June 15th, 2016
By Davis Florick – Junior Fellow
In late April 2016, the Obama Administration announced it would send 250 additional special operators to Syria to train forces in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). This deployment will bring the total number of publicly declared US personnel in the country to 300. While certainly a modest contingent, the US presence raises serious questions about what Washington’s future commitment might entail. Considering that Syrian government, Iranian, Russian, and Hezbollah forces are also targeting IS, it is probably only a matter of time before IS territorial holdings in Syria collapse. The long term challenge will be what to do in Syria once IS has been conventionally defeated. There is no guarantee that Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian patrons will agree to, let alone abide by, a compromise solution with the myriad opposition forces. Should Syrian government elements turn their guns toward elements the US has trained, what will the administration – whichever one is in office – do? Can US forces simply be withdrawn? Will the Sunni states in the region intervene in some capacity to remove Assad? The nobleness of defeating IS should not be questioned, but the long term impact of how victory is attained must be carefully evaluated.
Anti-Assad forces, even ones trained by the US, have already been victims of pro-Assad targeting and offensive action. Most notably, since Russian forces entered the conflict, groups supported by Washington have been attacked by Moscow’s aerial bombings. Rather than attempt to work with US officials to manage air strikes, the Russian government appears to have intended to target these personnel. Such an approach to date would suggest the pro-Assad contingent is, at the least, attempting to tip the negotiating scales in the regime’s favor by eliminating groups that might attempt to replace Assad. At worst, the deliberate targeting of elements backed by the US suggests public statements from the pro-Assad contingent stating that their partnership is primarily intended to defeat IS are a façade. Concentrating attacks on forces supported by the US first has been a more pragmatic course from the pro-Assad perspective to ensure the long term survival of the government in Damascus. Considering what has taken place to date, there is little hope that the pro-Assad contingent will spare any threat to the regime.
Given the role Russia has played in the Syrian crisis, what has occurred in Ukraine provides a useful learning opportunity. The separatists in Eastern Ukraine, supported by Moscow, have agreed to power sharing arrangements with Kiev and other international parties. However, time and again the rebels—with Russian support—have willfully taken steps that violate previously agreed-upon accords. The actions taken in Ukraine are important given the likelihood of replication by a Syrian government which appears to be equally beholden to Moscow. Already there is evidence to suggest the Assad regime broke its 2014 commitment to not use biological or chemical agents. Assuming IS will be defeated, even if there is a compromise between the Syrian government and opposition forces, it is doubtful such an agreement will endure.
Should the US special forces teams on the ground be allowed to provide their best possible training, the anti-Assad contingent supported by Washington is likely to achieve marked success. Despite the best efforts of Damascus, the more moderate opposition will almost certainly outlast IS, thereby enabling the US and its European partners to request a negotiated peace. However, how will US special forces and other assets in the country be utilized in the aftermath of IS’s defeat? Washington will have a difficult decision to make once IS has been removed. Its financial and human commitment, as well as pressure from Sunni-dominated states opposed to the Syrian regime and fears over a potential bloodbath should the Assad regime emerge victorious, could well compel the US to stay. Conversely, the Obama Administration has shown little appetite for countering Russian and Moscow-supported military aggression in the field. Concerns over mission creep and not wanting to have one of his final foreign policy actions be involvement in another Middle East conflict may well encourage President Obama to bring operations in Syria to an end at the first available moment. This is the long term decision space within which Washington will function.
There are no easy answers for the Obama Administration. Furthermore, there is no guarantee US units will not still be in Syria when the next President takes office. Most troubling of all, there has been little open discussion about what ultimate US objectives should be in Syria. Considering the possibility that, once IS has been removed as a conventional force, the Assad regime will defeat the opposition, there is a need to consider the best available course of action in Syria.
Ultimately, a viable settlement should be reached, but Washington officials should support appropriate anti-Assad elements for as long as necessary. The present US training mission is the right one, but the overall strategic objective of wider US policy should be a lasting peace settlement in Syria, as opposed to simply defeating IS. Such a negotiated compromise must be able to reasonably ensure the safety and security of the legitimate forces that have opposed the Assad regime. While what the agreement might entail must be negotiated, such an accord will allow the Obama Administration and, possibly, its successors to point to a final objective. A more explicit endgame could also serve as a means to rally financial and military support across Europe and the Muslim world to assist the opposition. No solution amenable to Washington and opposition forces which can offer protection to anti-Assad moderates will be free of criticism from Russia or Iran, but establishing a clearly defined objective which incorporates protection of US-supported entities will at least remove ambiguity concerning when the US mission in Syria will end.
Continuing the narrow constraints of the US mission by keeping the focus on training offers the best means to ensure a robust, indigenous force capable of standing firm against the present Syrian government. Training the rebels in unconventional tactics will afford them the tools to leverage their natural advantages. Specifically, anti-Assad elements are more mobile than their government opponents, are probably more familiar with the territory, and are likely to be more motivated than regime forces. Focusing on these advantages to ensure the continued survival of the personnel battling Damascus is vital. Special forces trainers offer the best means to accentuate the strengths of the rebels. Relying on unconventional tactics will, ultimately, reduce the operational effectiveness of Russian bombing activities and effectively counter the pro-Assad forces. With the help of US trainers and other forms of assistance, the opposition has an opportunity to endure.
Committing long-term US support to the opposition is likely to provide it with greater legitimacy in the eyes of other people who might be willing to aid it, specifically leaders in Europe and other majority Sunni states. European states may follow the US lead by offering training and material benefits to the anti-Assad forces. Likewise, the predominately Sunni states in the vicinity almost unanimously oppose the Syrian regime and would find it more palatable to provide support to the opposition under these circumstances. Increased and sustained US assistance is likely to give added credibility to forces arrayed against Bashar al-Assad and impress upon others the staying power of the movement. Altering the objective of US special forces and other units in Syria to focus on ensuring a sustainable peace settlement will provide the parties supporting the opposition a clear beacon to work toward.
Without further backing for the legitimate opposition from Washington, any ceasefire agreement or negotiated settlement between Bashar al-Assad and his opponents will almost certainly be violated by Damascus. Once US forces have been removed from the conflict, it will be difficult to reinsert them. The Syrian government will likely move with all possible speed and attempt to stay away from the public eye while its forces target the opposition. By the time US forces could return, it may be too late. Consequently, altering the mission and keeping US assets in the area until a more lasting settlement can be negotiated is the best possible objective and approach for Washington.