FPI Bulletin: American Leadership the Only Answer in Syria

March 22, 2017

Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the Syrian conflict. What began in March 2011 as a peaceful popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad has become a war of torture chambers, mass murder, open chemical warfare, and indiscriminate bombing. Assad’s war against his own people is not just a moral atrocity, but also a strategic catastrophe for the United States. While ISIS has suffered major setbacks, Islamist extremism is by no means defeated in Syria. Indeed, al Qaeda is amassing unprecedented strength and poses a growing threat to the American homeland. As the war enters its seventh year, it poses a greater danger to the Trump administration than it did to his predecessor’s.

Determined to restrict American commitments in the Middle East, President Obama passively observed the early stages of war – only calling for Assad to go five months after his violent attempts to suppress the Syrian protest movement began, allowing Assad to use increasingly lethal means in his campaign against the opposition, refusing his cabinet’s recommendation to support the moderate armed opposition forces, and failing to uphold his own promise to militarily intervene after the regime's August 2013 sarin gas attack. Only the spectacular rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014 compelled President Obama to finally take limited military action in Syria. However, in many ways, ISIS is only a symptom of the Syrian war – its cause remains the barbaric attempt by Bashar al-Assad to cling to power, even at the expense of half a million lives.

Risky Partners Against ISIS

At the end of his administration, Mr. Obama finally began to coordinate and support local forces’ campaign against ISIS. In northern Syria, the U.S. has helped build the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a coalition of 35,000-50,000 fighters from both the Kurdish YPG militia and a contingent of Sunni Arab fighters – which is campaigning toward the ISIS capital of Raqqa.

However, while this militia has enjoyed stunning success in routing ISIS from their territory across northern Syria, the United States cannot rely on the SDF to be its primary proxy force. As former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey and Soner Cagaptay warn, “Ankara correctly sees the YPG as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish nationalist movement Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with whom Turkey has waged an internal conflict for decades, particularly intense since 2015.” Ankara is fearful that it could lose control over its southern border to a de-facto Kurdish state, and are wary of America’s increasing cooperation and support of the YPG. There are further concerns that using the YPG against ISIS in areas traditionally held by Sunni Arabs will ignite a sectarian conflict.

The United States has now deployed 400 troops to northern Syria to keep the peace among its partners there, and may deploy as many as 1,000 more. This situation can rightly be described as a geopolitical tinderbox and has the potential to spiral completely out of control.  U.S. policymakers and lawmakers must recognize that the SDF’s inherent limitations as a partner and that relying too much on this proxy militia only increases the risk to America’s strategic interests in Syria.

The Resurgence of al Qaeda

While ISIS is losing ground in Syria, al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups have gained strength by portraying themselves as the defenders of the Syrian Sunni majority and downplaying their global terrorist ambitions. Now, in the wake of Assad’s retaking of Aleppo – one of the moderate opposition’s few redoubts – al Qaeda and its affiliated groups are poised to dominate opposition forces. As Jennifer Cafarella, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reports, Assad’s Aleppo campaign “defeated Al Qaeda’s main competitors in northern Syria,” after which, “Al Qaeda consolidated its strength and resumed offensive operations against pro-Assad forces in February.”

Al Qaeda’s rise to prominence in the Syrian opposition is the product of both favorable outcomes on the battlefield and a determined, enduring strategy. A recent assessment by the U.S. Institute of Peace concluded, “Al Qaeda has played the long-game and it may prove to be a more enduring model than the Islamic State.” In multiple theaters, al Qaeda has pursued a strategy of “co-opting local Islamist movements and embedding within popular uprisings—even as its central command has continued to issue directives.” This approach has enabled al Qaeda to put down deep roots in Syria, initially under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra, which was rechristened Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) in mid-2016. U.S. intelligence officials estimate that JFS has 10,000 fighters under its command, making it the largest and most potent force ever directed by al Qaeda.

Bad Options and Worse Options

The sixth anniversary of the war is an opportunity to fundamentally rethink and revise America’s Syria policy. So long as Assad clings to power, Islamist extremism will continue to boil over Syria’s borders, threatening both the United States and its allies. Although the Obama administration’s failure to meaningfully support the moderate Syrian opposition has made America’s policy options far more constricted and less palatable then they once were, the new administration must be careful not to choose an approach that would only exacerbate an already dire situation. Above all, President Trump must reject the illusion that Damascus and Moscow are potential partners in the struggle against Islamic extremism.

As a candidate, President Trump said “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.” That is not true; in fact, Assad has often strengthened ISIS. At present, the regime’s purchase of oil from ISIS represents the group’s primary source of income. Whereas ISIS mainly controls territory in north and northeastern Syria, the regime and its foreign partners have focused overwhelmingly on destroying the opposition in the West, especially moderate forces such as the Free Syrian Army. Were the U.S. to partner with and empower Assad, it would only drive Sunni Arabs further into the arms of extremists. In the words of former Ambassador Frederic Hof, “There can be no political legitimacy in Syria and therefore no permanent defeat of terror as long as the Assad extended family and entourage wield political power in any part of the country….Too much blood has been spilled, too many lives ruined, and too few acts of mercy and human decency performed: all because a single family elected to use collective punishment to survive politically.” Simply put, the end of the Assad regime is a prerequisite for any lasting peace in Syria.

There is a better approach. According to a new report from ISW and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), “the fight against the Salafi-jihadi movement must be fought and won within the Sunni community itself.” This means that the US and its Sunni allies in the region must begin to rebuild the moderate opposition forces that have lost so much ground to the extremists. President Trump has spoken with the Saudi king about the value of establishing safe zones within Syria, where civilians could seek refuge and the opposition could organize. Now is the time to begin implementing them.

Safe zone advocates have generally taken for granted that the best place to establish the zones would be either adjacent to the Turkish border in northern Syria or adjacent to the Jordanian border in the south. The report from ISW and AEI argues that the most favorable terrain is actually in southeastern Syria, adjacent to the Iraqi border, from which a rebuilt opposition force could move against ISIS through the Euphrates River Valley, its geographic back door. The ISW-AEI report examines this option in greater detail, yet remains focused on the key strategic question, which is whether the U.S. will side or against with Syria’s Arab Sunni population, whose support is essential to ISIS and al Qaeda.


There are no easy options in Syria that require minimal U.S. effort and could end the war quickly. Even the approach laid out by AEI and ISW would require a major U.S. commitment over years to become realized. But, if the United States fails to take responsibility for ending the conflict, then it will allow an Islamist terrorism threat to further metastasize. The president should recognize that only Sunnis can defeat Sunni extremism. To truly defeat ISIS and al Qaeda, Mr. Trump must do what his predecessor did not: firmly support America’s natural allies in Syria, thereby creating the leverage necessary to negotiate an end to the Assad regime.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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