Intervention leaves the U.S. with three alternatives to counter Assad resurgence.
With Russia's intervention in Syria, it is time to skip the blame game, move quickly to take stock of where we are and count our blessings, and then act on the opportunity to recalibrate our regional strategy.
From the start, the rising against
Bashar Assad in Syria was a leaderless, popular revolt, driven by economic and social issues, against a despotic leader and his avaricious retinue. It occurred at a time of regional instabilities driven in large measure by Iran's hegemonic aspirations against Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Sectarianism was less a cause and more a motif of the struggle.
And so our friends and allies aided the uprising, using zealous Sunni fighters to combat Iranian-backed Hezbollah and the Assad regime. In a war among the civilian populace, terrorism was a common and often successful tactic.
Along the way, some of the fledgling Sunni resistance transformed Frankenstein-likeinto the Islamic State, driven by former Baathist generals, sucking in tens of thousands of recruits from abroad and posing a threat not only to its Iranian-backed enemies but also to other Sunni fighters, Sunni states in the region and even beyond.
Russia's forceful intervention last week to assist Assad injects a new and potentially transformative element into the mix.
Naturally, Russia has gone after the strongest threats to Assad's regime first, the non-ISIL Sunni groups near Aleppo and the western, more prosperous reaches of Syria — the very forces the U.S. and its friends are supporting. For Russia, biding its time against ISIL has a certain logic: By eliminating more Western-amenable opponents, Russia can prevent the emergence of any leadership capable of challenging Assad. This will lead to a foregone but ultimately disastrous reinvigoration of Assad's regime.
In such circumstances, the U.S. has three alternatives:
- Maintain our limited involvement, continuing minimal airstrikes against ISIL and working to strengthen Iraqi ground forces, whatever their putative relationships with Russia and Iran and continuing support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.
- Intervene more forcefully, to include substantial ground forces inserted through Turkey into Syria to crush ISIL at its base, deprive it of its economic resources and then work against remaining strongholds in Iraq.
- As a middle course, create a safe zone in northern Syria, secured by U.S. air power and some international ground presence, to nurture a new Syrian leadership.
No course of action is without risk. Maintaining the present strategy — the first course of action — risks ceding Russia a new, more powerful role in the
Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. This isn't helpful to Europe, Israel or our Sunni friends. It virtually ensures Assad's continuation in power or his replacement by a like-minded authoritarian. And it also ensures continued refugee flow toward Europe.
The second course of action is big, expensive and slow. It risks substantial U.S. ground combat, including losses, in an effort to finish off ISIL in Syria, and in so doing strengthen the moderate
Syrian opposition, provide assurances to minorities and generally undercut Assad's ability with Russian help to reestablish control over the region. It also poses a direct obstacle to Russian designs. It provides bargaining leverage for an eventual diplomatic settlement that includes Assad's departure. It will be complicated by massive civil affairs, refugee and migrant issues.
The third alternative — establishing a safe zone in northern Syria, accommodating refugees under protection, building the Syrian opposition — also has risks.
Terrorist organizations such as the al-Nusra Front can be expected to resist. Russia will be tempted to encroach. Airspace and terrain must be protected, even with risk to U.S. forces and the danger of inadvertent encounters with the Russian military.
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Of the three, the last alternative, forging a safe area, probably with NATO engagement and participation of both Turkey and
Saudi Arabia, offers the best, lowest cost and the surest means of regaining some stability in the region. A safe zone, secured by NATO, assisted by other international organizations, and housing the nascent Free Syrian government and its military arm, would provide maximum diplomatic leverage as well as point toward the eventual destruction of ISIL.
Make no mistake, Russia's intervention is all about advancing Russia's interests — a strong presence in the Middle East, leverage over the U.S. and Europe, and eventually sanctions relief and re-established influence over
Ukraine and Eastern Europe. None of this will promote our values or interests. For this reason, there must be no relaxation of sanctions against Russia.
President Vladimir Putin must be disabused of any hope of gaining leverage over Europe and greater influence over Ukraine by his Syrian gambit. Also, we must recognize that the viability of the recently negotiated Iran nuclear agreement is dependent on the credibility of American power; to go passive now in the face of Russian action is to jeopardize the agreement at the very outset.
The Middle East remains a region of vital interests for the U.S. and our allies. However misguided the original invasion of Iraq, we find ourselves today in a new situation. We needn't repeat the mistakes of a decade ago — but neither can we fail to react to the new circumstances and their implications. This is the time for smart American action, in concert with our allies in Europe and the region.
Wesley K. Clark, a former supreme commander of NATO, led alliance military forces in the Kosovo War. He is a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA and author of Don't Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership.