Avoid stepping in a big pile of Shi’ite

Over the past weeks, the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has staged a lightning offensive across northern Iraq that has caught the White House and the Shi’ite Maliki regime in Baghdad flat-footed.  ISIS’ aim is to establish an Islamic Caliphate that stretches across both Syria and Iraq.  Militants are within striking distance of the capital, have captured US-provided equipment which they are now shipping to Syria to reinforce allies there, and Iraqi government forces have melted away in the face of the advance.  Calls to provide further military aid to the Iraqi Armed forces seem misplaced, unless we can ship them some much needed backbones.

In Syria, as the civil war rages on, calls for the US and Europeans to begin providing lethal assistance to the rebels there in order to topple Assad have grown louder, but advances by associated entities in Iraq complicate efforts.  We find ourselves in an uncomfortable and ironic predicament, needing the assistance of Iran to support the government in Baghdad and strike ISIS while helping rebels on the same side as ISIS in Syria.  In the dictionary under “morass,” it says, “see this.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge in determining what the US should do at this point has been a lack of a strategy that can achieve a realistic end-state beneficial to US national interests.  Sure, we’ve heard the fluff (respect the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and provide for a stable, secure, and prosperous Iraq, yada yada yada), but there’s no meat in that shawarma.

Here are some thoughts on what should be done.  By no means perfect, but more than I’ve seen proposed thus far.

Announce a hefty bounty on Assad and the members of his inner circle 

By offering a reward and/or asylum to those providing information leading to top regime officials being brought to justice, essentially “flipping” middle management, we could get Assad and his cronies looking over their shoulders and turning on each other, potentially forcing errors that would hasten their exit, capture or demise.  Make this about them, not the bureaucratic structure or people of Syria.  This could help ameliorate fears that all of Syria’s military and government is in our crosshairs and avoid the chaos that ensued after the “de-Baathification” of post-invasion Iraq, where we cut down too far into the existing government structure, disenfranchised  mid-level technocrats and military officers, and sowed the seeds of the insurgency.

However, Russia must be on board.  By agreeing to leave the Syrian government apparatus intact, perhaps Russia could be convinced to cooperate (or at least not interfere) with this plan.  Russia’s loyalty to Assad is largely based on national interest; if that interest could continue be served without him, logic dictates that they have no reason to continue to support him personally.  We may have to accept that we lose this round of geopolitical chess (Iran and Russia keep their proxy, Shi’ites remain in Saudi’s backfield) and focus on simply ending the bloodshed and reducing the strain on our allies neighboring Syria.  Having Russia and Iran lose a client state is a “nice to have” from a US national security perspective, but our window to actively bring that about may be closed.

There is no guarantee this would work, as the “middle management” is quite tied to the survival of the regime.  But it is a low-cost, low risk course of action that could have a high payoff.  It is certainly better than dropping some ordnance in the sandbox, crossing your fingers, and hoping that star-spangled awesome emerges.

Arm and aid the Kurds

Rather than waste time and resources trying to determine which of the fractious rebel factions currently fighting Assad are “jihadi lite,” why not anticipate the likely next struggle in Syria should Assad survive while we have the time to do so and Assad is busy with the imminent threat?  I’m not a fan of rebels who grow their beards long to grab aid from the Saudis and Qataris, then shave them to appear moderate and snag gear from the West.  I’m from New Jersey, I know when I’m being played.  This perverse situation where the US is aiding Sunni rebels in Syria against Assad, but is ready to strike associated rebels currently threatening Maliki in Iraq will likely result in every party in the conflict finding common bonds in their hatred of the US.

Further, this conjoined conflict is creating an opening for a regional shift, i.e., the emergence of an independent Kurdistan encompassing territory of present day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Iran.  With the government in Baghdad unable to assert its authority in the Kurdish north of that country (and now on the defensive given ISIS advance), with Assad unable to assert his authority in the northeast of Syria, and with Turkish Kurds leaving SE Turkey for Northern Iraq under a peace deal with the Turkish government last year, the conditions are ripe for Kurds to start exercising their right of self-determination.

The Kurds, currently solidifying their position in northern Iraq and hedging their bets in the conflict there, will have more leverage in negotiating with the Maliki government, should it survive.  Should it not, the Kurds need to be sufficiently capable to defend themselves (and US national interests) from ISIS.

They have largely been spared regional violence, have ample resource reserves, gradually improving ties with Turkey, and good cooperation with the US during the Iraq invasion and reconstruction.  Bottom line, if an independent Kurdistan did eventually emerge, which is looking increasingly likely, we could work with them and they could potentially be a valuable ally in the new Middle East.

Create buffer zone in southeastern Syria

Refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria are putting severe economic strain on its neighbors and if the status quo continues unabated, conflict could spread to Jordan and Lebanon.  Creating a safe zone within Syrian territory will help relieve the strain.  The zone should be far enough away from the bulk of the fighting and the care, feeding, and protection of the refugees should be undertaken by the Saudis, as they are the primary sponsors of the rebels and primary drivers behind the push to oust Assad.  If they wish to continue to support their current course of action, perhaps they should bear the costs of the second and third-order effects of what they are doing.  After all, the justification for the numerous arms sales to our regional partners includes the US desire for allies to share more of the burden of maintaining regional stability and security; now is their opportunity.

Shape the narrative

For any of this to work, the West must be able to frame the international discussion in terms of putting the fate of a future Syria in the hands of its own people, supporting the only group in Syria that isn’t an outright adversary, preserving what pockets of stability there are in Syria and Iraq, and lessening the burden on our neighboring allies.  Not very confident that this current crop in the West Wing is up to it, are you?

At the end of the day, one of two outcomes are evident in Syria; either Assad remains and simmering violence continues over the long term, or Assad leaves and Syria slowly begins to rebuild itself.   If Assad remains, it is unlikely that a peaceful solution to the conflict will be found anytime soon.  Assad and his inner circle remain the focus of rebel rage.  As long as he’s in charge, they will have common cause to continue fighting.

Since there are no “good guys” in this scenario, strategic thinking stands to reason that if both sides bleed slowly, they are less of a threat to Israel, and more distantly, us.  However, the continued regional instability resulting from this slow bleed is unsustainable and is directly responsible for ISIS gains in Iraq.

Conversely, an Assad departure should be able to convince some of the more moderate rebels to come to the negotiating table and work toward a political solution that ends the war.  In a Syria working toward peace, those that continue to fight would be more identifiable as extremists/terrorists and therefore prime candidates for an “attitude adjustment.”

In Iraq, it seems “Diamond” Joe Biden was right (I can’t believe I just typed that).  In 2009, he openly questioned the political boundaries of Iraq and whether they were tenable over the long term.  Understanding history, we see that these borders were deliberately created by the British and French Empires after WWI so as to keep the inhabitants of the region focused on local squabbles and thus, less prepared to deal with foreign exploitation.

We must also be cognizant of what can realistically be accomplished via US action.  We are attempting to insert ourselves into a religion-based conflict that has raged for over a thousand years.  It is asinine to think that “democracy in a box” can change hundreds of years of animosity and tribal conflict in 10 years.  Sometimes, folks just have to duke it out.

I do not have all the answers, but believe framing the question properly is essential to understanding the situation.  Should the US intervene again in the region (and accept all the second and third-order effects of intervention) to preserve this century-old vestige of British imperialism?  Or should it accept that the imposition of the traditional Westphalian state structure (google it) on this tribal-based society has been a failure, wait to see whether the region reverts back to its pre-WWI status, ensure our regional allies that have more or less accepted the Westphalian model are assisted and supported in the interim, and strategically shift our alliances to new regional actors?  Perhaps it is helpful to quote Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, who, in the wake of WWI, built his country into a modern, successful state.  He famously opined, “Look westward, and leave the lands of the former Ottoman empire to their backwardness and blood feuds.”