Michael Casey Contributing Writer May 9, 2016

In “Six Bad Options for Syria,” Dr. Daniel Byman surveys U.S. policymakers’ options for addressing the ongoing crisis in Syria. Potential policies range from the extreme scenarios of abandoning Syria or conducting a mass militarily intervention, to more modest approaches that include working with regional allies, engaging in détente with the Assad regime, and establishing no-fly-zones. Byman admits that “all the options are bad ones” but makes the case that the United States has a genuine moral and strategic interest in mitigating violence or at least halting its spread. As a result, he concludes that, “[c]ontainment is necessary” regardless of which policy option U.S. leaders choose.1 This conclusion reflects a sober analysis of the advantages, limitations, and costs of U.S. policy, but Dr. Byman discounts the potential value of a multi-faceted approach to resolving the Syrian Civil War. Through creative diplomacy and the efficient application of force, the United States can work to alleviate the immediate suffering of the Syrian people while navigating the pitfalls of isolationism and interventionism.

Dr. Byman begins by outlining U.S. interests in the Middle East and political constraints on U.S. foreign policy. The unprecedented growth of the Islamic State poses a clear threat to regional stability and could lead to attacks on U.S. territory. President Obama has delineated a clear goal of degrading and destroying the Islamic State. The Syrian conflict and the spread of the Islamic State also threaten to turn the Middle East into a failed region, with governments in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and other regional capitals unable to cope with growing political, military, and economic challenges. The region has yet to descend into complete anarchy, but Syria itself is already a humanitarian disaster. Since the conflict began in 2011, over 470,000 people have died and millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries and Europe.

Despite these problems, Dr. Byman argues that the Syrian conflict “actually does not immediately implicate many traditional U.S. interests” in the Middle East.2 Terrorism remains the primary threat to U.S. national security in terms of the Syrian conflict, but as Dr. Byman observes, foreign fighters on the Iraqi and Syrian battlefields will likely die there or not return home. Moreover, while the terrorist threat remains real, Europe faces a more restive Muslim population and has fewer intelligence and security resources than the U.S. government. In particular, Europe lacks federally run police and spy services that can coordinate and deploy continent-wide assets. In the United States, the threat of Islamic terrorism is limited, even if the public believes otherwise.

The policy options outlined by Dr. Byman represent an accurate analysis of U.S. capabilities and constraints. Some of the options, though, are not realistic. While abandoning Syria to its fate may please a longstanding isolationist streak in the United States, the American public and elites alike have shown every inclination to be more, not less, engaged in Syria. A majority of Americans believe the United States has not responded aggressively enough to the Islamic State and favor sending ground troops to Syria. Still, unless the Islamic State or another terrorist group pulls off a mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil, the United States is unlikely to engage in a massive military intervention to force an end to the conflict. Thus, the first two policies outlined by Dr. Byman – “Let…[Syria] Burn” and “Massive Intervention” – are politically untenable for U.S. leaders.

That leaves four options for U.S. policy in Syria: work as part of a coalition and maintain a light footprint in the country; partner with President Bashar al-Assad to counter the Islamic State; create safe havens for Syrian refugees; and contain the continuing violence. To be truly effective, the United States must adopt more than one of these remaining options. Indeed, a multi-faceted approach such as the one currently employed by the Obama administration will help to mitigate the costs associated with each of the different policies.

For example, the United States can work to contain the violence (option six) while cooperating with local allies, particularly the Kurds, to fight the Islamic State (option three). Dr. Byman argues that local forces “have not proven a match for the Islamic State.”3 That may have been the case in 2014 and much of 2015, but local forces and the Iraqi Army in particular have steadily rebuilt and improved their combat capabilities. Now, on multiple fronts, Islamic State fighters are the ones fleeing at the first sign of trouble. Operations in Iraq and U.S. support for local forces have been critical to recent progress in Syria. In November 2015, for instance, Kurdish forces captured the Iraqi town of Sinjar from the Islamic State. In February 2016 they advanced westward from Sinjar and took the strategic Syrian town of al-Shaddadi, which effectively cut off the main highways into Mosul from Syria.

A broader program may also entail establishing safe havens, potentially along the Syria-Jordan border, for refugees (option five), and working with the Assad regime and Russia (option four) to share tactical intelligence and police ceasefire arrangements. Deployment of American, European, or Arab troops on the Syrian side of the border would be difficult to contest, and Russia and Syria might grudgingly accept save havens in the south in order to consolidate their gains in the north. The United States could also alleviate the concerns of allies by limiting safe havens to small areas outside of regime control and Russian areas of operation and leveraging additional aid in order to coordinate local forces. For example, the Kurds could be persuaded not to seize the town of Azzaz near the Syria-Turkey border, which Turkey has deemed vital to its national security.

Foreign involvement in Syria need not be a zero-sum competition, and working with unlikely allies to protect refugees in safe havens would build on small successes from cooperation in the past. In October 2015, for instance, Russia and Jordan established a de-confliction center in Amman to avoid inadvertent conflict. At the same time, Jordan began to limit the flow of arms to moderate rebels groups. Today, one can image a similar quid-pro-quo between the United States and Russia, one that reflects different circumstances and interests in Syria’s north and south.

The cessation of hostilities agreed to by Syrian combatants (excluding the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front) on February 27, 2016, demonstrates that a multi-faceted approach, while tenuous, can produce results. Violations of the ceasefire have been reported to the United States and Russia, which together lead the International Syria Support Group. Despite sporadic fighting, the ceasefire has held and violence is down in some areas by as much as 90%. The announced withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria further expands the opening negotiations. Putin himself expressed support for the Geneva talks, and his decision to withdrawal may have been intended to compel Assad to negotiate.

Dr. Byman sees containment of the Syrian conflict as a necessary part of any future policy. Containment entails fewer costs than other policy options and addresses the American priority of preventing the disintegration of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Still, it “is more a Band-Aid than a cure” according to “Six Bad Options for Syria.” Despite containment’s inability to deliver long-term solutions, Secretary of State John Kerry would likely argue that temporary and imperfect solutions are better than nothing. In fact, short-term improvements are the bedrock upon which lasting solutions are crafted. Historically, confidence and security-building measures have been used to incrementally move conflicting parties towards political settlements (the Camp David Accords, for example). Secretary Kerry’s speeches indicate that he works on the assumption that even nominal progress may translate into more significant and lasting gains: “There are worse things than getting caught trying,” he has said.

The Obama administration’s comprehensive strategy is not only impacting the Syrian conflict, it is also paying dividends in the fight against the Islamic State. According to Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, the Islamic State has lost 40% of its territory in Iraq, including Ramadi and the iconic Sunni city of Tikrit. Tens of thousands of fighters have been killed in recent fighting, and the terrorist group has not launched a major offensive since May 2015. The Islamic State, Mr. McGurk said, is even reportedly encouraging new recruits to travel to Libya in order to avoid the increasingly dire situation in Iraq and Syria. The administration’s strategy of relentless airstrikes and support for local Kurdish, Iraqi, and Syrian forces appears to be working. President Obama and his successor should expand upon these gains though concerted military, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts.

Dr. Byman wisely warns against pursuing a middling approach that may be politically attractive but accomplishes little and risks pulling the United States deeper into the conflict. President Obama himself may be wary of ‘mission creep’ in lieu of how the 2011 Libya intervention has turned out. But Syria is already broken. U.S. policymakers should work towards and seize upon any initiative that can resolve the ongoing fighting, no matter how imperfect or fleeting the policy may be. The United States has within its power the capability to address the national security threat and moral failure that is the Syrian Civil War. With determination and a multi-faceted policy approach, it can hopefully begin to relieve Syria’s catastrophic suffering.

1. Byman, Daniel. “Six Bad Options for Syria.” The Washington Quarterly 38.4 (2015). 172.
2. Ibid., 173.
3. Ibid., 179.

Michael Casey is a graduate student in security policy studies at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

Photo taken by U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Robert Burck, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.