Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy

Mark Safranski is a Senior Analyst for Wikistrat, LLC.  His writing on strategy and national security have appeared in Small Wars Journal, Pragati, War on the Rocks  as well as in recent books like Warlords, inc., Blood Sacrifices:Violent Non-State Actors and Dark Magico-Religious Activities and The Clausewitz Roundtable.  He is the founder and publisher of zenpundit.com.


National Security Situation:  The Syrian Civil War.

Date Originally Written:  December 23, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  January 16, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  An analyst considering U.S.  national interest in terms of grand strategy.

Background:  Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance:  While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia.

Option #1:  Salvage Syria primarily in terms of a comprehensive re-ordering of U.S.-Russian relations to reduce threats to international stability from inter- and intra- state conflict.  Henry Kissinger’s concept of “linkage[4]” should be revived as a guiding principle rather than treating all points of international conflict or cooperation with Moscow as unrelated and occupying separate boxes.  Russian misbehavior needs to be met with appropriate countermeasures.  If U.S.  diplomats are assaulted by Federal Security Service (FSB) thugs, Russian diplomats in the U.S. are restricted to their embassies.  If U.S.  elections are hacked, Russia’s large number of intelligence officers under diplomatic cover in the U.S. are promptly expelled.  If “little green men” appear in friendly states, the U.S. instigates tough banking, economic or security aid pressure on Moscow.  Likewise, instead of trading public insults, the U.S. under Option #1 should negotiate frankly over Russian concerns and be prepared to build on points of cooperation and make concessions on a reciprocal basis.  If the U.S. could strike deals with Brezhnev we can do so with Putin.

Risk:  The U.S. begins from a position of weakness in regional conflicts, having little direct leverage over events on the ground in Syria or eastern Ukraine, which is why U.S. policy must shift to focus on systemic and strategic levels.  U.S. bureaucratic and political stakeholders have simultaneously pursued incompatible goals (i.e. overthrow Assad, stop ISIS, keep Syria intact, support rebels, fight terrorism, non-intervention) and will strongly resist a genuine strategy that forces choices.  Demonstrations of political will may be required by the new administration to convince partners and adversaries now skeptical of U.S. resolve or capability.

Gain:  Russian-U.S. relations could eventually shift to a “new detente” that replaces a high level of friction and peripheral aggression to if not friendly, at least business-like engagement.  Regional conflicts and attendant humanitarian crises could be moderated or settled in a stable diplomatic framework.  Progress on issues of mutual security concern such as Islamist terrorism could be made.  Trust in U.S. leadership could be regained.

Option #2:  A second strategy would be to address Syria narrowly with the objective of a settlement that cuts U.S. losses and attempts to return to as much of the status quo ante as possible – a weak state governed by Assad with minimal ability to threaten neighbors, guarantees for minorities, no ISIS or Islamist terror group in control of territory, and a removal of foreign military forces.

Risk:  While preferential to the current situation, Option #2 could be perceived as a U.S. retreat due to dropping longstanding unrealistic policy goals (i.e. regime change, Syria becoming a liberal democracy) in return for real increases in regional security and stability.  Domestic opposition in the U.S. from neoconservative and liberal interventionists is apt to be fierce.  The effort may fail and Syria could see a large-scale military build-up of Russian and Iranian military forces, threatening Israel.

Gain:  A diplomatic end to the conflict in Syria would have multiple benefits, not least for Syrian civilians who bear the brunt of the costs of civil war.  Preventing permanent state failure in Syria would be a strategic win against the spread of ISIS and similar radical Islamist Sunni terror groups.  The flow of refugees to Europe would markedly decline and those abroad in states like Turkey or Jordan could begin to return to Syria.  Finally, Syria would not become a major military outpost for Russia or Iran.

Other Comments:  It is most important that the new administration not begin by leaping into any particular foreign policy problem, including Syria, but start with a grand strategic end of improving U.S. global position and capacity, which in turn increases U.S. ability to uphold a stable, rules-based, international order. 

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  Euan McKirdy and Angela Dewan, “Reports: ISIS retakes ancient Syrian city of Palmyra”, CNN, December 12, 2016.  http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/12/middleeast/palmyra-syria-isis-russia/index.html

[2]  Ben Hubbard and David E. Sanger, “Russia, Iran and Turkey Meet for Syria Talks, Excluding U.S.” New York Times, December 20 2016.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/20/world/middleeast/russia-iran-and-turkey-meet-for-syria-talks-excluding-us.html

[3]  United States Department of State, “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” January 17, 2016.  https://www.state.gov/e/eb/tfs/spi/iran/jcpoa/ 

[4] Makinda, S. M., “The Role of Linkage Diplomacy in US‐Soviet Relations,” December, 1987.  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8497.1987.tb00148.x/abstract

 

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