Experts discuss U.S. policy options toward Syria including military intervention, prioritizing the fight against ISIS, cooperation with Russia, and responding to chemical attacks from the Assad government.
OLLIVANT: Well, good afternoon. We’re about a minute early, but I think we will go ahead and start.
So please welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting on the What To Do About… Series. Today our meeting is on Syria. The What To Do About… Series highlights a specific issue and features experts who will put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting. On behalf of CFR, we would like to thank Richard Plepler and HBO for their generous support of the series.
So today on stage with me we have, from my far right, Mona Yacoubian, the former deputy assistant administrator for the Bureau of the Middle East at USAID; in the center, Paul Pillar, nonresident senior fellow, Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, and the former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia—it’s easier just to say NESA, National Intelligence Council; and, next to me, Kimberly Kagan, the founder and president of the Institute of the Study of War. I just want to say one short thing: Regardless of one’s policies, regardless of one’s politics, regardless of what one things we should do in the region, we’re all deeply grateful to ISW for the maps. (Laughter.) And so we want to thank you for that public service.
KAGAN: Thank you.
OLLIVANT: So I’m a newly appointed assistant to the president with that portfolio. I need—I know nothing about the region. I need to know what we should recommend to the president of what he should do next in Syria. We woke up to the news this morning that the assault on Raqqa has commenced with a multi-sectarian, though largely Kurdish, force. So in five minutes, each of you—starting with Kim and working to my right, your left—tell me what is going on in Syria right now. We’ll do five minutes each on just the is—not the ought for now, just the is. What is happening in Syria. What do I need to know?
KAGAN: The United States faces a vital national security threat from Syria, which is exporting terror and terror groups from its borders throughout the region and into Europe and beyond. The conflict in Syria is ongoing and it is not likely to cease soon. But rather, it is actually like to protract over time for a number of reasons.
First, the United States faces, obviously, a threat from ISIS. But ISIS is not the only threat that the United States faces in Syria. In fact, we assess that al-Qaida is a greater threat than ISIS inside of Syria and long term. It has its own safe haven. It governs its own save haven in Idlib province. It has formations and it has infiltrated governance institutions. As ISIS wanes, al-Qaida stands to gain, both within Syria and globally.
Secondly, the United States faces a real long-term threat from the Iranian-backed and Russian-backed Assad regime—not that the Assad regime itself has much indigenous military capability left. On the contrary, its forces are scarce. Rather, its military capabilities have been propped up by these external powers. And so there is no such thing as separating Iran or Russia from one another or the Assad regime.
They’re all mutually relying on one another to execute this fight. Iran provides the ground troops and some command and control, Russia provides the air cover and air power. And its presence in Syria, particularly its occupation of the air base at Latakia, poses a long-term strategic threat to U.S. allies and to the U.S., because the basing on the Mediterranean, the eastern Mediterranean, and the introduction of high-end weapons systems into Syria has actually created a problem for the United States force posture inside of the Mediterranean that has implications for our force sizing and for the capabilities that we need in the region.
Third, the Iranians and Russians are deepening their relationship and likely their alliance. It’s not formal. It’s a coalition, right now, of the willing. But the Iranians have presented the Russians with a shopping list of military equipment that they would like to buy. Over time, what we might expect to see in the most dangerous conditions—which may not pertain but which we have to encounter—is a long-term relationship between Iran and Russia, whereby the Iranians and Russians have military capabilities—high-end military capabilities that they can use to contest the major trade choke points, the major maritime choke points from the Suez Canal through the Bab al-Mandab and Straits of Hormuz. That is something that the United States needs to avert and avoid.
And then finally, we need to recognize that Syria is a—is a major—Syria is a war in which we have many sub-wars. The resolution of any one of these sub-wars is insufficient for the resolution of the conflict. And the actors that we have who can spoil an ongoing settlement that is agreed upon by the great powers include not only Assad, not only the opposition, but also al-Qaida and ISIS, which are irreconcilable elements that oppose any long-term solution guaranteed by the international community. Therefore, we actually need very fundamentally to change the game on the ground in Syria and regain leverage, something that I look forward to talking with you about in the next round.
OLLIVANT: OK. Paul.
PILLAR: Thanks, Doug.
Well, as far as, you know, U.S. interests do or do not lie, I mean, Kim and I will have some disagreements, but I thought I’d save most of that for round two. I think we ought to sort of review just what the lay of the land is right now. We’ve had this war that’s gone on for six years at substantial cost. Mona, you may have better futures, but approximately—the estimates I’ve seen, 400,000 Syrians dead, 5 million refugees, 6 ½ (million) internally displaced. And despite all that, right now, you know, there is no prospect for anybody to come into control over all of Syria.
And we have a situation which has been very familiar on those maps of what the state of play on the ground looks like. And basically, it is that the Assad regime, even though just as recently as a couple of years ago a lot of predictions of its demise were being heard, has been shored up. It is in control of most of the more heavily populated western part of the country, including the major cities. And to the extent that ground has been exchanged, neighborhood by neighborhood, it has gone mainly in the regime’s favor over the last several months.
That said, though, it is in no position to reclaim most of the other land that it doesn’t control and is under the control of various opposition and other players in this conflict. And I think that situation reflects the interests and objectives of the regime’s major backer, especially Russia, which has succeeded in shoring up the regime from what it was a couple of years ago, which has succeeded in securing its, it must say rather modest, you know, naval and air presence, compared to what we have in the region, in Syria. It’s really the only foothold the Russians have. And has made the point that they are a player to be reckoned with and not to be forgotten in the region, even though their presence is a fraction of ours.
And they’ve done this at relatively acceptable costs, apparently acceptable costs to them. It would not be acceptable, cost-wise, for them if they did try to do more rollback on behalf of the Assad regime. And so I don’t think that’s the Russian objective at all. And the Iranian objectives, although they’re not identical by any means, are somewhat parallel, in terms of they have an interest in having some kind of friendly presence in this part of the Levant, but not pressing at great cost to try to reclaim all of the territory. This is not a war that’s going to be decided, in other words, militarily. There will be a diplomacy resolution at some point.
The diplomatic channels have been not fruitful so far. There’s the Geneva process, under the auspices of the U.N. representative which has reconvened again, and has not had any agreement that’s taken hold. But then just a month ago, Iran, Turkey and Russia had a parallel process which produced an agreement among them—among the three of them for so-called de-escalation zones, which have some promise for de-escalating the conflict, although there are lot of unanswered questions, particularly with regard to the posture of the various opposition elements, which are as divided as they always were, as well as the loop holes with regard to what could be done against the al-Qaida types and the ISIS types, which have been one of the main problems in trying to have any of the previous ceasefires take hold. So those problems are still there.
So the map, as far as the regime and its immediate opposition, you know, isn’t changing very much. It’s not likely to change very much in the months ahead. The one place where the map will change more is with regard to ISIS and, as Doug mentioned, you know, the Raqqa offensive finally reaching the city limits. There never was a question about when Raqqa would be recaptured from ISIS, or whether it would be. It’s just a question of when. I think probably some of the more pessimistic estimates are a little too pessimistic. It’s not as big a city as Mosul. But we’ll see.
But I think the bigger question is what comes after, because it’s the degree of conflict and/or chaos that may be left in whatever part of the ground ISIS had control that will help to determine how much extremism we see in that part of the world. So as a policy matter, I think we have to look ahead toward post-Raqqa and not just focus so much on getting this one city back. But I think those are the main dimensions of the situation as we see it right now.
OLLIVANT: OK. Mona.
YACOUBIAN: So I think Paul has laid it out quite well. I’m going to actually pivot off your final point. I mean, I would frame it—frame our challenges ahead with two key points.
The first is, on Raqqa. In many ways, I think the real challenge for Raqqa isn’t going to be the taking of Raqqa. It’s really going to be about the holding and the stabilizing of Raqqa. We have been—we, the assistance community together with our colleagues at DOD—we have been planning and planning and planning for Raqqa. So there’s no shortage of planning that’s been done. The issue is that the Kurds are playing a predominant role and will play a predominant role in seizing this city. It is a predominantly Arab city. And I think we need to really understand and think creatively about how we are going to hold this city, who is going to hold it—it certainly won’t be the U.S., and it really should be the Kurds.
So who will hold Raqqa, and how do we—what does the stabilization of Raqqa look like? We’re really going to have to think and learn lessons from what happened in Iraq and in Anbar Province with respect to issues related to governance in a—in a country in which, as has been rightly pointed out, a political settlement is by no means in the offing. So how do we—how do we stabilize a city like Raqqa in the absence of a central government that much of the international community is willing to work with? There is no UNDP right now poised to run into Raqqa, or the World Bank. So how do we do this? So that’s one, I think, major set of challenges.
The second, though, is to step back and understand Syria, now in the seventh year of its conflict. The humanitarian cost, the suffering of civilians has been enormous. In fact, this is the most complex humanitarian emergency since the end of World War II. Half a million people have died. Most of them, 70, 80 percent civilians. Half the country has been displaced, over 6 million internally, over 5 million as refugees to neighboring countries. This is not simply a humanitarian crisis. This is a crisis with significant strategic stakes for the United States.
When the conflict first broke out in 2011, the focus, understandably, was on Bashar al-Assad, a horrific tyrant who has clearly shown what he is capable of with respect to the atrocities committed in Syria. But I think we need to understand, a bit pivoting off of Paul’s analysis, we need to begin to think now about Syria in terms of the conflict as opposed to about—that it being about Assad. The conflict itself, the violence itself, constitutes an enormous strategic threat.
Syria is very much in the threat of losing an entire generation. Half those 5 million refugees are school—are children. There are more than—nearly 2 million Syrian children inside Syria who are not in school. So this is—the suffering and the humanitarian dimensions of the conflict are actually—I would say, meet the level of a strategic challenge and threat that we need to be thinking much more creatively about in terms of how to address.
OLLIVANT: OK, so you’ve all laid out considerable complexity—refugees, Kurds, Russians, geopolitics, great game, terrorism. So now, what do we do? Same order.
KAGAN: First, we need to recognize that there is no single and simple solution to the Syria problem, and that we actually need to approach this problem in phases, because the United States has lost a lot of leverage or lost opportunities to gain leverage on the conflict over past years. And we have not seized many in the last six months either. What does that mean? It means that we cannot plan from right now to the end of the conflict. On the contrary, we need to plan from right now to the next step, and from there to the next step, and take this in phases because there is no solution—no single solution that’s going to get us from here to the end state. And I agree very much with Mona and Paul that attempts simply to solve the problem quickly have proven that they will fail. So we need to approach this with a good, phased plan in mind.
The first component, of course, is a phase in which the United states needs to regain leverage with actors in the region, our allies as well as our adversaries. One of the key components of our strategic approach has been prioritizing the tactics of fighting ISIS over prioritizing with whom we partner, why we partner with them, and how. And Mona has raised this, as has Paul. We have opted to ally with the Kurds, and so in a way that prioritizes the tactical fight against ISIS, but that has cost us Sunni Arab support within Syria and has cost us Turkish support as well. We need to recalibrate.
Now, we’re going to go ahead and we’re going to do this Raqqa operation. We are going to get ISIS out of Raqqa. The Kurds will be in Raqqa. We need a governing solution for Raqqa. And it’s not about ethnic sharing. It’s that the Kurds and the Arabs actually have a different political vision for what they want that part of Syria to look like. And the United States and the international community actually have to play a mediating role, not by bringing Sunnis and Arabs together, but rather by understanding the differences in the political vision, and trying to help work for a political settlement that is short of the all-inclusive Rojava but is also short of the Sunni demands. That is definitely on the table. But it’s only a first step. We actually have to go beyond that.
Secondly, that will, by the way, I think, very much change our relations with Sunni Arabs and with the Turks, very importantly. But it’s insufficient. OK, the second thing we actually need to do is recognize that ISIS is in cities other than Raqqa and Mosul. And so it’s really nice to think that ISIS is just going to collapse when we take Raqqa, but the external operation cell has relocated to countryside outside of Deir Ez-Zor along the Euphrates River. We need to plan the next operations in order to ensure that ISIS doesn’t resurge from the Euphrates River Valley back into other parts of Syria and Iraq.
Third thing we need to do, we actually need to make a statement. We actually need to act, not just make a statement, such that Sunni Arabs who have been particularly persecuted in this war by the heinous crimes of the Assad regime have a reason to think that they can trust the United States as a partner, and as a reliable partner that recognizes their plight and will assist them. If we do not actually change our behavior in a way that gives humanitarian assistance to these incredibly oppressed and violated populations, al-Qaida and ISIS will beat us.
They will beat us, because their rhetoric is true. No one is defending these communities from the predations that they face other than them. And so we don’t have a narrative problem. We don’t have a countering violent extremism problem. We have a reality problem that we need to change. And as we look at doing this over the next six months to a year, then we can look at pulling together Sunni partners, governing particular areas of Syria that need good governance, and rolling back ISIS and al-Qaida by the roots without empowering Iran, Russia, and Syria.
PILLAR: Yeah, when we have a really awful situation like we’ve described in Syria, we, Americans, have this tendency to think: There must be something we can do and are able to do and solve the problem. That’s a destructive attitude, on that doesn’t really make for good policy. We have to remember where U.S. interests do and do not lie with regard to this conflict. The United States does not have an interesting in the particular political coloration of whoever is, you know, in control of Damascus or in control of other Syrian cities. We’ve lived with a situation—(audio break)—positions for quite a few years.
The Assad regime, as undesirable or brutal as it is, if you count father and son, Hafez and Basher have been in power for 47 years. Somehow, you know, the world hasn’t come crumbling and U.S. interests in the Middle East haven’t disintegrated by having the Assads in power. The Russian position in Syria dates back to the at least middle or early days of the Cold War. The Iranian alliance with the regime in Damascus, as well as its position in Lebanon, has been around for 30 years. Somehow we’ve managed to do that.
I think our main interests are ones when you have a—basically a no-win situation, like we have here in Syria, is to avoid losses and to avoid getting into bigger trouble, and to avoid things like inadvertent escalation—of which there is a risk if we should try to do more on the ground. We got a little hint of this just in the last couple weeks, when we—our forces felt it necessary—and I certainly wouldn’t want to second-guess our commanders about this—in striking out at a pro-government militia in the south, down near the border with Jordan and Iraq, that was getting in the judgment of our commanders uncomfortably close to an installation that we and the British use. You know, that’s the sort of thing that can easily get out of control, and we find ourselves with a—with a much bigger conflict.
I think it would be a big mistake to start taking sides in any aspect of this conflict in which we don’t really have a fundamental American interest. It would be a mistake to take the side of the Sunnis against other sectarian groups. You know, one of the reasons—one of the strengths on which the Assad regime has relied, not just the external supporters, but internally, has been the concern among other sectarian groups, including not just the Alawite but Christian and Druze, about the radicalism on the Sunni side and what would happen if the Assad regime were to fall. Now, none of these players, or many of them—most of them are ones that we would consider the least bit desirable. And we should review just to what extent extremism laces through the opposition.
I mentioned before problem with ceasefires and so on. And what that reflected was how much the al-Qaida affiliate, in particular—which has renamed itself a couple of times; it claims not to be an affiliate anymore but it really is—has dominated, especially opposition positions in the north, and has had allied with it other groups that, you know, aren’t really al-Qaida, but they’ve put their—you know, thrown their chips in with it. None of that represents any kind of side that the United States can really take.
As far as ISIS and the overall counterterrorism part of this is concerned, the anti-ISIS effort, as it’s extended to Iraq as well as Syria, has been pretty darn successful so far, as reflected in the regaining of territory, undoing what ISIS did when it swept to those dramatic gains back in 2014. But we should—and ISIS, in a way, became an easier terrorist foe for us by doing what al-Qaida did not do, and to try to create a state here and now on the ground. Well, that gives us something to fire at—(laughs)—and in a way is easier to deal with than the more clandestine operations that we became more familiar with, with the likes of al-Qaida.
We should and we will continue with the reduction of the so-called caliphate, but we have to remember there is not—and this tends to get overstated—there is not a direct connection between control of real estate in some place in the Middle East and the terrorist threat that we confront in the West. And in fact, you know, the story of ISIS over—much of the story over the last recent months and weeks has been its transition to a situation in which it won’t have a caliphate and it won’t have a position on the ground, but it still does intend to wreak violent havoc in London and elsewhere in the West, relying on whatever volunteers they can get.
So don’t look at that as a reason why, you know, we need to manipulate the map in Syria one way around and another way, because that will or will not make the difference between terrorism or not here in Western cities. It won’t. It is a factor. It is a campaign we should continue, but that’s not the main reason. I think the main emphasis is going to have to be pressing the diplomatic opportunities as much as we can. The diplomatic fora are messy. They’ve been unproductive. I commented on it earlier. But I think something like what the Turks and the Iranians and the Russians did with these de-escalation zone does have some promise.
We have to participate. And we didn’t really participate. We were just an observer in Astana. We have to get over our hang-up about talking with the Iranians, because they are a major player, as are the Russians, and the Turks, and the Saudis, and the other Gulf Arabs. And all those external players have to be involved in any kind of diplomatic process that’s going to have any hope of having any lasting value.
Now, all of this, I know, doesn’t add up to any satisfaction for doing something different in the face of what has become a very ugly situation over the last six years. But we have to confront the reality that there are some messy problems that the United States, however dedicated and however much resources we put into it, simply cannot solve, and certainly can’t solve them by itself. But we have to participate with the others in trying to make this a less undesirable situation.
OLLIVANT: Wow. Mona.
YACOUBIAN: So I would largely agree with what Paul has laid out. I mean, I think—I think our interests should be to de-escalate the violence in Syria to the extent possible, again, understanding the constraints that we face, and to work on stabilizing those parts of Syria where we can work and where the conflict has receded. It’s an incredibly complex set of conflicts that we are contending with in Syria. I think it’s going to be very important, again, looking first at Raqqa, to understand and to improve relations, frankly, between the U.S. and Turkey, and to try to bring Turkey on board with assisting in terms of allowing for the passage of not only humanitarian assistance but stabilization assistance into Raqqa.
This is—these are—this is sort of the nuts and the bolts of how this stuff gets done. And the Turks are understandably displeased with our reliance on the Kurds, but it’s going to be essential that we all sort of try to row in the same direction on—certainly on Raqqa, and on stabilizing Raqqa. Does that mean that we intensify our diplomacy with the Turks, vis-à-vis the Kurds? Yes. What does that look like? Perhaps it looks like doing more work on what’s happening inside Turkey with respect to the Kurdish insurgency there. Is there more work we could do with the KRG in northern Iraq to also bring along their cooperation?
Again, my primary point is the conflict in Syria itself is the source of destabilization, and to such an extent that it actually does—it is a threat to our own security. And so we need to focus on de-escalating that conflict. I agree that we should be much more engaged with Iran and Russian and the—and Turkey for sure, and the regime, to at least explore in greater detail what these de-escalation zones look like. But we should do it in a clear-eyed way. There is a coming battle brewing in Idlib. There’s no question about that.
It’s been clear now for some many, many months that Idlib is the place where many of the armed groups have been pushed following the regime’s surrender or starve agreements. These “ceasefires,” in quotation marks. Al-Qaida in Syria has a strong presence there. And it’s very clear that the regime, backed by Russia, is looking to undertake a fairly significant battle there. We need to anticipate that. We need to understand and think about, again, civilian protection. Is there, for example, a way to allow civilians to leave before this onslaught? How do we ensure that there’s adequate protection for them? How do we ensure adequate humanitarian assistance?
We need to be clear-eyed about what the approach is. We need to understand, at the same time, what our limitations are. But ultimately, again, it is in our interest, in my view, to de-escalate this conflict and to stabilize those parts of Syria where we are able to work. I think we need to resist the temptation to play out a proxy battle with Iran in Syria. And I think the incident that, Paul, you noted, may be an example of flirting with this idea of reupping that conflict via proxies in places like Syria. I think that’s extremely dangerous in the current Middle East that we are—we find ourselves in. There could be blowback certainly in Iraq with that. And there could be blowback in Lebanon.
Lebanon has remained remarkably stable, considering that it has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. And Lebanon is often a place where we play out these proxy battles with Iran. It’s my sense that this is a region that is engulfed in violence and tension and cannot really, frankly, sustain additional escalation. I think the United States needs to take a leadership role—much more of a leadership role in playing an above-the-fray position of trying to actually bring together all of these conflicting parties and, again, look to find ways to de-escalate conflict, not only in Syria but in the region more broadly.
OLLIVANT: All right, so dissenting and competing power centers in the White House. Who knew? (Laughter.) Let’s probe that a little bit, and try to get you all into a dialogue here. So, Kim, you laid out a series of national interests that the United States has in the region, you—that in the whole make Syria a vital interest. Paul states that, well, this has all been that way forever. There’s always been a—well, not always—but for decades there’s been a warm water Russian port, there’s been Iranian influence. What’s different now?
KAGAN: First of all, what’s different now is that we have an active conflict that has raged not only through the region but has actually ignited global sectarian mobilization. On the Sunni side, we know through foreign fighters going to ISIS or al-Qaida or showing up in London. But also on the Shia side, where we have seen mobilization of Iranian-backed actors all the way through Afghanistan and Pakistan. The coalescing of an Iranian—let me just say this—an Iranian force that is quite different—quite different—from the one that we saw up close and personal—you, especially up close and personal—in Iraq in 2005, ‘6, ‘7, and ‘8.
What we have seen is a very fundamental change in the circumstances, in the conditions globally that have caused or have contributed to making the war that had been a problem inside of Syria an uncontained problem that has expanded outside the borders. So it’s nice to say that we had all of these problems 30 years ago, but I’m sorry I think that the United States faces a greater national security threat today than it has since the end of the Cold War, that our national interests and national power are challenged, that our safety here at home is challenged in a different way, and that it would be wrong simply to say, well, the Russians and Iranians did this before, the jihadists did this before, they’re doing it now, so nothing has changed.
The environment has changed. And what we have is this escalatory situation that Mona has described. You know, where I disagree a little bit with Mona and Paul is how we de-escalate and what steps need to be taken next in order to get the end state that I think we all desire, which is a more peaceful Syria that is ultimately stabilized, a region that is stabilized, and that is stabilized through a set of political and diplomatic negotiations that make that stabilized outcome enduring, right? We, I think, all want to get to that same goal. The question is, can we stabilize right now—right now—through these so-called de-escalation zones.
And I would say, absolutely not. For one thing—for one thing, I think it’s really important to look not only at what the regime and the Iranians and Russians may do with these de-escalation zones, but also think forward about what Turkey is promising with these de-escalation zones. And my hypothesis, my forecast, is that Turkey is actually using the opportunity of the de-escalation zones to regroup a force that is can use to fight the Kurds in the eastern reaches in Syria, and then can grow into a moderate opposition in Turkey’s mind, which is not moderate in our mind. It’s not acceptable in our mind. And so it shouldn’t be acceptable to us.
So I simply think that as we look forward we need to recognize that there may be actions that we need to take to set conditions for the kinds of things that Mona and Paul and I all want to achieve, but that may not be possible in a moment where we simply have a lapse in fighting that will relapse into fighting six months hence.
OLLIVANT: Thirty second response from either or both of you?
PILLAR: Well, when it comes to things like instability going elsewhere in the region and also what’s different now from 30 years ago, we just need to recall a couple things. You know, the Russians and the Iranians are defending a status quo. They are trying to defend a status quo. They are not trying to, you know, upset things and create a new order. And as far as export of extremism, instability, we should remember even ISIS, that wasn’t a Syrian-originated thing. That was an Iraqi-originated thing that grew up—not just grew up—was born under a different name as a result of and after our invasion of Iraq. And the one other, you know, most messy situation we’ve had next to Syria has been Libya, which is also the other place where we had a Western intervention.
YACOUBIAN: I would actually agree with Kimberly that the Middle East we find ourselves in today is vastly different from the one 30 years ago. I mean, we are in the midst of really tectonic change in the region. We should not forget that. And I think that this brings with it an enormous set of challenges. I don’t think Assad, unfortunately, is going anywhere anytime soon. And I think we need to make peace with that ugly truth, because I think in not doing that we actually contribute to fueling a civil war in Syria that is—has exacted an enormous humanitarian cost. Therefore, I think it is really important that we begin—that we do sort of a clear-eyed assessment of the calculus of all the key stakeholders in this conflict.
I do think that—I think Russia and Iran have different stakes in this. I do think that Russia is approaching the point where it’s more or less, I think, satisfied with where things are. The regime has not only regained its footing, it’s consolidated control over this western spine, so to speak, of Syria. There’s unfortunately more, I think, ugly battles to come before that control is entirely consolidated. Then I think it’s going to be in Russia’s interest to try and pull out, to try and minimize, frankly, its involvement. We already see the Russians coming hat in hand to the international community asking for the EU, for example, to pay for the reconstruction of Syria, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
We need to play a leadership role in terms of, I think, being above the fray, understanding where our leverage points are. I don’t believe they’re military, though. I think that they are diplomatic, and they may have to do with assistance. Being creative about how we engage on the ground in places in Syria that are not under regime control. We already do that to a great extent. It’s an untold story about the U.S. assistance into Syria. And frankly, begin to try and de-escalate and stabilize this country from the bottom up, to the extent that we can.
OLLIVANT: OK. Paul, you stated that we have—the United States has no particular national interest there, doesn’t really care who governs the place. We need to avoid the temptation to put our hands in. But this seems to be, even if we don’t care about it, this seems to be the issue everyone else cares about. The Gulf states care about this. The neighboring states, the Turks, the Iraqis, the Jordanians, the Lebanese, all of whom we seem to care about. They all care about this. The Europeans care about this. The Russians and the Iranians clearly care about this. Given this is the issue on the plate, we may wish it was another issue in which we did have more inherent interest, but given this is the one that presents us, what—you know, what do I advise the president to do?
PILLAR: Well, it is—as I mentioned and as Mona got back to just a moment ago—it’s a matter of working multilaterally with all the players, external and then when we get to internal besides the regime the opposition is so divided it’s hard to say who you’re working with there, to try to de-escalate. And you’re absolutely right, there are some very strong interests expressed and held by a lot of these other players. That does not mean the United States has an interest in simply playing along with those other interests, or allying itself with others, even if they are seen as traditional friends as opposed to—or opposing what we consider traditional foes, without getting into the specifics, because a lot of the specifics are ones that, quite frankly, are not very laudable, from our point of view, when it comes to our friends.
I mean, you know, the Turkish concerns about the Kurds and how this relates to internal Turkish politics, there’s a lot of stuff there that, yeah, we need to bear in mind, we need to take it into an account and form our own policy, but it doesn’t mean we, you know, throw our lot into Erdogan—and I’m not suggesting we are. Likewise, the sectarian conflicts in which the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia have a very strong interest are not the sort of things into which we ought to throw our lot either, even though we obviously have to be very conscious of it in dealing with this messy, complicated conflict.
KAGAN: It would just seem to me, though, that you’re proposing to throw your lot in with Russia and Iran.
PILLAR: Not at all.
KAGAN: And that all I would say is I don’t want to be misunderstood. We can talk to the Russians. We can talk to the Iranians. In fact, we should talk. That’s OK. But the idea that they are the de-escalators right now, and therefore we have to back their play seems to me—not seems to me—I assess, on the basis of the forecasting and the planning efforts that we have done at ISW, that will over the long term create conditions inside of Syria, Iraq, and the wider region that will reignite al-Qaida, ISIS, and its successors in a way that is very dangerous to our interests.
So what do we need to do? I think we need to be very careful not to come down—I agree—not to come down on any particular side, but to recognize the sides that have lacked a defender, work to protect all populations, and stop imagining that the United States can outsource its own interests to partners—whether it be the Kurds or the Turks or the Russians and the Iranians—but recognize that the United States must stand up for its own interests and help bring its partners along with those interests over time.
OLLIVANT: OK, very quickly to Mona. I understand your concern about the neighbors that are absorbing the refugees, the concern for Lebanon in Jordan in particular, but also the Turks, Iraqi Kurdistan absorbing all these refugees. But which is the greater danger to, you know, pull off the Band-Aid and create some friction, you know, immediately, but that offers a hope to resolving the problem, or simply to let this taper on, because as I look at the situation now we are looking at civil war for as long as the eye can see. And where will the Jordanians and the Lebanese be in three years or four years if this status quo continues?
YACOUBIAN: No, I—look, I think it’s a great point. I think we need to understand, you know, just the reasons that Jordan and Lebanon, in particular, and Turkey—but certainly Lebanon and Jordan have not exploded. I would argue it’s because of the vast amounts of assistance that the United States in particular, as the largest single humanitarian donor with respect to the Syria crisis, have provided.
OK, so we are—we are providing these stopgap measures to help maintain some sort of stability in the neighboring countries. However, there is a limit to these host countries’ patience. And we see that. We see an unwillingness on the part of Jordan and Lebanon, for example, to admit additional refugees. We see increasing strains in their societies, which is completely understandable. I mean the number of refugees that Lebanon hosts would be the equivalent of the United States hosting 80 million refugees in and amongst our communities. Imagine that.
So that is really my point as to why we need to de-escalate. I don’t really think of it as pulling the Band-Aid off. I think of it as we need to come to terms with the reality that we now see in Syria today. We have—the conflict has evolved to a point where one could, I think, envision a freezing of the lines of conflict—not a partition of Syria, but a vastly decentralized Syria, a stabilizing of those areas, so that Syrians in Syria who would like to stay can stay. And eventually—and underscore eventually—an opportunity for Syrians, refugees living outside, to return.
One important point, though. There is a strong desire on the part of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to send Syrians back to safe zones. And therefore, I really abhor the term “safe zones,” because they’re rarely safe. And I think we need to be extremely vigilant about that temptation, to send Syrians back into Syria prematurely under the guise of having established a so-called safe zone.
OLLIVANT: All right. Thank you. So we’ve heard from the competing power structures in the White House, but at the end of the day we see ourselves as a populist administration so we’re now going to invite our members and our guests to join the conversation. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. You are being livestreamed as we speak. So keep that in mind, both for yourself and for your affiliation. When I call on you, please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, stand, state your name and affiliation. Wait for the microphone. Finally, please limit yourself to one question and only one question. And please do make it a question. A short prelude that sets up a question is acceptable. A long prelude that devolves into a so what do you think of what I just said is not. (Laughter.) So please keep this concise to allow as many members as possible to speak.
And we will begin right here up front.
Q: Hi. Nigel Sutton, Orbital ATK.
Thank you for the panelists’ very interesting comments and so on. My question is, for the past year and a half we’ve been hearing talk about maybe after containing the terrorist threat, ISIS and al-Qaida, that there’s a—maybe a plan for federalization of Syria. There’s pros and cons for that. What says you?
PILLAR: I’m glad Mona mentioned at the end, I mean to but never got to it, a think a Syria that is far more decentralized than it’s been presents the only possible hope for long-term stability. A possible intermediate step is enough de-escalation that the conflict, after Raqqa is, you know, gone and the caliphate is gone, is basically frozen in place. Now, we generally don’t like the idea of frozen conflicts, but I would argue in this case frozen is better than unfrozen. And that might be a prelude to somewhere up the line something gets signed in Geneva that provides for a highly federal, highly decentralized Syria, in which each of the various communities—including, you know, Alawites in the far northwest and Kurds in the northeast and the various other communities—feel they have much more control over their own affairs than they’ve had for decades.
YACOUBIAN: And if I could add, I mean, I think the Syrians themselves do not want to see their country partitioned. But clearly, as Paul has said and as I have said, the only sustainable solution that one could envision for Syria is a highly-decentralized Syria—likewise for Iraq, by the way. And this raises I think a bigger set of challenges that those of us who work on the Middle East need to really drill down on. And that is, what does governance look like in this new part—in this new realm in which, frankly, the old social contracts that had governed relations between governments, it’s done. It’s done.
And the sooner we understand that and the sooner we get more creative and work with our Syrian and Iraqi partners on the ground to understand and to build local institutions of governance that are reflective of the aspirations of the—of those communities, the better. And AID has done quite a lot of work on that already, as have our colleagues at the State Department—again, unsung story of a lot of work being done with local councils on the ground in areas of moderate opposition held parts of Syria that have begun to build those institutions. But it’s going to take a generation, frankly, to move Syria and Iraq in the right direction.
KAGAN: I disagree with Paul, in that I don’t think that we will get from here to a frozen conflict. So I think our disagreements are not necessarily about the right ways forward or wrong ways forward, but very much about where we are here and now. And the idea that we can create successful cessations of hostilities and de-escalation and govern parts of Syria may be the case, but in our two years of working at the Institute for the Study of War where we tested and actually failed at 20 different courses of action forward in Syria, the conclusions that we’ve drawn are that neither federal nor a central solution actually gets you a priori to where you want to go.
Two, that, yes, we need to build local governance from the ground up. Three, that we run a grave risk of assuming that theses ungoverned places will remain contained outside of the de-escalated places. We have to recognize that al-Qaida and ISIS and other jihadist actors will take the opportunity actually to extend conflict to all vulnerable populations and will not allow this kind of cessation to play out peacefully or at a level that local forces can defend again. Therefore, the problem is simply bigger than we’re willing to admit.
YACOUBIAN: Can I just—on that point—just really quickly on that point. I disagree, because it denies agency to those on the ground in those communities. I think what we learned from Iraq was that when communities remain aggrieved, when they are not able to express their aspirations for how they want to live, that provides very fertile ground for extremist groups. However, in the absence—I don’t—I don’t think that extremist groups then have fertile soil in which to grow and do—and do well and gain recruits if these drivers are addressed. So the idea that an all-power al-Qaida can come in and reassert itself in communities that have been stabilized and in which, again, these soft tools—which are, frankly, far more important than the military ones—are engaged, I think is—I think is wrong.
KAGAN: I’m simply saying that I think that there are communities that we’re talking about not stabilizing. And those are the ones at risk of becoming the beds from which ISIS or al-Qaida can regrow, just like we saw in Mosul.
OLLIVANT: OK. There.
Q: My name is Pete Baumbusch. I’m a lawyer in Washington.
Kim, I’ve been listening to you. I’m still a little confused as to what you propose. You said, well there may be actions we need to take. Please drill down a little as to what actions we should take. As you talk about the Sunnis, making friends with them. You don’t like de-escalation zones. Do you want escalation zones? I’m a little confused.
KAGAN: I’m happy to tell you because I am proud to say that as a result of the two years of planning efforts that we did with the 20 different failed scenarios, failed courses of action at the Institute for the Study of War, we have offered one and published one that we think has a small chance of working, which is better than the other 20 which had no chance of working. So I think we need to recognize the situation that we’re in and just admit that it’s this bad.
This is what we propose: First and foremost, the United States actually needs to create for itself a base of operations in what is eastern Syria, along the Euphrates, on the border with but not smack on Iraq. The place we recommend, although we would of course defer to others, is actually at the Abu Kamal border crossing. Why do we do this? First of all, because we’re working already at Tanf. We’re working already in Raqqa. And what we need to do is actually energize Sunni populations in the Euphrates River zone, which has been a hotbed of ISIS support but before it al-Qaida support. And we need to be physically present in order to ensure that we are not getting the wool pulled over our eyes by the Turks, by the Kurds, by moderate actors, by immoderate actors. That’s something that we can do. Is it a large force? Well, I don’t know. It’s not 150,000 guys. But it’s got to be enough to be present and to extend presence forward. That’s the first thing that we need to do.
The second thing that we need to do from there after doing our outreach is actually take very specific actions to broker a deal—broker a peace between the Turks and the Kurds, rather than just backing the Kurds all the way. What does that mean? Well, for one thing, brokering peace does not mean putting rangers on the ground in between these actors. It actually means that that’s a mediation process that we need to work on now in order to have the long-term stabilization outcomes that we want. And if we would actually play it that way, and make ourselves sufficiently independent of the Turks and the Kurds by creating a zone of operations for us, then we can start regaining cards to have the ability to mediate those negotiations.
The third thing that we need to do, as we start building up that particular force, is prepare for what the Russians and the Iranians will try to do to respond. And there, we do not recommend putting a save zone in right away. We do recommend, however, that we look very carefully, again, at the Jordanian border and the Daraa zone in southern Syria as places where we may need to continue to reinforce the building of good governance, of assisted communities that we have begun. The point is not to take over the war. It is to gain leverage on our partners, and to show—to show that the al-Qaida and ISIS narrative, that we will not come to help, we will not actually provide humanitarian assistance, that we will not actually step in on their side, is a false narrative, even as we’ve worked mediation efforts that can set conditions for further operations. I’d be delighted to have you read this paper. And it’s available at understandingwar.org.
OLLIVANT: Just very quickly. You were careful to say it’s probably not a six-figure number of troops. But it’s probably not a four-figure number of troops either, right?
KAGAN: I don’t know, actually. We’re going to let the Joint Staff do the troop-to-task that they think is actually required. We’ve done different back-of-the-envelope calculations, and a lot is contingent—a lot is contingent upon the environment that we find and that we shape. What that actually means is that we actually—we have to prepare for larger contingencies while actually setting the expectations that we will not need worst-case courses of action.
OLLIVANT: Here in the center, in the—yes.
Q: Thank you. I’m Jay Hallen. I’m a financial consultant.
And I think that this is not—I think that—I’m hearing some very complicated solutions and discussions here, and I would just like to take a step back. And if I were advising the president, I would say one question: Is Iraq a better or worse place before and after Saddam Hussein? Is Libya a better or worse place before or after Gadhafi? Sure, they’re tyrants, but they are secular, there’s stability, there was no ISIS, there was no al-Qaida in Iraq or Libya. What is so awful about supporting Bashar Assad for someone who—who else will try to put the genie back in the bottle? Who else wants to stamp out ISIS and al-Qaida, and bring stability back to his country? Of course, is he a good guy? Of course not. But I think we need to rank order—there are no good solutions.
OLLIVANT: OK. I think we have your question. Thanks.
OLLIVANT: Who wants to take that?
PILLAR: Well, the comment jives quite squarely with a couple of my comments with regard to recalling, for example, where and how ISIS was born under another name, so I quite agree with the premise of your question.
Now, to be fair to Kim’s position—and this goes back to a(n) earlier part of our discussion—you know, things have changed, and you can’t—you can’t roll back the real back, you know, pre-2003 Iraq or pre-2011 in Libya. And so we do have a situation; what do we do now? But I think your question is pertinent to what was just discussed in the previous question when it comes to things like building up American bases, which we do have quite a track record, including in a couple of countries that you mentioned. One wasn’t a matter of bases, but it was military intervention. The other was where we had at one point 160-some-thousand troops, and that was not a formula for lasting stability either.
KAGAN: I also think, though, that we need to recognize that the United States does have power and capacity to change situations on the ground. And I think that you malign United States power and United States interests, and malign in the following way.
Have we achieved lasting stability in Iraq? Well, clearly, clearly not. There is no way any observer could look at the situation that we see there right now and say that Iraq is stable. I would not say Iraq is stable. But I also had the extraordinary privilege—extraordinary privilege—to see neighborhoods in Baghdad that colleagues of Doug’s had fought in, removed al-Qaida in Iraq from, removed Shia militias from, and liberated oppressed populations, establishing local governance councils, and building into a national order that was precarious, did not last, but that saved lives. And so I want us on the one hand to be very humble about what American power can do, but we also need to be very cognizant of what American power can do that actually changes unstable situations also for the good if it’s applied smartly and well.
PILLAR: Well, just to be fair to the questioner, there was no al-Qaida in Iraq before March 2003, and we shouldn’t forget that.
OLLIVANT: OK. Right here in front.
Q: Mark Young, IronNet Cybersecurity.
Paul, could you go into a little bit more detail about why you think Russia is simply seeking the status quo in Syria? When you look at their other activities—both military and intelligence activities, overt and covert—in other areas, it just doesn’t seem like they are only seeking the status quo.
PILLAR: Well, obviously, the Russians are, you know, competing for influence all over the place, including trying to do things with Western elections. There’s no question about that. (Chuckles.)
But we are talking about Syria, and the real issue was—well, we can talk about Syria and the Middle East. But in Syria, the issue is, how much more costly would it be to the Russians in their—in their eyes, as well as ours, of trying to roll back, you know, areas that the opposition controls in Idlib or the south, so on. And my judgment is they have accomplished their main goals in terms of shoring up the regime, shoring up Latakia and their—you know, their air and naval presence, and making it clear they are still a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. They’ve done that. Anything more in terms of a costlier effort to try to roll back and on behalf of the Assad regime, incurring additional costs to change that battle map more, just isn’t going to build enough additional in their interest to make it there worthwhile. That was my argument.
And, sure, they’re going to try to, you know, seek influence elsewhere. But Syria has always been, for a long time—you know, ever since things like, you know, Sadat kicking the Soviets out of Egypt occurred—has been their main—their main presence in the Middle East, and I think they see it the same way. You know, cementing that is what’s most important to them, rather than a sort of quixotic hope to establish some chain of bases in the Persian Gulf or something like that.
KAGAN: How will they rid Syria, then, of al-Qaida or ISIS? I mean, if the Russians have achieved their goal, then their goal isn’t actually the protection of further populations or the expulsion of ISIS, al-Qaida, and jihadist actors.
PILLAR: Well, I was referring to what their main goals were in their military intervention. Certainly, the Russians have an interest, with which they share—they share the interest with us, in seeing less rather than more radical Sunni extremism of the al-Qaida sort. And although they share that interest with us—not “although;” it’s given that they share that interest with us—they’d be only too happy to see us incur more of the cost and do more of the heavy lifting on behalf of that shared goal. But in terms of what they’re doing with their military intervention, I think it’s the objectives I mentioned before that are most important to Moscow.
OLLIVANT: Right here.
Q: Larry Garber.
Can someone explain, what is the interest of the Kurds at this point in Raqqa and more broadly? And are they being set up again just to be pawns of history, and should we be just casual about that in terms of what the future holds for the Kurds in Syria and in Iraq?
OLLIVANT: I’ll let Kim take the first half.
KAGAN: Sure. We have—for one thing, let me start by saying of course we see gradations of different political objectives among different political groupings of Kurds, intra-Kurdish objectives, within Iraq and Syria.
Nevertheless, I will focus on the Rojava project, which has aimed to create a contiguous swath of terrain in northern Syria in which the Kurds can—the Kurds of northern Syria can actually have a political constitutional system of their own. What I would say to that it is likely to me that the Kurds will face tough times by all of their neighbors. And we are already watching not only the Turkish-Kurdish war, because the Turks will not allow the Kurds actually to occupy this contiguous terrain, but also an Arab-Kurdish war inside of Syria. I think we have to remember that the opposition groups were fighting the Kurds to begin with, and then the Assad regime came along and became active in the area, switched over to the Assad regime, switched over to ISIS. Their core dispute is a political dispute about northern Syria and about governance.
Then we’re actually watching the beginnings of, again, this political conflict inside of Iraq between Arabs and Kurds. It is not a political conflict in whose outcome we have no interest. We have asked the Kurds to work with us. And there are, in my opinion, protections that we need to give them in return for what they have done. But that overall political outcome of the Rojava project or of fully independent Kurdistans is not something that is stabilizing in the—in the region in the short to the medium to long term, and therefore we have to recognize that it holds great strategic risk for us.
PILLAR: That was a great question, and I’m sure for most of the Kurdish commanders it’s not a matter of altruism and they’re willing to sustain battle casualties on behalf of Arabs, you know, I think they want some return, not least of all from us, when it comes to issues like the Rojava project and autonomy in the north. But I fear, also going back to what was part of your question, that they may find themselves once again as the national group that has been most shortchanged, going back to the peace of Versailles when the Ottoman Empire was being carved up, that they might experience the same disappointment again.
OLLIVANT: Right here in the center.
Q: John Hauge, The Global LPG Project.
Is the nature of the ISIS jihadist shifting from radicalized Islamists to Islamized radicals, based on the number that are coming in from outside Syria? And, if so, should America’s approach be different than what it is?
PILLAR: Well, I’ll put my old counterterrorist hat on. I don’t think it’s a shift. I mean, it’s—what you’re referring to has been a subject of debate among scholars and specialists of religious radicalism and terrorism for quite some time. That debate continues.
My own position is more the religious infusion into what is already, you know, radicals. And I think these recent cases in London, with British citizens involved, are going to demonstrate more that that’s the case. But it’s not—it’s not really a shift. It’s something that’s been part of the dynamic of radicalization all along.
OLLIVANT: Anyone else care to comment?
YACOUBIAN: I would just add, I think as the geography that ISIS holds is further and further constricted, that we’re going to see more and more of the types of attacks that we’ve seen in Europe, both in terms of—well, I think the whole—the whole purpose of the organization is going to shift. It’s going to be less about the caliphate and it’s going to be much more about these attacks. You’ve seen—I mean, there was one that potentially happened in Paris just before our program started, small things. They will—the point is less about the killing and more about the terrorizing. And I do think we will continue to see more of those attacks, unfortunately, as they lose more ground in Syria and in Iraq.
PILLAR: And there has been a shift in ISIS’s appeals. Where earlier on, when they first established their enclave, it was “come to the caliphate,” you know, “help us build it,” and then afterwards it was “do damage in your home.”
YACOUBIAN: Right, stay home—
PILLAR: So that shift has occurred, yeah.
KAGAN: But I think it’s important to recognize that by November 2014 ISIS has actually prepared for the contingency of losing terrain in Iraq and Syria by deliberately creating these pockets of ISIS-held lands in places such as Libya and Sinai. We can talk about how they converted preexisting networks onto—you know, into their own network, but the places that ISIS showed up are places from which al-Qaida in Iraq used to send foreign fighters into Syria, as we can see from released documents that the—that are available for view at the Countering (sic; Combating) Terrorism Center at West Point.
The point is that ISIS prepared for this contingency in 2014, and then we dismissed this contingency a little bit. Maybe we over-optimized or we were over-optimistic about their effects on their ability to do this because we actually did take some actions in Libya, because the Egyptians have taken actions in Sinai, et cetera. And I think what we’re seeing is the fruition of ISIS’s deliberate plan to diversify its—it would love to have Iraq and Syria and Libya and Sinai and Philippines and everywhere. It’s made that amply clear. But we mustn’t—we mustn’t simply see this as squirting from the caliphate. We must see this as something that’s partly designed by ISIS.
OLLIVANT: All right. Over here.
Q: Lionel Rosenblatt, Foreign Service, retired.
The U.S. cruise-missile strikes seem to have stopped the chemical attacks. And I wonder if the other crimes against humanity, war crimes that are being conducted by air such as barrel bombing and other bombardment of civilian areas, might be something the U.S. would undertake both to protect civilians and to diminish the flow of refugees to the outside areas. Not the safe areas; that’s something else. But the same kind of response to aerial bombardment as we did with chemical warfare.
KAGAN: I think it’s important to recognize that the Russians and the Assad regime have engaged in deliberate attacks against civilian populations throughout the country using many different means. Chemical weapons is perhaps the one that catches the most international attention, but we have observed things such as Russian bombing of hospitals and U.N. convoys, the forcible reprisal against entire communities, and the deliberate targeting of civilians, depriving them of food, starving them, all of which are contrary to the laws that the international community has imposed and the standards that the international community has imposed. So, although we should rightly be outraged by the use of chemical weapons, we also, as respecters of the power of international diplomacy and international law, should be outraged at the violation of the laws of war and norms of war that the regime has undertaken and the Russians have undertaken elsewhere.
Therefore, it does seem right to ask the question whether there are steps that the United States can take through diplomatic or military means actually to reduce the zeal with which the regime or the Russians can undertake such deliberate targeting of civilians, which creates that horrible and true perception by civilians that they are being persecuted. Nevertheless, we have to be very smart about how we do it because there are risks of hyper-escalation. And, therefore, I think it is very important to recognize and observe through proper intelligence means how these adversaries are likely to react, and what contingencies we need to put in place if we choose to deprive them of the ability to do these terrible de-human and illegal acts.
OLLIVANT: Paul and Mona, we have about 30 seconds left for the both of you, so very quickly.
PILLAR: Oh, I basically agree with Kim’s response. I mean, whenever you’re zeroing in on one brutal tactic, there’s always another brutal tactic, and there’s one after that. In fact, this came up when the focus was less on the CW and more on the barrel bombs, and that was often raised in conjunction, well, we need no-fly zones, need no-fly zones. And that disregards how much brutality has occurred just through ground forces and, you know, the regime using ground-based artillery to savage civilian populations, that sort of thing. There’s always going to be another tactic.
YACOUBIAN: There is, but I think—I think one of the—one of the many lessons that we will have learned from Syria is there is much more conceptual work that has to be done on the use of force both in the service of diplomacy as well as to serve as a deterrent against the commission of atrocities. What is that balance? How does a power like the U.S. intervene in ways that aren’t escalatory, but that also set a deterrent and set a standard by which nations have to—have to abide? And it’s an extraordinarily difficult question. Unfortunately, I think it’s one we’re going to face in the—in the years ahead.
OLLIVANT: And, on that optimistic note, thank you very much. (Laughter.) Thank you, Kim, Paul, Mona. And our meeting’s ended. (Applause.)