A shorter version of this analysis was published in Foreign Policy.
As we think about countering extremism in Syria, we should consider the story of Syrian soccer team goalie Abdul Basset Saroot. During the largely peaceful protest marches in 2011, Saroot joined the demonstrators in Syria's third-largest city, Homs. He then joined moderate opposition fighters in 2012 after the regime launched its vicious repression campaign, and he eventually became a commander of opposition fighters in Homs. He, many of his fighters, their families, and other civilians endured two years of bombardment, siege, and starvation. Finally in 2014 he and his men left the old city of Homs as part of an UN-brokered deal. Not long afterward, he joined the Islamic State.
A Syrian activist who spoke to Saroot by telephone in January told me that he had asked Saroot why he would join such a ruthless, immoral group. Saroot rejected this criticism, noting that the world stood by for two years watching Syrian children and other civilians starve or die, and no one "lifted a finger." No one has any right to teach Syrians like him about democracy or rights now, Saroot reportedly asserted, and the Islamic State was the best way to rid Syria of the Assad regime. This from a man who used to play soccer, an activity ISIS now bans.
The State of Play in Syria
Syria, not Iraq, is the strategic depth of the Islamic State, and the Assad regime has always been the driving force pushing thousands of Syrians to join its ranks. Assad made clear in interviews with Foreign Affairs and the BBC that he regrets nothing and that he won't negotiate reforms, much less a transition. Assad’s support base is being eroded steadily, and we see grumbling in the Alawi community that we didn't see even a year ago. However, Assad's support base rightfully fears opposition extremists, and so Assad can stay defiant. His biggest military threat, the Islamic State, had to halt an attack on Assad's trapped garrison in the eastern city of Deir Ezzour in November 2014 after repeated U.S. airstrikes against ISIS forces. The Americans may have wanted to stop the Islamic State from shifting forces into Iraq, but in Syria the net effect was that they spared Assad from having to explain to his supporters why another major regime base and its troops were overrun. His support base is tiring, but Assad can and will fight on.
Meanwhile, the Syrian political opposition isn't helping any effort to reach a political deal. The Istanbul-based opposition coalition reiterated in February maximalist demands that Assad step down immediately, and its blind eye toward abuses by al-Qa‘ida’s Nusra Front ensures that Assad regime supporters will have no confidence negotiating with the opposition. The dissolution in early March of the moderate fighting group Hazm in northern Syria because it could not withstand attacks from Nusra is a marker of the failure of U.S. policy, since American aid wasn't nearly enough. (McClatchy and the Wall Street Journal have reported on this in detail.) Hazm's defeat is also a warning to those in the Syrian opposition who thought Nusra was a manageable problem. Instead, the Syrian street is complaining about Nusra's heavy rule.
The fighting in Syria will continue, but Assad lacks the resources to recapture territories he has lost to al-Qa‘ida and Islamic State groups in Syria. Syria is headed toward de facto partition with the Nusra Front and the Islamic State solidly holding large portions of the country.
Boots on the Ground: Whose?
If we have learned anything from the past 20 years in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Mali, it is that extremist organizations that enjoy wide spaces in which to plan and prepare operations will eventually threaten us. Most recognize this observation as a genuine problem with respect to Syria. But what can be done?
We need strong, numerous boots on the ground, but we also need the right goal, the right strategy, and the right tactics. Obviously Syrian fighters, and especially Sunni Arab Syrians, and not Americans, are best placed to confront Sunni Arab extremists in Syria and limit the further spread of the extremists' appeal.
Also See: A Good "Freeze" in Aleppo Is Not Enough
Our aid to moderate Syrian fighters so far has been consistently too little, too late, leading some of the groups we have worked with, such as Hazm, to collapse. The moderates' internal divisions and on-again, off-again cooperation with the Nusra Front has diminished the administration's confidence in these groups. Now, however, the administration is pushing ahead with determination. It is ignoring the remaining moderate fighting groups in northern and eastern Syria and building an entirely new force in camps in Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
But it will not be enough to roll back the Islamic State in Syria, at least through the next year, much less help secure the needed political deal in Damascus. Five thousand or ten thousand fighters can't hold a territory the size of eastern Syria, especially against ISIS, which has vastly greater resources than terrorist groups we have seen before. Moreover, Assad himself told Foreign Affairs in January that he would consider U.S.-trained fighters to be enemy combatants and thus fair targets. Assad regularly bombs moderate groups locked in combat with the Islamic State. He wants no alternative to his regime. And many—if not most—of the fighters we launch against the Islamic State will themselves have a strong inclination to fight also against the Assad regime, which has slaughtered far more Syrians than ISIS. (We need to remember this: our main concern is not the Syrian fighters' main concern.)
The Role of Regional Partners
If we launch the fighting forces we train and equip into northern Syria, they will confront not only the Islamic State but also Nusra and the Assad regime's forces. Turkish help with logistics would be absolutely vital, as well as a Turkish clampdown on extremists operating near the border (see below). Even with this, the new Syrian force will be much smaller than its enemies.
If we launch the new fighting forces into eastern Syria against the Islamic State, they will be far from potential Turkish supply sources and will depend heavily on the goodwill of the Iraqi government for logistics via Anbar in western Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan (since we don't route military material through Iraq without Baghdad's approval). Depending on the goodwill of the Iraqi government is risky. This same Iraqi government operates under heavy Iranian influence and has facilitated movement of Iraqi Shi‘i fighters to Syria to help Assad. In considering the utility of a new Syrian force in an eastern deployment scenario, it is important to remember that Iran (and thus probably Baghdad) do not want a moderate opposition on the ground to compel Assad to negotiate, even if that force is combating the Islamic State locally.
With the newborn Syrian units facing such a hostile fighting environment, we already see hints that the U.S. military wants them to access American airstrikes, just as the Kurds did in Kobani. This strategy would help fighting groups gain ground against reinforced Islamic State positions, but it won't help small forces hold vast spaces. Moreover, if we expand our air mission in Syria to include close-air strikes with Syrian fighters, then we would see real mission creep. We would do the same if we move to establish small no-fly zones over the new Syrian fighting units we deploy into northern or eastern Syria. But we would reach this air mission expansion incrementally without ever developing a long-term strategy or negotiating terms with other key regional states. We would have several thousand fighters marooned out in the Syrian battlefield, surrounded by enemies and our responsibility with no clear way out. Even if the Islamic State collapses, what would the new Syrian forces we assembled do in northern or eastern Syria?
Matching Tactics and Strategy to Objective
The American goal in Syria should be, as in Iraq, a unity government that over time can expel extremists operating on its soil. Our regional allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Europeans, likely will agree on this. Achieving this goal in a highly polarized, fragmented Syria, amidst regional Sunni-Shi‘i competition, will be far harder than in Iraq. Thus, getting the strategy and tactics right matters even more; we have less of a margin of error. If we are headed toward expanding our air mission, and we are willing to get serious about aid to moderate opposition forces, then we will have leverage to get agreement with our key allies for a common strategic shift.
Our strategy should focus on taking ground back from the Islamic State and also driving wedges between an increasingly wobbly Assad regime support base and the small ruling circle so that a new unity government can arise out of hard negotiation. We need all our regional allies to agree on this strategy. Their agreement would mean that Turkey would act more determinedly to block access across its borders for extremists like Nusra and the Islamic State, which would impede negotiations. The agreement would also mean a greater effort to stop extremists’ oil sales and private financial flows via middlemen operating in Turkey. It makes no sense for us to develop stronger moderate fighting forces if Turkey is undercutting us by indirectly helping extremist groups that attack those moderate forces. Turkey must do much more to control the goat paths and the smugglers routes, and secure its long border with Syria.
The Americans also will have to adjust. First, U.S. military aid to the Syrian Kurdish fighters from the PYD, the terrorist PKK affiliate operating in Syria, has helped in the short term against the Islamic State at Kobani, but it fosters the PYD’s objective to unilaterally consolidate its autonomous zone in northeastern Syria. This in turn drives some fearful Arab tribes in the zone to support the Assad regime; already the regime has established "commando" units consisting of eastern tribes. This makes getting to an eventual national political negotiation harder. In addition, some Arab tribes will tacitly support the Islamic State; this obviously is against our interest as well. The PYD's actions also generate worries about Kurdish separatism in Ankara; the public call by some Iraqi Kurds in Sinjar to join the PYD's autonomous zone are one example why Ankara is uncomfortable. Moreover, there are special social and historic ties between Kurds in Syria and those in Turkey. Thus, a myopic American focus on bombing the Islamic State in coordination with PYD fighting units can have unintended consequences in the long term—a lesson we should have learned in Iraq in 2003. A decentralized Syrian state may well be the only way of reassembling the shattered country one day, but for now the Americans and their allies must tell the PYD that autonomous zones in Syria belong in longer-term political negotiations among all Syrians. The deal ultimately has to be that Turkey stops using extremists against the Assad regime and the PYD in return for greater American-led help with moderate forces and an end to American actions that foster Kurdish separatism. If the Americans can't secure this deal, then we will be wasting resources and should walk away from Syria and devise other defenses against the Islamic State.
This will require another American adjustment with our allies. Assistance from all the foreign states to the moderate armed opposition has been erratic and undependable. Indeed, the desperate search for resources has driven many politically moderate armed groups to resort to extortion at border crossings in order to obtain desperately needed cash.
The Right Way to Distribute Aid
However, simply boosting aid, even by huge amounts, won't help implement the strategy successfully. Two years ago a Syrian organizer scolded me for fostering disunity among the armed opposition ranks. The insistence of different countries on backing their particular Syrian clients made it impossible to amalgamate the fighting groups into coherent commands. A group unhappy with a battle plan could defy the others, safe in the knowledge that its patron foreign donor would sustain limited material assistance.
The French envoy to Syria told me last year that when the British and Americans were helping to build the Free French Army in World War II, they didn't approach individual captains and majors with offers of small amounts of ammo or rifles. They worked, he said, through General de Gaulle and a unified French command structure.
We must do the same with the moderate Syrian forces. This means that the foreign states providing material assistance will channel it exclusively through a Syrian centralized command that will be held accountable, and the command will be removed if it acts unwisely or improperly. Moderate armed groups who refuse to follow orders from that unified command will receive no assistance of any kind, and when they complain, no foreign state will come to their aid; they will be left to wither away. If we cannot secure the other states’ agreement on this and be prepared to hold them to it, then the Americans should walk away, as there is no prospect of ending the divisions within the moderate Syrian armed opposition and creating strong pressure on the Islamic State or Assad.
A unified Syrian command structure must obviously be led by a Syrian leader who enjoys wide buy-in from Syrians fighting on the ground. Syrian political opposition appointments from Istanbul of a defense minister here or a top field commander there were not coordinated with the groups fighting inside Syria and were ultimately meaningless. And because achieving our strategy will depend on the performance of that command structure, external supporters' buy-in also will be required at all times.
Conditions for Expanding Aid
In the mess of Syria, we and our allies should not give something for nothing. In return for a large boost in aid, the Syrian opposition writ large must agree:
- that armed groups receiving assistance from the centralized command will obey its orders only
- that the armed opposition will stop its atrocities against civilian communities that have backed the regime and that the armed opposition command will accept responsibility for actions of its constituent groups
- that the armed opposition will sever all ties with Nusra
- that the armed opposition leadership must constantly reiterate that it is not seeking to destroy Christian, Alawi, or other minority communities and is prepared to negotiate local security arrangements, including with Syrian Arab Army elements
- that it will negotiate a national political deal to end the conflict without Assad’s departure as a precondition
- that any political opposition group purporting to lead the opposition must have genuine representation from communities that largely support Assad’s government, such as minorities and top-level businessmen, and that representation will not come from long-term expatriates.
These actions, of course, would generate furious reactions from the Assad regime, the Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Greater levels of aid will only be useful if there is a unified command structure able to respond coherently to renewed attacks across several fronts with its orders followed by reinforced, coordinated moderate armed groups, and if Turkey puts real pressure on the extremists by squeezing out their movements across the Syrian-Turkey border. If we can’t secure these conditions, then there is little we can do to help the Syrian opposition, and we need to change our strategy and our strategic goal in Syria. We need to walk away, devise other defenses against extremist threats to our nation from Syria, and allocate resources (including those saved from Syria) to protect ourselves.