime’s continued use of chemical weapons and reliance on Iran would further push Syria’s rebels into the hands of radical jihadists such as ISIS, a problem no country wants nearby.
A Financial Times report released on June 29 to coincide with the Turkish announcement of a potential safe area, indicates that Jordan is planning to set up its own humanitarian buffer zone inside Syria in response to the Assad regime’s battlefield losses and due to the fear of an ISIS expansion in southern Syria. The exact details of the plan remain sketchy. On June 14, Jordanian King Abdullah pledged to “support” the tribes of southern Syria and western Iraq to protect Jordan from ISIS, which was widely interpreted to mean that he would arm them. But on July 30, the Jordanian government issued a press release saying that the King’s comments “were misinterpreted.” 
Regardless, the announcement followed a debate in the Jordanian press on Hashemite interests in southern Syria, which date back to the Great Arab Revolt of 1916­–18. Traditionally, Jordan’s sphere of influence roughly overlaps with the Houran, the volcanic plateau south of Damascus that straddles the Syrian–Jordanian border. By relying on Houran-based fighters and tribesmen, with whom Jordanians share kinship, Jordan has successfully kept ISIS out of southern Syria (so far) and kept Nusra, whose southern leadership also hails from the Houran region, in check. Some Jordanians even insist that local Nusra leaders could be “peeled away” to more moderate battalions.
Jordan’s sphere of influence in Syria partially overlaps with that of Israel, which is increasingly concerned about the political and military vacuum to the east of the Golan frontier. For years, Israel has quietly engaged rebel groups in southern Syria, provided extensive medical support to those fleeing the fighting, and tolerated weakened Assad regime forces on the northern Golan. Israel and Jordan share common goals in southern Syria, most notably keeping ISIS and Iran out of the Houran and Quneitra. But Israel’s policy options have been constrained by two hard realities: first, that the most effective rebel units in southern Syria are jihadists, who are fundamentally opposed to the State of Israel, and second, that the only way the Assad regime, which Israel had generally tolerated, can retake all of southern Syria is with direct help from Iran, which is Israel’s primary strategic enemy.
Some Israelis see a potential middle path through the Druze, an ethnic minority that resides in both Syria and Israel and whose brethren are historically close to the Assad regime. Over the last year, several Israeli officials have quietly indicated that they owe the Druze a debt for their service in the Israeli armed forces. Outreach to the Druze is complicated by the fact that some Druze are actively involved in Hezbollah-inspired IED attacks along the Golan fence. But a series of Assad regime withdrawals from Druze areas over the last few months have reportedly caused some Druze to look for options to defend themselves against jihadists.
Iran’s motivations for what, by most estimates, is the largest foreign intervention in Syria, are to ensure a safe corridor for arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, maintain a presence on the Golan Heights to attack Israel, and ensure that what is left of the Assad regime does Iran’s bidding. Iran’s multilayered attempt to prop up the Assad regime has carved out what is arguably the largest sphere of influence in Syria. Based out of Lebanon, Iranian-backed Hezbollah are active in the border region of Qalamoun and in the Assad regime’s northern and southern campaigns. Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias imported by Tehran are actively involved in the same campaigns. Perhaps the most prominent example of Iranian influence has come via Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force activities to develop Syria’s paramilitary, which by some estimates, is now as large as the Syrian army. This comes in addition to an estimated $6 billion in annual economic and energy support from Tehran that has helped prop up what is left of the Assad regime. 
Iran’s motivations for what, by most estimates, is the largest foreign intervention in Syria, are to ensure a safe corridor for arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, maintain a presence on the Golan Heights to attack Israel, and ensure that what is left of the Assad regime does Iran’s bidding. Despite the Assad regime’s recent battlefield defeats, even moderates in Iran say their support to the regime can outlast that of the rebels.
Although they lack a territorial foothold, the Gulf Arab states, which are mainly looking to counter Iran, have established influence in Syria by supporting Turkish and Jordanian efforts to arm rebel factions. When, in the summer of 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to arm the moderate Syrian opposition, Arab Gulf countries stepped in to directly fund Islamist and moderate groups in Syria. Some of these funds made it into the hands of extremists, which spread rapidly in opposition-controlled areas of Syria.
It appears that the Gulf countries mostly support moderate and Islamist factions while tolerating those factions’ coordination with jihadists. Concerned about the rise of extremists, Gulf Arab countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia publicly supported U.S., Turkish, and Jordanian efforts in 2014 to shut off support to Islamists and jihadists in Syria. Yet since then, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have only increased the money they send to Syria. The exact recipients are unclear, but it appears that the Gulf countries mostly support moderate and Islamist factions while tolerating those factions’ coordination with jihadists such as Ahrar al-Sham and Nusra in the Jaysh al Fateh, or Army of Conquest. This group has proven a formidable challenge to the Assad regime in northern and southern Syria. 
The map of Syria is changing by the day. Its neighbors have brought their own political, military, and sectarian tensions to the civil war there, which has made it more complicated and bloody. Despite recent diplomatic overtures, agreement between Iran, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey over what to do in Syria seems unlikely anytime soon, as does a softening of the hardline positions of both the Assad regime and jihadists such as ISIS and Nusra.
But the creation of regional spheres of influence does open some possibilities for diplomacy, something Obama hinted at in his remarks following the Iran deal announcement concerning conversations with Tehran about “a political transition that keeps the country intact and does not further fuel the growth of ISIL and other terrorist organizations.” In the short term, neighboring countries and regional forces could use their influence to isolate and punish the most extreme groups in their areas. That would require the White House to orchestrate a balancing act of cutting political deals with neighbors and regional actors on such sticky issues as the role of President Assad, the means of his departure, and what a transition in Syria means. And, in the event an agreement is reached, each country would be given a key role in enforcing it.

In order to open the door for this possibility, the United States needs to recognize that Syria is a broken state that will not be repaired anytime soon—something it has been reticent to do. But recognizing regional spheres of influence in Syria and working with Syria’s neighbors (rather than with Russia in yet another top-down attempt at peace talks) to stabilize each piece of the puzzle could well be a vital first step in putting it back together again.

Friday, January 30, 2015

'Uncoordinated Deconfliction' in Syria: A Recipe to Contain, Not Defeat, ISIS

Also available in العربية
January 26, 2015
If Washington continues to bomb ISIS while sidestepping the question of Assad's future, Syria may wind up partitioned between jihadist and Iranian-backed forces.
Washington's nascent policy of "uncoordinated deconfliction" with Bashar al-Assad's regime in the fight against the "Islamic State"/ISIS may not be a formal alliance, but it does have the potential to foster serious problems. The regime's tacit agreement to avoid firing on coalition strike aircraft -- juxtaposed with long delays in the Obama administration's train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition and the president's October 2014 letter to Iran's Supreme Leader on cooperation against ISIS -- is creating widespread perceptions that the United States is heading into a de facto alliance with Assad and Tehran regarding the jihadists. If Washington continues this policy as is, it will merely contain ISIS, not "defeat" or "destroy" the group as called for by President Obama. Worse, it could lead to a deadly extremist stalemate in Syria between Iranian-backed/Hezbollah forces and jihadists, amplifying threats to U.S. national security interests.


Following the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, the United States discarded its policy of "constructive engagement" with the regime and called on Assad to "step aside." Yet as the conflict progressed and President Obama decided not to decisively arm the rebels or enforce his "redline" on regime chemical attacks, jihadists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra quickly filled opposition-controlled areas of Syria, providing strategic depth for offensives back into Iraq. The dramatic ISIS campaign against Mosul, the collapse of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, and the execution of U.S. hostages led President Obama to call for the group's destruction. To reach this goal, the U.S.-led coalition launched a two-pronged approach: a bombing campaign and the arming of selected anti-ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria.
To carry out the first part of the strategy, Washington orchestrated a policy via Baghdad that one unnamed U.S. official referred to in a December 1 Washington Post story as "uncoordinated deconfliction." Last September, right before U.S. airstrikes expanded into Syria, Iraq's Shiite-led, Iranian-allied government sent National Security Advisor Faleh al-Fayyad to see Assad. While the meeting's exact details were not made public, the understanding forged was clear -- since then, over 900 coalition sorties have flown over Syria without regime forces firing a shot at them.
The second part of the strategy involves arming substate actors, most notably the Peshmerga in Iraq and Syria's moderate opposition. U.S. assistance to the Peshmerga is carried out with the permission of the Iraqi government, but the situation is much more complicated in Syria, where the opposition must be trained and equipped without the consent of the "legal" host government. This is something the U.S. military does not like to do but has pulled off in the past, as seen with the Peshmerga during Operation Northern Watch in the 1990s. A complicating factor is that Syrian rebels have shown less political cohesion than their Kurdish counterparts, raising the question of what entity a U.S.-trained force would report to.
While implementing the strategy has worked thus far in Iraq, its two prongs have been at cross-purposes in Syria. When striking ISIS targets, U.S. forces prefer to fly over Syrian territory without the Assad regime shooting at them. In order to truly defeat ISIS, however, the United States and its allies need to train and equip an opposition force to take over Sunni-dominated areas now controlled by ISIS, much to Assad's chagrin.
Unfortunately the optics of the first part of the strategy have seriously hindered the second. When U.S. bombing raids targeting ISIS unexpectedly expanded in September to include Jabhat al-Nusra in western Idlib province, the latter turned on the Western-backed Free Syrian Army groups in their area, dramatically overrunning the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) and Harakat Hazm. The decimated groups had been armed with U.S. TOW missiles and were therefore widely reported to be part of the American covert support program. While some of these forces have since regrouped, the U.S. bombing campaign -- combined with President Obama's November statements that Washington was not actively discussing ways to remove Assad -- has nearly collapsed the long-fraying rebel support for the United States. Meanwhile, the jihadist vs. Assad fight has been escalating.


Flipping back to support the Assad regime against ISIS will not solve Washington's problems, however. Beyond the terrible optics of assisting a president who has used chemical weapons and Scud missiles against his own people, the Assad regime is financially and militarily crippled and therefore unable to retake and hold areas currently controlled by ISIS. Its capture of territory over the past year has been the product of controversial "ceasefires" essentially imposed on besieged populations, as well as military operations carried out by Iranian-trained, Alawite-dominated irregulars from the National Defense Forces as much as army regulars. This means that whatever areas the regime attempts to retake in the coming months will see an influx of increasingly minority-dominated, Iranian-directed forces. In short, Bashar's comeback is not a legitimate ruler returning order to his country, but substantially a product of Iran's foreign legion of substate actors. This fight -- part of Tehran's effort to radically transform the Fertile Crescent -- is something that the region's Sunni powers will continue to oppose, most notably Turkey and the Gulf Arab countries.
Iran's deep and direct involvement in Assad's attempt to shoot his way out of the Syria crisis has implicated Tehran in the mass slaughter of Sunnis and set off a sectarian war that has engulfed Iraq and threatens to spread beyond. Iran's Syria campaign would make more sense if sectarian demographics were not so firmly against it. Syria is 75 percent Sunni Arab, roughly the same percentage as the overall Middle East minus Iran. And the rural areas that ISIS dominates in Syria and Iraq are upwards of 95 percent Sunni Arab. Such figures indicate that Iran will not be able to shoot Sunnis into submission; rather, it could end up in a grinding conflict that many have already described as "Iran's Vietnam."


Although this trend is unlikely to produce a "regime victory," it could spur Assad and his Iranian sponsors to focus on their parts of lesser Syria and commit to a de facto nonaggression pact with the jihadists. This might help avoid Iran's Vietnam scenario, but it would lead to the worst of both worlds for the United States and its allies: Assad and ISIS both holding on, perhaps permanently. To avoid this scenario and better pursue U.S. security interests in Syria, Washington should adopt the following approach:
  1. Accept that Syria will be a divided, failed state as long as Assad is permitted to remain in power -- something akin to Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, when the regime's policies cost it control over the Kurdish north. Unlike that scenario, however, Assad's continued presence would be a powerful magnet for jihadists and a major driver of Sunni-Shiite tension.
  2. Do not lessen the pressure on Assad. Instead of allowing the regime's strength to grow, Washington should weaken both Assad and ISIS by encouraging the fight between them, weakening Iran's foreign legions and the jihadists at the same time. Assad often brags about fighting terrorism, so the United States should let him do it on his own dime, hanging responsibility for ISIS around his neck and weakening him and Iran's forces in the process. Key issues for Washington to consider include when to ramp up or scale back airstrikes against not only ISIS, but also regime forces -- especially if Assad follows through with the threat he issued on January 20, when he told Foreign Affairsthat the regime would attack any U.S.-trained moderate forces entering Syria. Only then would Damascus and Tehran be pressured to make substantial concessions.
  3. Focus on helping the moderate opposition consolidate their lines of control against the jihadists and regime alike, in addition to sharply increasing humanitarian assistance for displaced persons and efforts to protect civilians. The United States cannot organize and regiment the entire opposition, but it can back any faction that retakes areas from ISIS. The only way to motivate the rebels to do so is to openly support their justified stance against Assad remaining in power.
  4. Develop a strategy to remove Assad via diplomacy, information messaging, and military/economic power. The longer he is in place, the longer Syria will be divided. Once Assad goes, it will be possible to put the pieces of Syria back together again.
Andrew Tabler is a senior fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics. His publications include "Syria's Collapse and How Washington Can Stop It" (Foreign Affairs, July-August 2013) and the 2011 book In the Lion's Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington's Battle with Syria.