An open letter to US President Barack Obama
Dear Mr President:
US Secretary of State John Kerry has failed to reach agreement with Russia on coordinating attacks on extremists in Syria or even to reinstate a cessation of hostilities and ensure humanitarian access to Aleppo.
The war in Syria has killed half a million people, displaced more than half the population, threatened the stability of US allies throughout the Middle East and has resulted in damaging repercussions for America’s European allies. Your remaining months in office provide an opportunity to steer this costly conflict towards a peaceful settlement. If you do no more than you have done so far, your efforts to reduce and reshape US commitments in the Middle East will be discredited and your legacy haunted.
Your policy has been a judicious one, focused on the most serious threats to US national security: The Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. You have avoided military clashes with the pro-Assad coalition, including the Russian Air Force, Syrian armed forces and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. You have provided military assistance to non-extremists prepared to fight ISIS and billions in humanitarian assistance to civilians.
The results over the past year have been good when measured narrowly against your objective: ISIS is losing territory, especially along the northern border with Turkey. The successful operation with Turkish support took Jarabulus, blocked an unwarranted advance there by the Kurds and cut off ISIS’s vital supply and revenue lines. An attack on ISIS’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, next year is a real possibility. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria has severed loyalty to al-Qaeda central, though its goals remain anathema to US interests. We are talking with the Russians about jointly targeting what is now called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.
Your judicious approach, however, has had unintended consequences. Fully backed by Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad is gaining ground and attacks on Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — should the talks with Moscow eventually prove successful — will give him an opportunity to gain more.
Nearly 1 million civilians are besieged and few new refugees are escaping. Talks on a 48- hour humanitarian truce for Aleppo have bogged down. The stalwart rebels of Daraya have surrendered after a four-year siege. Syrian forces are again using chemical weapons and along with their allies are killing the non-extremist opposition that your administration supports, driving others to make common cause with extremists. Hopes for a political transition to a non- Islamist, democratic regime that will preserve Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are fading.
The United States should not abandon the goal of a negotiated political solution in Syria that meets US requirements. Here are three things you can do in your remaining months in office that will demonstrate American will and reignite diplomatic efforts in favour of such a solution:
— Support legislation in Congress that imposes sanctions on those responsible for harm to civilians.
The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2016 would levy financial, trade, travel and arms sanctions on those who are responsible for or facilitate human rights abuses. While its practical impact might be limited because few of the perpetrators are likely to come within US jurisdiction, it would send an important signal and could cause Syrian security forces to hesitate before carrying out illegal orders to harm civilians. The European Union should join the United States in imposing sanctions;
— Ground the Syrian Air Force, both fixed-wing and helicopters.
Kerry is trying to get the Russians to do this as the quid pro quo for cooperation with the United States in attacking Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in Syria. If he fails, you should tell the Russians and Syrians that any Syrian aircraft responsible for bombing civilians will be subject to attack by the United States. Few Syrian pilots will be prepared to take that risk. If they do, shooting down just one or two such aircraft or striking them on land would likely ground the entire fleet;
— Get Hezbollah out of Syria.
Lebanese Hezbollah has provided vital ground forces to Assad, especially around Aleppo and along the Lebanese border. This Shia militia also contributes to ISIS and al-Qaeda recruitment of Sunnis as its activities exacerbate the sectarian dimension of the Syrian conflict. Hezbollah is a terrorist organisation that has killed Americans. If the United States is fighting terrorism in Syria, Hezbollah should not be immune. We should tell the Russians and Iranians that if Hezbollah remains in Syria it will be subject to US attacks, just as ISIS and al-Qaeda are.
These options are less burdensome than imposing a no-fly zone and would signal unequivocally US determination to protect Syrian civilians wherever they live.
These moves also would improve the odds for a diplomatic solution. Once Assad is deprived of the air and ground assets that have enabled him to survive and even given him an edge in the fighting, the conditions will ripen for a negotiated outcome early in Hillary Clinton’s presidency. That would be a worthy legacy.