The Syria ceasefire agreement between Russia and the United States is a worthy pursuit. But most likely it will demonstrate once again that America’s top down approach of negotiating a political solution in Western Syria as it fights the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq will not work.
Instead, the United States needs a region-by-region approach to Syria that builds from the bottom up and leaves a Syria with a weak central government but strong regionally-based power centers backed by local populations.
America’s primary objective should be to fill the security and governance vacuums in President Bashar al-Assad’s Syria with acceptable alternatives and eliminate safe havens that are the source of terrorist attacks and regional destabilization. The Obama administration’s strategy has focused too much on who is against us—ISIS, Assad, al-Qaeda—but instead must concentrate first on finding those who are acceptable to us.
U.S. strategy cannot use unlimited manpower and treasure. Our commitment must be sustainable and proportionate to our interests—meaning we can do more than we have done to date without returning to the days of 150,000 troops on the ground.
The United States should continue to deepen its commitment to moderate armed groups while pursuing a tailored approach for different parts of Syria. This will take time and require not only more arms and training, but also greater direct U.S. military action and coordination with key regional players.
In Syria, the United States has a successful arming and training model to follow where the group known as the Southern Front is now the most effective moderate rebel organization in Southern Syria. The Front maintains strong deterrence power against extremist groups and fiercely confronts the Assad regime. Its success is a function of American support and cooperation with Jordan to carefully control the arms and supplies crossing the border and encourage consolidation of smaller local groups.
However the Southern Front has suffered significant setbacks recently because of Russian bombardment. The United States should make clear to Russia that further airstrikes on the Southern Front will result in direct American missile strikes against Assad regime targets—thus deterring Russian action and forming a “no bombing zone” to stabilize southern Syria. It is highly unlikely that President Obama would ever support such actions, but the next president may as a number of candidates have already made statements supporting safe zones in Syria.
In Northwest Syria, the situation is more complex with a wide-open border with Turkey and many extremist opposition groups including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its ally Ahrar al-Sham thriving and supported by America’s friends. The United States should put further weight behind groups it backs such as the moderate Jaysh al-Nasr (Victory Army), to replicate the process that occurred with the Southern Front.
This will require the United States to have tough conversations with Turkey. Thus far the United States has supported the Kurds retaking territory from ISIS in Northeast Syria, but has restrained them from going west of the Euphrates River because of Turkish concerns, thus leaving a significant patch of territory on the border which has been used by ISIS for cross border logistics. But the Turks must be given a choice: work with us to empower a moderate Sunni opposition that can fill the vacuum and close the Turkish-Syrian border or leave us no option but to encourage the Kurds to go further west. It will also require greater discipline from U.S. partners in the Persian Gulf to stop arming extremists, but this should be possible if they see a genuine stepped up commitment by the United States. And it may require the United States to pursue a “no bombing zone” in the North similar to the one we propose for the South.
In ISIS-controlled Eastern Syria the United States has successfully supported a mainly Kurdish force that has effectively fought ISIS. But this force is limited as it will not be welcomed by the local Arab population in ISIS-held Sunni territory in Eastern Syria and is already finding itself in more direct conflict with Turkey as it pushes west. The U.S. should expend more effort and resources in cultivating local tribes—most notably the Shammar, Ougaidat, and Mashahda, which are the most consequential in this region. These tribes have deep relationships with Saudi Arabia, who the United States should press to support this effort in order to build out local, popular uprisings against ISIS.
As the United States builds these power centers, it should pursue a post-war Syria that remains whole but with a weak central government and power devolved to local federalized authorities, reflecting the sectarian and military realities on the ground. Whether Assad abdicates his power in such a scenario would be up to negotiation, but areas of Syria loyal to the Assad regime would be governed by their own local authority.
America’s international and Sunni Arab partners should be willing to accept this end-state once they see a serious and deepened American commitment to resolving the conflict.
Over time, the Russians should also be amenable and be willing to change their calculus, if the Assad regime begins to lose on the battlefield and they see a deeper American military commitment. They are supporting Assad because they believe his victory is the only pathway to stability and the elimination of extremist groups, and do not believe the United States is willing to invest in alternatives. Throughout the diplomatic process since the start of the war Russia and the United States have agreed that post-conflict Syria should be ruled by an inclusive government. One pathway to realizing this goal is a federalized, stable Syria governed by moderate forces.
Convincing Iran may be more difficult, but especially if Russia has acquiesced, an Alawite-administered region that can provide supply routes to Hezbollah in Lebanon, should be acceptable to Iran.
It will be most difficult to get the Assad regime and opposition to agree to this outcome. But that would be the purpose of the type of peace process that seems to have stalled in Geneva. However it should be the last step—not the first—and come after the ground has shifted. Only then can an agreement amongst all of the reconcilable parties in Syria allow them to stop fighting each other and turn their fire together on the remainders of ISIS and al-Qaeda.