The sudden and unexpected resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel opens the door for a reset and an in-depth review of what long-term goals the United States wants to accomplish in Syria. Although the Department of Defense (DoD) denies friction between Hagel and the National Security Council (NSC) contributed to his departure, a leaked memo from Hagel to National Security Adviser Susan Rice highlights Hagel’s frustrations with the White House’s inability to articulate a coherent strategy. Thus far, U.S. goals include “degrading and destroying” the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS),” eventually removing President Bashar al-Assad from power, and arming and training the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to serve as a ground force for both conflicts. Not only is the current U.S. strategy in Syria unclear, but what little strategy does exist is unrealistic. Without a significant shift from the White House and a clearly articulated policy emanating from the NSC, newly appointed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will fare no better than Hagel.
The problems with the current goals, in addition to their basic ambiguity, are three-fold. First, Assad has lost local and international legitimacy— rightfully so—but he will not come to the negotiating table, even down the road, if the end-goal does not include him in the driver’s seat. Worse yet, an inescapable side effect of targeted air strikes against ISIS is more breathing room for Assad in the short run. Second, the FSA is comprised of infighting local militias that are unable to cement even local cease-fires, severely undermining the comprehensive strategy to depose Assad and destroy ISIS. Third, both the recalcitrance of Assad to negotiate and the FSA’s disunity create a climate for ISIS to thrive. The country would undoubtedly devolve into complete chaos should the Assad regime fall, leaving the FSA and ISIS to vie for control.
Without doubt, Bashar al-Assad is one of the most brutal dictators in recent memory, and the atrocities he has committed against his own people are both shocking and disturbing. Furthermore, the Syrian economy is completely decimated and instability continues to flow over the border into Lebanon and Jordan. Yet, more innocent Syrians would suffer further if governance totally disappeared, a likely scenario if Assad falls before some sort of negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, any attempt by opposition forces coming to an agreement on a negotiated settlement that didn’t include ridding the government of Assad supporters—in a move much like the “de-Ba’athification” of Iraq—would end in failure.
At the same time, any attempt to re-work the government with an end state that included Assad stepping aside would simply not be supported by the regime. Now, the only option would be forcibly removing Assad and waiting to see who would fill the ensuing power vacuum. There is little chance that it would be filled by the FSA, and if the United States uses historical examples for future planning, it should know helping to stabilize a state after ousting an authoritarian regime is immeasurably difficult. The NSC must create a solid plan come January as GOP foreign policy hawks John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) take the reins of the Senate Armed Services Committee. GOP Congressmen have a history of advocating for the removal of dictators only to ignore the following years of post-conflict stabilization work, as happened in Iraq and Libya. A wise policy for the NSC would be to back away between now and January from its rhetoric about removing Assad.
The ability of the United States to arm and train the FSA, given their current state of disjointedness, is also a concern. Presently, the cards don’t fall in favor of the FSA, especially if the years-long attempt by the United States to train the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) is any indication, given its abysmal performance in the face of ISIS. The United States has a long tradition of arming and training rebel groups with little effect on the long-term outcomes of various conflicts, according to a still-classified CIA report. Furthermore, as long as the Obama administration holds tight to its stance of “no boots on the ground” (which, at present, it appears it will), the likelihood is even lower that the FSA will succeed at fighting a two-front war and defeating both the Assad regime and ISIS.
The most obvious issue regarding ISIS is whether the group’s influence would expand should Syria devolve into a leaderless state. Since the ISIS command and control structure is significantly more organized than that of the FSA, ISIS would rapidly move to add more cities to its “caliphate” if the central government fell. ISIS has already proven its ability to thrive in a chaotic state, and should Assad fall, fuel would only be added to the already-burning fire. Currently, pushing ISIS back—the best way forward for both Syria and the wider Middle East—means that the Assad regime may consequentially be strengthened in the short-term. Although not the best option, the NSC must understand that right now, Assad’s staying in power may be the “less worse” option.
In regards to coherent and realistically attainable goals, the United States still does not have any, even though its strategy comes under review multiple times per week. The NSC has time and again proven itself incapable of determining a solid way forward. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee moving forward this week with a measure on the authorization of use of military force against ISIS in the absence of a proposal from the White House exemplifies the NSC’s inability to act. Consequentially, DoD has been unable to execute a successful strategy because there is no clear consensus on what actually defines “success.” A continuous cycle of ineffective policies has given way to overall strategic inefficacy. Removing Assad, defeating ISIS, and training the FSA will take years of work, hundreds of millions of dollars, and maybe even American lives. It is unclear whether the United States is able or willing to pledge this kind of commitment. The next Secretary of Defense must push the NSC to determine a realistic way forward and choose one goal: either removing Assad or destroying ISIS. Rather than trying to do both poorly, the NSC should put weakening Assad on the back burner and instead focus its energy on ensuring the strategy against ISIS succeeds.
Rachel Rizzo is a second-year M.A. candidate at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She focuses on Homeland Security Policy and Defense Analysis. Rachel can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on twitter @RachelRizzo.