FPI Bulletin: A Tragic Anniversary in Syria

March 19, 2015

As if to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the war in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s air force this week dropped chlorine gas bombs on Syrian civilians in violation of yet another United Nations resolution.  This latest atrocity is consistent with four years of conflict characterized by both the Assad regime’s staggering brutality and the Obama administration’s refusal to intervene.  The result has been the simultaneous rise of the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the expansion of Iranian influence across the region. While the United States has launched a campaign of limited airstrikes against ISIS, President Obama is working under the flawed assumption that he can fight the organization without addressing the role of Assad and his patrons in Tehran, who are fueling the sectarian conflict.

The result of this failed policy is that the war in Syria has shattered millions of lives and is destabilizing the region:

  • More than 220,000 Syrians have been killed and 1 million wounded since March 2011. 
  • Syrians now constitute the second-largest refugee population in the world, with 3.8 million having fled to other nations and 7.6 million internally displaced.
  • The war has produced a “lost generation,” with some 2.8 million Syrian children out of school, and 6.5 million children needing immediate humanitarian assistance. 
  • In a graphic illustration of the devastation of Syria, a recent analysis of satellite photos show that some 85% of the country’s nighttime lights have been extinguished.

Statistics, however, cannot convey the utter depravity of the Assad regime’s torture chambers.  That evidence is available in the tens of thousands of images collected by “Caesar,” a regime defector who documented the torture and murder of over 11,000 civilians and testified before Congress in July 2014.  In the meantime, the Assad regime and its Iranian backers continue to enjoy impunity as they enter the fifth year of their war against the Syrian people, while Islamist extremists continue their march across the region.

Syria’s Descent to Disaster

To understand the challenge facing us today, one must examine how the Syrian conflict has evolved through five distinct phases, from peaceful protests to a regional war.

Arab Spring Uprising – In March 2011, a group of Syrian students spray-painted anti-regime graffiti on walls in the town of Dara’a.  Their arrest precipitated mass demonstrations throughout the country.  In response, the Assad regime fired on the demonstrators and imprisoned thousands of activists.  In May, President Obama warned the Syrian regime that it “must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests.  It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests.” The Syrians ignored him. On August 18, 2011, after months of brutality, President Obama finally declared, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”  However, Obama took no action to give credibility to his words. By November, over 3,500 Syrians had been killed by Assad’s forces.

The Regime in Retreat – Throughout 2011, armed groups known collectively as the Free Syrian Army rose to prominence within the opposition and made significant gains against the Assad regime.  By June 2012, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded that opposition forces controlled large swaths of the country’s northern and central countryside.   “The Assad regime holds key cities but lacks the forces required to secure the whole country,” ISW said.

In these early stages of the war, it is important to note that the armed opposition contained relatively few extremists.  As ISW chronicled in 2012, the majority of the fighters came from civilian backgrounds, along with regime defectors who “constituted an important organizing force within the opposition.”  ISW added that “The majority of evidence through early March 2012 indicated that while Syria’s insurgents may be inspired by Islam, they are not radical jihadists.” Presciently, ISW noted, “However, the longer Syria’s overmatched insurgents face a well-armed military, the more tempted they may be to align themselves with experienced jihadists.”

Assad Escalates, Iran Intervenes – In response to the opposition’s gains in the early stages of the conflict, the Assad regime pursued a two-pronged strategy.  First, it gradually escalated its use of force against the Syrian people. This escalation started with the introduction of field artillery, then aerial bombardment, and finally missiles against rebel-held cities and towns.  This escalation imposed growing humanitarian costs on rebel-held areas, and allowed Assad to flaunt the lack of international response to his growing atrocities.

Simultaneously, Assad stoked the sectarian nature of the conflict between the Sunni-majority rebels, and his regime, which is dominated by members of Syria’s minority Alawite sect, a branch of Shi’ite Islam. As Frederick Hof, then the Obama administration’s coordinator for Syria policy noted, Assad had “emptied his jails of violent, Islamist prisoners” and sought to “lure back to Syria the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) terrorists his regime once escorted to Iraq from Damascus.” By promoting jihadist influence within the opposition, Assad sought to present his regime as Syria’s sole bulwark against Sunni extremism.

Assad’s primary backer in this effort has been the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has funneled arms, funding, and a stream of fighters from both its Islamic Republican Guard Corps and the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.  

Islamist extremists seized the opening that Assad and Tehran offered; both the Nusra Front (al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) and the splinter group that would rename itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) soon rose to prominence.  Both groups benefited from Washington’s reluctance to prevent weapons from flowing to extremists and the flood of some 20,000 foreign fighters (including 3,400 Westerners) into Syria after the conflict began.

Ambassador Hof has described the consequence of this evolving conflict, writing that “the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front has now formed a threesome with ISIS and the [Assad] regime to try to finish off the nationalists favored by the United States and its partners.”  Their combined efforts gradually routed moderate rebel positions, and have largely fulfilled Assad’s ambition to present the world with a two-way struggle between his regime and Sunni extremists.

Red Lines Come and Go – As the conflict in Syria escalated in the summer of 2012, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director General David Petraeus, with the support of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, presented the President with a plan to train and arm vetted opposition groups.  The President rejected the proposal. When asked that summer whether the United States would intervene in Syria, Obama explained, “the red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”

Assad promptly crossed this red line, launching a series of chemical weapons attacks in early 2013 that culminated in the August 21 sarin gas bombing of a Damascus suburb that slaughtered more than 1,400 people.

President Obama proposed then quickly scrapped a plan for retaliatory strikes against Assad. He then seized onto a Russian plan for Assad to destroy his chemical weapon stockpiles in lieu of punishment.  After the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) certified that nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile was destroyed, the White House returned to its passivity. For his part, Assad has continued to use chlorine gas bombs, while employing conventional means to drive the civilian death toll ever higher, demonstrating to the Syrian people that its slaughter would continue with impunity.

ISIS and Limited American Airstrikes – In 2014, ISIS seized vast swaths of Syria and expanded into Iraq. The rise of ISIS reflected Assad and Tehran’s desire to frame the war as a sectarian conflict, and provided a useful ally against the country’s more moderate rebels. As the Wall Street Journal reported in August 2014, “Assad decided to mostly avoid fighting the Islamic State to enable it to cannibalize the more secular rebel group supported by the West.”  The regime even purchased oil from refineries that ISIS had seized, giving the organization access to enormous resources to help fund its rise.

The collapse of Iraqi Security Forces and outrage after ISIS murdered Americans James Foley and Steven Sotloff in the summer of 2014 finally forced the President to act. The Obama administration expanded its air campaign to include ISIS fighters in Syria.   However, Iraq remained the focus of U.S. military operations, so their impact was hardly felt in Syria. As in all previous phases of the war, President Obama sought to avoid deeper engagement at almost any cost, even as ISIS, Assad, and Iranian-backed militias seized more territory across Syria and Iraq.

A Strategy for Failure

President Obama’s current policy reflects fundamental flaws in the administration’s approach to the interconnected threats posed by Syria, ISIS, and Iran. First, he mistakenly believes that Iran is a partner in the fight against ISIS. In reality, Tehran seeks to exploit the conflict in order to expand its influence of Iraq and Syria. Unlike the U.S., Iran has no interest in either reconciliation across sectarian lines or the establishment of independent governments. For Tehran, the atrocities committed by Assad and by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are a means of forcing the population to choose between ISIS and Iran’s proxies.

The administration’s mistaken approach to Iran has resulted in implicit support for Assad.  In a secret letter to Ayatollah Khamenei first reported by the Wall Street Journal, Obama assured the Supreme Leader that U.S. military operations in Syria are not targeting Assad or his forces.  John Brennan, the director of the CIA, recently explained that neither the U.S. nor its partners “wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus.” Yet the strategy of relying on Assad as a bulwark against Sunni extremism is failing.  The Assad regime knows that fear of Sunni extremism is what makes its survival palatable to the West. Thus, it invests little effort in fighting ISIS while its brutality drives the Sunni population into ISIS’s waiting arms.

The only fig leaf now covering the administration’s passive approach to Syria is its belated decision to train the remnants of the moderate opposition forces. Already, this too little, too late approach has resulted in the collapse of Harakat Hazm, the first moderate group to receive U.S. anti-tank missiles.  What’s more, the administration’s initiative to train approximately 5,000 moderate opposition fighters per year will still lead to a force that remains heavily outnumbered by extremist groups.  Moreover, administration officials say that the United States will not defend U.S.-trained fighters from Assad’s air force.

A New Approach

The first step toward reversing the damage done would be to adopt a policy that does not rely on Iran, the militias it backs, or Assad as partners against ISIS. The United States should instead expand the deployment of American forces along the lines recommended in this study by the Institute for the Study of War.  This redoubled effort would include an intensified air campaign, the deployment of special operations forces to help spot ISIS targets, and build Iraqi security Forces that are not under Iran’s sway.

The United States should also increase assistance to moderate armed opposition groups.  Ambassador Robert Ford, the U.S. envoy to Damascus until his resignation in protest last June, recommends “a major diplomatic and assistance effort” that includes “hugely boosted” U.S. support to mainstream opposition groups, establishing a no-fly zone to protect Syrian fighters who are being trained by American-led coalition, and creating a unified command structure for the armed opposition—which “must be the sole conduit for external funding, arming, and training.”

On May 19, 2011, Mr. Obama attempted to set a new course for America’s Mideast policy in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions.  Speaking at the State Department, the President said “after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”  Unfortunately, Mr. Obama squandered that opportunity while allowing both ISIS and Tehran to expand their influence across the region. There is still time to reverse this policy, but it will grow more difficult as Syria and Iraq slide deeper into the abyss.

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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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