Editor’s Note: Frederick W. Kagan directs the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. The views expressed are his own.
U.S. to deploy troops on ground in Syria to advise, assist rebel forces combating ISIS
Frederick Kagan: Real problem is the vicious sectarian war in Syria
President Barack Obama announced Friday that as many as 50 U.S. Special Forces troops would deploy to Syria to assist Kurdish forces fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This is a minor tweak to an incoherent strategy doomed to fail, and is a pitiful response to fundamental changes in the situation on the ground wrought by the deployment of Russian and Iranian forces to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Simply put, Friday’s announcement shows that the administration remains befuddled about the nature of this war.
The White House precluded any realistic appraisal of the situation in Syria from the outset of its military involvement by defining the problem and the enemy almost exclusively as ISIS. It has thereby ignored almost completely the actual al Qaeda franchise in Syria, Jabhat al Nusra, which has been insinuating itself into the good graces of the fighting opposition for years now. It has also refused to properly recognize Assad himself as a major problem, let alone an enemy, aside from periodic rhetoric.
The real problem is the vicious sectarian war in Syria that has killed hundreds of thousands and driven millions from their homes. Assad started that war by attacking his own peaceful protestors, and he has steadily escalated the brutality by using conventional and chemical weapons against his own people, deliberately starving large populations, and dropping barrel bombs on civilian targets to create mass casualties.
Assad’s sectarian viciousness, and the collapse of his ability to govern, created both space and motivation for the emergence and enormous strengthening of Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS. His actions, now reinforced by Iranian ground forces and Russian aircraft that are also bombing civilian areas, perpetuate the cycle of sectarian escalation that fuels the growing strength of the most radical Sunni elements on the battlefield.
Yet the Obama administration refuses to support any action against him. It reportedly forbade the small groups of volunteers who signed up for training against ISIS to use their weapons or capabilities against Assad. It has taken no action (speeches are not action) to limit Russian activities in support of Assad, let alone persuade Vladimir Putin to abandon this unprecedented Russian military venture into the Middle East. Not only has it done nothing to prevent or disrupt Iranian military and nonmilitary support to Assad, but it has now invited Iran to the negotiating table. The United States has a rhetorical policy of opposing and removing Assad, but a practical policy of keeping him in power.
The focus on ISIS and refusal to consider any other aspect of the conflict helps the White House obscure this contradiction from all except those who matter most – the people on the ground.
The Syrian opposition knows that we are not really supporting them against Assad, the enemy they most care about, while demanding that they fight ISIS, the enemy that right now threatens them least. The Sunni Arab population, therefore, has not provided the indigenous forces on which the White House claims that its strategy against ISIS relies, for excellent and logical reasons.
So the White House has turned to Syria’s Kurds. But relying on Kurds to drive ISIS out of Arab lands is problematic for many reasons, among them the high risk of adding an Arab-Kurd ethnic conflict to the brutal sectarian war already raging.
The Turks suspect the Kurds of being closely tied to the PKK, a terrorist group that regularly attacks targets in Turkey. They are also much less readily controlled than Iraq’s Kurds, who have more than two decades of experience in governing themselves at this point (although they are themselves in the midst of a governmental crisis that threatens to unravel Kurdish stability in Iraq).
So while we might be able to help Syrian Kurds expel ISIS from parts of its dominion with a lot of air power, guided by Special Forces troops, and a lot of luck, what then? Will the Kurds hold and govern the Arab lands they have “liberated”? Will they drive down the Euphrates to take the other key ISIS strongholds? Will the Turks watch calmly as a group that they believe sponsors terrorist attacks in their homeland expands its military power and strategic depth?
Even from the standpoint of fighting ISIS, this over-reliance on the Kurds is short-sighted, and represents a desperate effort to grasp at any on-the-ground proxy who can make progress toward the President’s stated goals before he leaves office. It is not in any way strategic.
Criticizing anyone’s strategy in Syria is, of course, much easier than offering an alternative. The situation is now beyond dire and all anyone can do is offer first steps that might start to drive it in a more positive direction. But any such steps must begin from the understanding of what this conflict is really about and who must actually resolve it: the Sunni Arabs and the non-Assad Alawite community. Those are the groups that will have to decide to put down their weapons and work out a mutually-acceptable deal. Defeating ISIS will still be hard in that context, but at least it might be both feasible and meaningful.
We don’t need 50 Special Forces troops in Syria to help the Kurds. We need an entirely new strategy. It must start with the recognition that Assad, and his regime, really do have to go; that the United States and its allies must work actively to constrain and reduce Iranian and Russian support for him; that we have to reach out to the Sunni Arab population and convince them that we are on their side against the existential threat they face before demanding that they fight the enemy we want them to fight; and that the Sunni Arabs are the people amongst whom we need to embed our forces and with whom we need to work.
It may be that no such strategy can succeed any longer. It is certain that any other approach will fail.