The US, between hysteria and a few good ideas
The aftermath of the Paris attacks and the subsequent security threat in Belgium have ignited heated debates in the United States that range from anti-refugee hysteria to more sober ideas about resolving the war in Syria.
Nowhere was the xenophobic frenzy more deafening than with Republican candidate and retired brain surgeon Ben Carson, who made an insulting analogy between Syrian refugees and “rabid dogs running around your neighbourhood”.
Carson’s Republican rival Donald Trump offered an equally shocking perspective. He suggested that Muslims in America should be made to wear identifying insignia in a way that would not be too different from when the Nazis made Jews wear the Star of David.
Campaign trail hyperbole aside, Washington-based regional analysts continued to do what they do best: offer ideas even when no one is listening.
Perhaps one of the bolder suggestions was put forth by former CIA military analyst Kenneth Pollack, who earned distinction within the intelligence community for his work on Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf War. He is calling for creating a new Syrian army with a relatively limited capacity, one that can withstand the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Assad regime.
“I’m not looking to build a Syrian opposition army that’s equivalent to the American army, but it simply has to be good enough to beat ISIS with air cover from the US,” he said on the sidelines of a conference hosted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. “The Syrian Army is dreadful. ISIS has a vicious reputation but it’s mediocre at best. So, build a serious army.”
The process would have to unfold outside of Syria, Pollack explained. Syrian recruits can be trained in Jordan or Turkey before they are sent back to their country to fight in coordination with US air power. Pollack said that the US effort to do a variation of this in recent years has been a failure because the approach was wrong.
“Our training was ridiculous because we forced them to sign that they will only fight ISIS. I’m stunned we even found 50,” he said.
Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution called for a variation on another “failed” policy of the Obama administration: containment.
“We found one of the biggest problems [with containment] is that the violence spills over into other states with the spread of terrorist groups and creation of new ones and instability and war that gets more massive. We’ve already seen it in Syria and now the renewal of civil war in Iraq, and we need to prevent it from spreading to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and on and on. Saudi’s intervention in Yemen I think is an extension of that,” Byman said.
The solution? Focus on containing refugees, who number in the millions and reside in neighbouring countries and many of whom are unlikely to return to Syria anytime soon, he said.
“We’re having a generation of refugees raised not at home and not integrated where they are. They’re young people, ripe for recruitment by radical groups. To contain the violence, start with refugees, not just feeding and clothing, but policing, moving them away from borders, integrating them into host society, significant humanitarian effort with security ramifications,” Byman said.
His suggestions highlight a big disconnect between the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Neither Jordan nor Lebanon has expressed interest in “integrating” Syrian refugees into their local societies, which are overstretched in the face of unemployment, inflation and security concerns.
But even more dramatic is the disconnect between the United States and the more powerful regional players such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a member, and Turkey, which has a direct hand in the war in Syria, but very different priorities from the United States. The latter wants to focus solely on defeating ISIS, while Turkey wants to unseat Assad and rein in Kurdish rebels. Saudi Arabia, mired in a war in Yemen with no end in sight, prioritises rolling back Iran’s influence in the region above anything else, even ISIS.
“It’s a regional conflict and needs a regional solution and that means that whatever else we do, we need to convene a regional security dialogue, not driven by outside actors, but by the interests of those in the region, addressing sectarian identity and the role of Islam, to end this war and squeeze ISIS,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
There is no shortage of ideas among Washington’s experts but with a little more than a year left before US President Barack Obama leaves office, most seem resigned to seeing no change in policy before then.
“This administration’s approach is self-defeating and the easy solutions we lost years ago,” said Pollack.