August 12, 2015
Syria has been at the heart of much of the lingering turmoil of the Arab Spring. Fighting there has spilled over into Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Upwards of 250,000 people – probably more like 300,000 – have died. ISIS drew its first breaths as currently constituted in Syria. None of this need have happened; demonstrations that broke out against the brutal Assad regime in 2011 were peaceful. It was the government that fired the first shots. Despite calling for Assad to step down, President Obama did little to advance this policy, and training for moderate Syrian rebels has been pathetically slow. Al Qaeda, ISIS and others have flowed into the vacuum. On the other side, there are Syrian troops, Hezbollah forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Though the president has insisted repeatedly that there is no military solution to the Syria conflict, the center of US policy is military strikes against ISIS.
1. Does the United States have an interest in the outcome in Syria? There are many on both the left and right who argue that the Syrian conflict is part and parcel of age-old disputes, and that the right approach is to ensure no one group prevails in order to threaten the homeland, but otherwise they stand aside. Set aside the immorality of the most powerful nation standing aside as women, children and men are raped, enslaved, brutalized and murdered in the hundreds of thousands. The reality is that the United States has a compelling interest in the long-term stability of a country at the center of the maelstrom encompassing the region. Refugee flows are threatening US allies like Jordan. Hezbollah, an illegal army and terrorist group that has killed many Americans, is growing in expertise and strength; the US invested immense blood and treasure in Iraq. The right way to think about Syria is the way we thought about Afghanistan in the 1990s: yes, the conflict is between those who are bad and those who are worse. But if ignored, terrorists who will threaten American lives and American allies will have a stronghold without parallel.
2. So what should Washington do in Syria? Consensus is building around the intensification of strikes against ISIS. Turkey, content to sit on the sidelines for four years, is now in the fray. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, galvanized to action by American apathy, are also taking sides. And of course, Iran is holding up the tottering Assad regime. In each case, and even NATO ally Turkey, regional powers are picking sides inconsonant with American security or values. Many have rallied behind al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The right answer is two-fold, and is not solely focused on ISIS or even ISIS and al Qaeda — both recommendations aimed at the appearance of action without a view to long-term outcomes. First, the United States must convene the states in the region with an interest to gather behind a single group of opposition fighters that do not include extremists of either Sunni or Shia stripe. Training, arming and aiding these forces must be a priority. Second, the United States and Europe must together begin considering the “what next” after Assad. Sure, this is not a US forte, but there needs to be real recognition of the fact that civil society and local councils are in fact filling the vacuum of local governance. Can they be tied back into the Turkish based Syrian opposition? Can they be gathered into an interim government? None of that is clear, but killing the enemy isn’t enough in Syria.
Read the full article at the American Enterprise Institute: 5 questions every presidential candidate should answer on Syria