What Will Change Now?
After Paris? By now, the war in Syria has become so complicated that 'this doesn't change anything.'
For more than three years those who advocated greater intervention into Syria’s civil war have argued that the nation’s descent into a blood-soaked civil war would bring devastation to more than Syria. It would bring chaos to the region, Europe and beyond.
“The scripts have been written,” one Obama administration official familiar with Syria policy told me today. “The scenario that is unfolding has been warned about in writing since 2012.”
Now, with Paris under siege and more than 130 dead in a coordinated series of attacks where Parisians gather: their stadiums, nightclubs and favorite haunts, the immediate question is: is this time different? Will America feel it must do more now that its European allies—and presumably its own homeland—are in the crosshairs in such a visible and visceral way?
So far, the answer is: unlikely. The commander-in-chief’s desire to avoid being dragged into another ground war in the Middle East remains strong, and the tragedy in Paris is unlikely to shift that sentiment. Increased involvement in Syria, at this point, may have little meaning for those seeking sweeping policy change.
“Increasing involvement only means dropping more bombs on ISIL and Nusra,” said one Obama administration official familiar with Syria policy. “What does it mean? It means more of the same, really; this doesn't change anything.”
For three years an Obama administration working hard to end wars has come to the conclusion that a full-throttled American entry into Syria, a shape-shifting, multi-party civil war that morphed into a proxy war, would only endanger and entangle America.
The president said in 2011 that the “tide of war is receding” when it came to Afghanistan. He ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. And in 2014, Obama said the idea that arming moderate Syrian rebels would have changed facts on the ground sooner in Syria has “always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah—that was never in the cards.”
Said Obama then, “We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL. We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”
Even on Thursday, the day before the Paris attack, Obama defended his policies for containing the Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL, from further ground gains in Iraq. “We have contained them,” Obama told ABC News. “They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria they'll come in, they'll leave. But you don't see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain.”
And again, the president pleaded for patience, saying “I think what is true is that this has always been a multi-year project… we don't have ground forces there in sufficient numbers to simply march into Al-Raqqah in Syria and clean the whole place out.”
On Sunday, France began bombing Raqqah in retaliation for the terror spree ISIS successfully executed across Paris.
Related: Defense One's coverage of Syria
In the end, American policy has come to be marked by far-reaching rhetoric—vows to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State—accompanied by incremental steps. The U.S. has carried out more than 12 months of air strikes against ISIS, attempted a failed train-and-equip effort, and called upon special operations forces to work with local boots on the ground in the fight.
“I think that the White House should be” at a turning point, said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey, who in 2014 said about ISIS that you “have to kill them all” given the group’s ambitions and aims. Jeffrey hopes in the aftermath of the Paris attacks a policy shift is in the making, though he says he isn’t sure how long the evolution will take.
“Nobody is happy with the current state of affairs, and I would say there are three camps: one is we do basically the same as we are doing now because it is kind of going all right, look at Sinjar, and maybe we will get a success in Ramadi and that means no casualties.”
“Then there are the people who want to have a strategically similar ‘contain, degrade and destroy campaign’ using other people’s boots, but with considerably more air power and less restrictive rules of engagement” in addition to more special operations forces sent further forward and potentially more arms for friendly forces.
“Then the third thing is the use of [U.S.] combat troops,” Jeffrey said, citing French President François Hollande’s declaration of war against the perpetrators of the Paris attack. But Obama, to date, has not been on the same page with his French counterpart. “The problem here is Hollande wasn’t just blowing smoke. War is not what we are doing. Lisa Monaco doesn’t do war -- she does counter-terrorism,” Jeffrey said, referring to the president’s counterterrorism adviser.
Not only does Obama not think in terms of war, Jeffrey said, the president believes deeply in an agenda marked by reaching out to enemies, be they in Cuba or Iran. “And he believes that any military action other than counter-terrorism from the air is a quagmire and won’t accomplish anything, and I think that is where he is.”
For his part, Jeffrey says that in a year from now, “Everybody is going to be where I am right now on ground troops.” In other words, they’ll be needed.
The president has not yet met with the 62-nation coalition formed with much fanfare to fight ISIS, though those nations did participate in a larger UN event focused on countering violent extremism. Now many are watching to see whether a presidential-level summit of the willing (and able) will be convened.
Of course at the center of the entire Syria policy conversation is the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. In 2011, the U.S. policy was, as the president said, that the time had come “for President Assad to step aside.” But now Russia has come to Assad’s aid, without truly going after ISIS, while the U.S. goes after ISIS, but not Assad.
“There may be a ratcheting up of what we will do against ISIS but not against Assad,” said Dennis Ross, who has served four American administrations as a diplomat focused on the Middle East. “The Russians would need to put real pressure on both Assad and the Iranians. And the Saudis, Qataris won't stop if the regime does not. And where is our leverage? Why would anyone respond to us? We are going after ISIS for understandable reasons. But if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin does not go after them as well, there won't be a ceasefire.”
Some inside the administration have argued that Assad is the cause of the violence and ISIS the symptom, and that without removing the former you could not stop the latter. The only problem is the Obama administration’s foreign policy team has long feared who and what kind of regime would succeed Assad. But without a plan to transfer power from Assad while pursuing the fight against ISIS, expect more of the same battle and bloodshed up ahead.
“They don't want to rock the boat with Damascus,” said the administration official. “And the Russians are now saying ‘See, it only proves we are on the right side.’”
“It is all talk. The war continues until one side defeats the other. Nothing has changed.”