US strategy for Syria more hopeful than realistic
The Obama administration, at least for now, has adopted a two-pronged approach to the Syrian crisis: 1) a slightly ramped up military campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) that involves assisting Syrian Kurds and some Arab tribes in eastern Syria to take the city of Raqqa, with the advising support of 50 US Special Forces; and 2) a diplomatic approach in Vienna with a broad array of countries that aims to achieve a ceasefire between the regime and non-jihadist rebel groups and, eventually, a political solution.
Both of these approaches have merit but the negatives outweigh the positives.
On the military side, the United States has abandoned its expensive military training programme of carefully vetted anti-ISIS rebel forces, with the death or capture of the small number of them who were infiltrated back to Syria. It has instead settled on a policy of working directly with Syrian Kurds and some Arab tribes in eastern Syria who have proven to be effective fighters against ISIS.
An unnamed White House official told the Washington Post: “We learned that some of our local partners did well and others didn’t. So we are doubling down on those who did well.”
US President Barack Obama’s decision to send 50 members of the US Special Forces into Syria to help these Kurdish and Arab forces reflects a perception in the White House that the combination of ramped up US air strikes and the willingness of these forces to take the fight to ISIS might succeed in kicking the group out of Raqqa, the capital of the so-called Islamic State, and break the logistical connection between ISIS forces in eastern Syria and western Iraq.
The problem is that there is growing distrust between Kurds and Arabs in Syria, with the latter believing the former wants to carve out territory in northern and eastern Syria for a state of their own. This perception among ethnic Arabs of eastern Syria might hinder the effort to take Raqqa because many of the inhabitants in that area, who are chafing under ISIS rule, might not see the Kurds as their saviours even if some Arab tribes join them in this effort.
In addition, Syrian rebel groups outside of eastern Syria are generally opposed to a Kurdish autonomous region in Syria. Hence, even if ISIS is driven out of Syria, a new conflict might emerge between these rebels and the Kurds. Some Syrian rebels have charged that the Kurds are acting at the behest of the Assad regime.
Moreover, Turkey is not likely to countenance a Kurdish autonomous zone in eastern and northern Syria, because it sees the Syrian Kurds as linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — “PKK terrorists” in the parlance of Ankara — of south-eastern Turkey. It is possible that the Erdogan government, fresh off its electoral victory, might mount an offensive in northern and eastern Syria against the Syrian Kurdish militias.
On the diplomatic side, the late October meeting in Vienna that brought together foreign ministers from 16 countries, plus representatives from the European Union and the United Nations, revealed agreement on some issues but sharp differences on others.
The diplomats agreed on the need for a ceasefire between the Assad government and non-jihadist rebel groups and issued a statement declaring their support for an independent and secular Syria where the rights of religious and ethnic minorities will be protected.
But on the tricky issue of whether Syrian President Bashar Assad should stay or go, there was no agreement. Russia and Iran are clearly not in favour of abandoning Assad, while others want him to leave “the sooner the better”, in the words of the Saudi foreign minister.
The US position remains that Assad should go but US Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated flexibility on this issue because, as a practical matter, the Assad government needs to be part of a ceasefire as well as a transition period leading to a new government.
There are many problems with this diplomatic strategy. First, it is not clear whether the Assad government or the rebels will agree to a ceasefire. It will take heavy persuasion by both Russia and Iran to compel Assad to do so, and neither of these countries is showing any inclination in that direction. Second, the rebels might not support a ceasefire if it leaves Assad in place, even temporarily. And third, there appears to be no agreement on what a political solution would look like.
Despite these problems, the United States is likely to press on with the Vienna process because it believes that only a political solution between the regime and the non-jihadist rebels will end the violence. But that depends on the goodwill of many political actors that is absent right now.