UPDATE: After publication, Michele Flournoy responded to this article. See below for her letter to the editor.
The woman expected to run the Pentagon under Hillary Clinton said she would direct U.S. troops to push President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria and would send more American boots to fight the Islamic State in the region.
Michele Flournoy, formerly the third-ranking civilian in the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, called for “limited military coercion” to help remove Assad from power in Syria, including a “no bombing” zone over parts of Syria held by U.S.-backed rebels.
Flournoy, and several of her colleagues at the Center for New American Security, or CNAS, have been making the case for sending more American troops into combat against ISIS and the Assad regime than the Obama administration has been willing to commit.
Since Russia’s increased involvement, the facts on the ground in Syria, she said, “Do not support the kind of negotiated conditions we would like to get to.” U.S. policy should be the removal of Assad even if that meant “using limited military coercion,” Flournoy said, at Monday’s annual CNAS conference in Washington.
What might that look like?
Last week, three CNAS authors, in a new report, call for the United States to “go beyond the current Cessation of Hostilities.” The United States should press Syria and Russia to agree “not to treat the Southern Front as an extremist group and to cease air attacks on the territory it controls,” wrote Ilan Goldenberg, Paul Scharre, and Nicholas Heras. CNAS says those views are not the entire organization’s, but noted the report was “informed by deliberations of CNAS’ ISIS Study Group, chaired by CNAS CEO Michèle Flournoy and CNAS President Richard Fontaine,” a former foreign policy advisor to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
If Syria’s bombing continues, the United States should consider instituting what the paper dubs a “no bomb zone.” If the Assad regime bombs areas that are held by the Southern Front, an opposition alliance that the United States supports, then the United States would retaliate, using standoff weapons like cruise missiles to hit targets associated with the Assad regime, but not airbases housing Russian forces. The retaliatory strikes might include Syrian forward operating bases or “security apparatus facilities in Damascus that are fixed regime targets and would require less invasive reconnaissance.”
The targets need not be ones that are directly tied to Assad strikes on U.S. partners, so long as the message is clear to Assad.
“It’s not a traditional no-fly zone so you’re not having air craft drill holes in the sky. You’re not having to take out the entire civilian air defense system,” Flournoy told Defense One. She called the bomb zone idea a declaratory policy backed up by the threat of force. “If you bomb the folks we support, we will retaliate using standoff means to destroy [Russian] proxy forces, or, in this case, Syrian assets.” The no bomb zone could “arguably slow the refugee flows. It would stop the bombing of certain civilian populations” she said.
Flournoy called the no-bomb zone worthy of more examination. “The analysis that needs to be done is playing out the concept, two, three and four steps down the road. What if the Russians do test it? What would the response be?” she said.
Flournoy served as Obama’s under secretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012. On Monday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius described her as being on “short, short” list for the job. So what would she do in the job?
Last 2015, Flournoy delicately condemned the Obama administration’s ISIS policy as ineffectual. “The military dimensions of the strategy have been under-resourced, while many of the non-military lines of operation remain underdeveloped,” she wrote.
She outlined several key steps to increase pressure on ISIS. They included: increased numbers of combat missions; embedding U.S. military advisors in the Iraqi Security Forces at the battalion level and allowing them to advise Iraqi commanders during operations; deploying forward air-controllers to call in air support during combat missions; and direct arming of Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga. The strategy would “hold out the prospect that arms will flow through Baghdad if and when the central government establishes a reliable process for their transfer.”
In Syria, the United States “should cease its insistence on the Islamic State as the sole target and begin training and equipping moderate opposition fighters who wish to take on the Assad regime as well,” she said.
To the Editor of Defense One:
I am writing in response to your piece on June 20 that fundamentally mischaracterized my views on the role U.S. forces should play in Syria. Both the headline and article erroneously suggested that I advocate sending more U.S. troops to “push President Bashar al-Assad’s forces out of southern Syria” and “remove Assad from power.” I do not.
I have argued for increasing U.S. military support to moderate Syrian opposition groups fighting ISIS and the Assad regime, like the Southern Front, not asking U.S. troops to do the fighting in their stead. I further argue that the U.S. should under some circumstances consider using limited military coercion – primarily strikes using standoff weapons – to retaliate against Syrian military targets in order to stop violations of the Cessation of Hostilities, deter Russian and Syrian bombing of innocent civilians and the opposition groups we support, and set more favorable conditions on the ground for a negotiated political settlement.
In short, I advocate doing more to support our partners on the ground to make them more effective; I do NOT advocate putting U.S. combat troops on the ground to take territory from Assad’s forces or remove Assad from power.
Michele A. Flournoy