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Should America Attack Syria's Assad?
Should America Attack Syria's Assad?
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The U.N. Refugee Agency revealed this week that more than 65 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2015, a record number according to the organization. Of those tens of millions left adrift by war and violence, more than 20 million are now refugees. Nearly 5 million of those refugees are Syrian.

The five-year-long civil war in Syria has claimed nearly half a million lives and has left entire towns and cities in utter rubble. The war has gradually evolved into a multifaceted one that has managed to lure in a number of larger powers, most notably the United States and Russia.

It’s important, therefore, to keep these casualties and costs in mind whenever experts or officials propose seemingly radical solutions intended to end this grinding conflict.

An internal State Department memo cosigned by 51 current officials expressing their displeasure with the Obama administration’s Syria policy, leaked last week by the New York Times, suggests just such a solution. The memo, sent through a Department dissent channel created during the Vietnam War, provides a swift overview of American missteps in Syria and urges the administration to take military action against Syrian bases and positions.

The memo’s authors touch upon a fundamental disagreement that has divided Syria watchers and policymakers since the early stages of the conflict. While the Obama administration has focused its efforts in the war-torn country almost exclusively on defeating the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, there are those who insist that this only addresses one part of the tumult in the country.

“The dissent message makes clear that the focus on the Islamic State will not win the hearts and minds of enough Syrian Sunni Arabs to provide a long-term, sustainable solution to the Islamic State challenge in Syria,” said Robert S. Ford, former ambassador to Syria, in an interview with The New Yorker. “The Syrian Sunni Arab community views the Assad government as a greater problem than the Islamic State. Syrian human-rights organizations have pointed out that that government has killed seven times more civilians than ISIS has.”

President Assad -- who had struck a rather somber and defeatist tone as recently as July of last year -- was extended an essential lifeline last fall when Russian forces intervened on behalf of his government’s campaign to regain control of the fractured country. Since then, Assad and his allies have made a number of successful advances on cities and territories previously occupied by ISIS or by other rebel forces. Pledging this month to reclaim “every inch” of Syria, the once saturnine Assad now sounds more defiant than ever.

“The issue is how to get Assad back to the mentality of July, 2015, so we can get a cease-fire that is durable,” said Ford.

After Assad

Ford and other supporters of the dissenting diplomats insist that the idea is not to remove Assad from power, but rather to compel him and his regime to return in good faith to the negotiating table. And such proposals are certainly nothing new. The administration has had internal debates over the merits of targeting Assad and his forces for years now. And though its authors and advocates are all no doubt well-intentioned, the result of such strikes -- and the assumption that they would force Assad to seek peace -- seem excessively credulous at this stage in the conflict.

“Overwhelming U.S. air power could certainly weaken Assad’s offensive capabilities. The bigger problem, though, lies in what comes next,” writes foreign policy analyst Ali Gharib in The Nation. “[W]hat happens if Assad continues to refuse to engage in a meaningful diplomatic process? On these questions, the memo gives us nothing. It takes as almost a given that the cease-fire alone will lead Assad to rethink his long-held and bloody stubbornness. Mission creep, at that point, seems almost inevitable.”

That question of “what comes next” is a nagging one that even the State Department memo’s most persuasive supporters fail to sufficiently address.

“If [President Obama] decides that U.S. passivity in the face of a monumental massacre causing lethal political fallout is no longer sustainable, he must make clear his desires to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and demand from the Pentagon a range of options aimed at making it hard for Assad to do his worst,” argues Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council. “It might be that cruise missiles aimed at Syrian military aircraft bases would top the list. But this is a matter for military professionals to sort out and for the president to decide.”

The Pentagon, however, has expressed reluctance to increase America’s role in the war, echoing a common administration refrain about the political vacuum that would likely follow Assad’s ouster. And although critics have astutely pointed out the many flaws in the administration’s at times sclerotic Syria policy, calls for cruise missile strikes like those proposed in memorandum by the 51 dissenting diplomats seem like yet another vague half-measure in a war already chock-full of similarly indecisive efforts.

Dissenting from reality

Bashar Assad is an unconscionable killer who has all but declared total war on his own people, relying on starvation, siege, and chemical warfare in his bid to reclaim control of Syria. His tactics have rendered him wholly unfit to claim rulership of the Syrian people, and those who lobbied back in 2013 for the United States to bring an end to his family’s short-lived dynasty may in time be proved correct by history.

It is no longer 2013 however, and Bashar Assad is not the only actor seeking his say in the future of Syria. And while the Assad regime has pursued ever more odious and desperate tactics in effort to cling to what little it has left, so too have other fighters and factions in the country. The addition of Russian and Iranian forces, moreover, has left a complicated Syrian chessboard, and one with no obvious endgame in sight. With such mutually assured uncertainty, the best course of action -- albeit the least satisfying -- may be to work with Moscow and Tehran to rescue the faltering cease-fire established earlier this year.

Improved efforts at coordination between Washington, Moscow, and Tehran have reduced the violence and brought aid to needy Syrians, argue the editors of Al-Monitor. Attacking Assad now, however gratifying that may be, would likely overturn much, if not all, of that modest progress:

“[I]n addition to probably blowing up the diplomatic framework and the thin reed of hope and aid it has offered the Syrian people, this sectarian-first thinking would further mainstream jihadi armed groups that ally with al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. … Ahrar al-Sham in particular, and other Salafi groups, have deepened coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra and violated the cessation of hostilities since February. Jaish al-Islam, it will be recalled, is being investigated for the use of chlorine gas in northern Aleppo.”

No single actor -- not Assad and his allies, not the ascendant Kurds, not Ahrar al-Sham or ISIS -- possesses a monopoly on force or governing legitimacy in Syria, and removing Assad now would likely do very little toward assuaging the sectarian and tribal fissures that have been calcified by years of war.

This is a reality Washington resigned itself to a long time ago, perhaps prematurely. Nevertheless, the sheer horror of the humanitarian crisis that has torn Syria asunder has been overshadowed in recent months by geopolitical reality, and although Assad no doubt deserves his helping of justice, the arc of history likely bends toward Moscow and Tehran’s point of view.

More on this:
Assad, Buoyed by Russia, Sees Little Reason to Talk -- World Politics Review
Syria’s War on Doctors -- The New Yorker
How Ahrar al-Sham Is Reshaping the Syrian Rebellion -- War on the Rocks
Syria’s Arab Tribes Must Fight ISIS -- Washington Institute

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