Bogdan Belei is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On his way to Rome in 49 BCE, Julius Caesar paused before crossing the Rubicon. With only a single legion under his command, and outnumbered two to one by Pompey’s legions, the general faced the serious threat of defeat if he committed his forces to invade Rome. Ultimately, Caesar led his army to victory and solidified the Roman Empire. But the decision to fight his opposition was driven by the reality that Caesar had only one alternative to victory: surrender.
Today, the Obama administration has placed itself in a similar situation in Syria due to its strategy of “degrading and ultimately destroying” the self-declared Islamic State. Likewise, its rigid stance on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s removal has limited the U.S. flexibility needed to effectively responding in Syria—where the situational environment and range of actors have shifted dramatically since Obama first suggested Assad must “step aside” in 2011. The United States has neither committed the resources, nor demonstrated the political will necessary to eradicate the Islamic State or remove Assad. On its current path, the U.S. strategy is unlikely to foster any political resolution of the civil war. If the Obama administration is willing to rethink its endgame in Syria, there are several realistic strategies for achieving incremental goals that could help stabilize the civil war and limit unnecessary confrontations with U.S. adversaries.
First, the United States should end future offensive weapons support to rebels fighting Assad, while encouraging Gulf States, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to do the same. In the four years that U.S. and coalition countries have supplied and trained “moderate rebels,” these forces have not decisively countered the Islamic State, or achieved their goal of deposing Assad. The Pentagon’s disastrous train-and-equip program resulted in groups of U.S.-backed rebels, dispatched July 12 and September 20 respectively, being immediately attacked and disarmed upon entry into Syria. Some fighters have even defected to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. This strategy has not brought the United States closer to its intended endgame, and potential adversaries have subsequently increased their military role in the conflict, further risking escalation.
Second, the Obama administration should pursue a political dialogue. Current negotiations at Geneva have fallen short of achieving progress, largely due to the existing military stalemate, and therefore should be reexamined. This would require directly bargaining with Russia and Iran, rather than just bringing them to the table. It’s true that the situation in Syria became more complex with the introduction of Russian airstrikes and heightened role of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in support of Assad, making his ouster by force less likely. However, both Russia and Iran have strategic interests in Syria’s future, and neither Moscow nor Tehran are politically suicidal.
Russia’s intervention, at least partially, involves a long-term objective to preserve its access to the warm-ports in Tartus and Latakia and secure an ally in Damascus. Both objectives require some level of stability and Russia may be willing to deescalate its military involvement in exchange for American flexibility on Syria’s political future. Sijbren de Jong, an analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies, has said, “They [Russia] don’t care whether Assad stays or not. They want to secure their interests, and they want to keep access to the Mediterranean for sure.”
Iran is arguably more committed to Assad than Russia. Besides being an ally, Syria is a land-route between Iran and Hezbollah, and the Assad regime remains a valuable asset in its regional struggle with Saudi Arabia. But the costs of propping up Assad since 2011 are mounting and Iran may welcome an opportunity for at least partial relief. If the United States can successfully encourage Saudi Arabia to decrease its arms and funding to Sunni rebels, Iran might subsequently be more willing to downscale its engagement as well.
Third, given that humanitarian concerns are purportedly at the core of policy discussions, the United States should consider establishing a “safe-zone” on Syria’s northwest border with Turkey. “Safe zones” are intended to serve as humanitarian corridors for civilian populations, and require ground troops, air power, humanitarian aid, and designated territory to be successful. These measures should only be taken once there is progress on the diplomatic front to lessen the likelihood of provocations and potential disaster.
Establishing a “safe zone” is preferable to a “no-fly-zone” (NFZ), a designated space where Russian and Syrian aircraft would not be allowed to enter, because it would protect civilians not just from aerial bombardments, but also protect them from ground attacks and bombardments from artillery, rockets, and missiles, and provide them with humanitarian services.
A “safe-zone’s” largest challenge would be multilateral commitment. This policy would only succeed with adequate humanitarian aid and ground forces. As witnessed in 1992 when Serbs besieged the UN-backed “safe haven” in Srebrenica, a lack of military enforcement could result in a failure to prevent civilian casualties. France and Turkey have already voiced a willingness to commit military troops to enforce the “safe zone,” in part because the European Union and Turkey have disproportionately suffered from the refugee crisis. A zone implemented as a humanitarian mission with multilateral support would increase the consequences of any provocations or operations in or near the “safe-zone,” and therefore hold Russia and Iran to some international accountability.
Winning the peace in Syria will require adjusting U.S. strategy from pursuing an unlikely endgame that would require more resources and military force than is politically feasible, to one of incremental, attainable goals. This would involve ending support to factions fueling the conflict, which would create the necessary space for political dialogue and ultimately allow for cooperation on Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Without de-escalation, there are few realistic paths toward solving Syria’s political future. Caesar and his legion crossed the Rubicon because of two things: the threat of defeat and the reward of the Roman Empire. In Syria, neither awaits the United States.