Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The Future of Land Warfare.”
President Obama’s decision to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees in the next year is welcome news. Even as a small, partial response to the overwhelming tragedy afflicting Syria and the broader region, it constitutes a necessary measure of humaneness and decency. But, of course, we all know it is far from enough — at a time when Europe faces an influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees, when 4 million Syrian refugees continue to seek shelter primarily in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, when some 8 million additional Syrians are displaced within their country with no certitude that they will remain safe.
What is needed, in addition to a humane refugee policy, is a fundamentally different approach to the Syrian civil war that holds out the promise not only of defeating the Islamic State and, over time, President Bashar al-Assad but also of relieving as much of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding there as possible — and soon. We are witnessing the equivalent of a slow-motion genocide and doing little about it.
The most viable strategy for achieving, at least partially, these various aims would be to deconstruct Syria. We need a number of regional solutions rather than a Hail Mary hope for a big and comprehensive political deal or military turnaround. By helping opposition forces create pockets of sanctuary within Syria that would grow stronger and larger over time, we can help at least the people living in these zones — while also building up, bit by bit, a political and military strategy that could eventually prove successful against extremist forces and the regime. This strategy has the added advantage of being viable even as Russia escalates its role in certain sectors of the country, because it does not require any near-term and direct U.S. military challenge to Assad’s core areas of rule (though we could threaten to destroy any regime aircraft that continued the horrific barrel-bombing tactic).
This approach would also build on current U.S. strategy, including the recent claim by Ankara and Washington that they will create a safe zone in Syria’s north — but with a much less glaring mismatch between means and ends. We would no longer require either ideological purity of opposition fighters before we train and equip them or pledges on their part not to fight Assad and his murderous regime. Training them in the safety of Turkey, Jordan and other friendly countries would still be a key step, but not a sufficient one.
Once modest numbers of fighters were trained, they could help solidify footholds inside Syria. American as well as Saudi, Turkish, British, Jordanian and other Arab forces would act in support, not only from the air but also eventually with special forces and trainers on the ground. This military concept has much in common with the path suggested this week in congressional testimony by retired Army general David Petraeus.
Creation of these sanctuaries would produce autonomous zones that would never again have to face the prospect of rule by either Assad or the Islamic State. They would also constitute areas where humanitarian relief could be supplied, schools reopened and larger opposition fighting forces recruited, trained and based. U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations would help to the extent possible; regardless, relief could certainly be provided far more effectively than is the case today.
The endgame for these zones would not have to be determined in advance. The goal might be a confederal Syria, with several highly autonomous zones and, eventually, a modest national government. The confederation would likely require support from an international peacekeeping force (perhaps even including Russia), if this arrangement could ever be formalized by accord. But in the short term, the ambitions would be lower — to make these zones defensible and governable, to help provide relief for populations within them, and to train and equip more recruits so that the zones could be stabilized and expanded.
This approach could also reduce disagreements with other sponsors of the insurgency and many of the insurgents themselves, by helping dispel the lurking suspicion that Washington is content to tolerate the Assad government for now as the lesser of two evils. We would have a credible plan to help opposition forces start taking territory from him, and the Islamic State, in short order.
The implementation of the plan could be undertaken in the safest zones first — perhaps in Kurdish areas, and also near the Jordanian border in conjunction with Jordanian forces.
While it is not without risks for the United States, the scale of military involvement envisioned is not substantially greater than what we have been doing the past year or so in Afghanistan. Obama can stay true to his most important pledges — to downsize the U.S. role in the wars of the Middle East, while doing everything in his power to protect the country from further terrorist attack — with such an approach. And he can take seriously a crisis that is making a mockery of his, and the world’s, commitment to the principle that we have a responsibility to protect our fellow human beings in a tragic situation such as the one that has befallen Syria.