Vladimir Putin has been able to act forcefully in Syria not because he’s bolder or more decisive than Barack Obama but because he has a clearer strategy. Putin has an ally, the Assad government. He has enemies, the opponents of the government. He supports his ally and fights those enemies. By comparison, Washington and the West are fundamentally confused.
Whom is the United States for in this struggle? We know whom it is against — the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Also, the Islamic State, which happens to be the regime’s principal opponent. Also, all the other jihadi groups fighting in Syria — including Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda affiliate) and Ahrar al-Sham. Oh, and Hezbollah forces and Iranian forces who have been supporting the Syrian government. The West is against almost every major group fighting in Syria, which makes for moral clarity but strategic incoherence.
Russia’s move is not as brilliant as is being made out. It is a desperate effort to shore up one of the Kremlin’s only foreign allies and risks making Russia the “Great Satan” in the eyes of jihadis everywhere. But at least Putin has a coherent plan. The United States, by contrast, is closely allied with the Iraqi government in its fight against militant Sunnis in that country. But it finds itself fighting on the same side of these militant Sunnis across the border in Syria as they battle the Assad regime.
Washington does back some groups — the Syrian Kurds close to Turkey, moderate forces supported by Jordan close to its border and a small number of other moderate Syrians. But if you consider the major groups vying for control of Damascus, the United States is against almost all of them.
Kenneth Pollack and Barbara Walter describe the administration’s basic approach, which sees all existing fighting forces as inadequate in some way. “The United States is building a new Syrian opposition army. That army is meant to be apolitical, nonsectarian, and highly integrated,” they write in the Washington Quarterly. “When it is ready, it will . . . conquer (liberate) and hold territory against both the Assad regime and the various Sunni jihadist groups. . . . The result would be an inclusive new government with extensive protections for all minority groups.” It would be one thing to have believed that this was possible 15 years ago. But after the experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, this is fantasy, not foreign policy.
David Petraeus recently proposed an expanded military intervention, creating havens and potentially a no-fly zone to counter Assad’s barrel bombs. But could such a plan defeat the Islamic State? When Petraeus devised a strategy in Iraq to tackle the precursor to this group, he emphasized that “you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency.” His 2006 field manual on counterinsurgency says that “ultimate success” comes only by “protecting the populace.” Commanders must “transition security activities from combat operations to law enforcement as quickly as feasible.”
That’s the problem. The U.S. Army could easily defeat the Islamic State, which has a lightly armed force of fewer than 30,000 men. But then it would own real estate in Syria. Who wants to govern that territory, protect the population and be seen by locals as legitimate? A senior Turkish official told me recently, “We watched you trying to run Iraqi towns, and we will not make America’s mistake.”
If one looks back over the many U.S. interventions around the globe, one factor looms large. When Washington allied with a local force that was capable and viewed as legitimate, it succeeded. But without such locals, all the outside effort, aid, firepower and training can only do so much — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.
If Obama’s goal is a peaceful, stable, multisectarian democracy, then it requires a vast U.S. commitment on the scale of the Iraq war. If not, Washington has to accept reality and make some hard decisions. The two big ones are whether to stop opposing Assad and whether to accept that Syria is going to be partitioned.
If defeating the Islamic State is important, then it has to become the overriding priority, allying with any outside forces that will join the fight. If Assad falls and jihadis take Damascus, that would be worse than if Assad stays. This doesn’t mean providing Assad with any support, but allowing him to create an Alawite enclave in Syria, of a kind that is already forming. The Kurds and moderate Syrians are creating their own safe spaces as well. Even if the civil war ends and a country called Syria remains, these groups will not live all intermingled again.
So far in Syria, the West has combined maximalist, uncompromising rhetoric with minimalist, ineffective efforts. It is the yawning gap between the two that is making Vladimir Putin look smart.
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