06 Oct 16. There is nothing pretty about the rubble left behind by the collapse of the U.S. strategy for Syria. One of the most horrifying civil wars in modern history has gotten worse. Russia, Iran, and Assad have all gained at the expense of the United States and its allies, and no credible scenario has promised an early end to the civil war, to the steady build up of factional sectarian and ethnic tensions, or to the long-term threat posed by Islamic extremism and terrorism.
One cannot doubt that the Obama Administration and Secretary Kerry have had good intentions—intentions that might have worked had the other actors shared the same goals as the United States. The problem is that it was never clear that any of the other actors in the conflict—other than our European allies and key UN diplomats like Staffan De Mistura—did share those intentions. The end result is that those good intentions have helped pave the road to hell. The Obama Administration now faces the choice between lame duck and highly uncertain escalation to new levels of forces, and the situation seems likely to get substantially worse between now and when a new Administration will be able to act.
A Plague From Both Their White Houses
Looking back, there are several lessons the United States needs to learn. One is the need to integrate the military and civil dimensions of war. The second is that the use of force is not a matter of force size, but whether the chosen use of force can be decisive enough to both defeat the enemy and create some form of viable outcome.
The Bush Administration made massive use of force without setting clear goals for the civil dimensions of war and the post conflict situation in Iraq—just as it had done earlier in Afghanistan. It repeated a critical grand strategic mistake the United States had made in Vietnam—failing to shape the civil dimension in ways that could bring security and stability to a weak state and structure of governance, and failing to support the military dimension with the kind of “nation building” that could give tactical victory lasting meaning.
The Obama Administration chose to minimize the use of force, and still constantly repeats the theme that there was no military solution to Iraq and Syria. In fairness, it originally did so because American politics were not prepared to support the costs and casualties of another major deployment of U.S. ground forces, and it was far from clear whether such an intervention would have had local support in a deeply divided and partly hostile Iraq or Syria.
At the same time, the Obama Administration failed to address the fact that there could be no civil solution in either Syria or Iraq without a military solution. It chose to use the absolute minimum of force until an event forced it to slowly escalate. It took close to half a decade to build up an effective train and assist mission and a strategic partnership in Iraq. Its failure to intervene decisively early on in Syria ensured that there was no clear military or nation building option in Syria, and helped ensure that its deeply divided rebel factions became steadily more extreme.
If the Bush Administration was guilty of using excessive force, without a workable civil dimension, the Obama Administration was guilty of using indecisive forces without any meaningful civil effort at all. Both failed to address the reality they were supporting the equivalent of failed states, and that only an effective civil and military operation could produce some kind of lasting victory—if one was really possible at all. Both Administrations also to some extent made the same mistake of assuming that the other actors inside Iraq and Syria shared a common desire for stability and security.
Houses Divided Against Themselves
If Bush pursued the neocon dream that the overthrow of Saddam and the end of history would lead to democracy and common values in Iraq, Obama seems to have had much the same dream about the impact of the “Arab Spring in Syria.” He seems to have hoped a moderate opposition that had no real experience with politics, governance, or development could bring order and progress to Syria.
The key lesson of the British and U.S. civil wars, French and Russian revolutions, most of Europe in 1848, and the collapse of most post colonial attempts at democracy were ignored or forgotten. Weak and inexperienced moderates without guns lose to extremists and those with guns or authoritarian reaction.
The Bush dream of uniting Iraq with Shiite exiles and de-Baathification ignored the realities of Sunni and Shi’ite tensions, the Kurds, Iran’s presence and strategic goals, and the different objectives of the Arab states—including all of America’s allies. It ignored the self-seeking and factional goals of the leaders involved, and never developed workable integrated civil-military plans and efforts. Its surge achieved good tactical results largely because al Qaeda’s treatment of Sunnis was even worse than the central government’s. At the same time, the Bush Administration lacked the will and leverage to create a functional state, and it confused aid with trying to make Iraq a mirror image.
The Obama Administration tried to stand aside from both Iraq and Syria as the situation steadily deteriorated in both countries, and only took serious action when ISIS (ISIL/Daesh) became a massive threat in late 2014. It then chose an “Iraq first” strategy that only now is getting the military resources that were once needed, and it has never found a credible way to bridge the deep divisions between Arab Shi’ite, Arab Sunni, and Kurd; between the factions and extremist within each group; and between their divided and often corrupt leaders.
The Obama Administration has never offered any public explanation of its goals for Iraq; of what happens if ISIS is defeated; of how Iraq can be secure if Syria is not; or for what role it expects Iran to play when it no longer needs U.S. airpower and arms to flow into Iraq.
There are no good analogies to describe the resulting mess, but the focus on ISIS to the near exclusion of other actors seems to be a bit like focusing on a termite problem in a house inhabited by the Hatfields and McCoys, at least four other hostile clans, and all their enemies. There is some hope that Iraqis have suffered so much already that they will not turn to actual fighting, but Iraq is also bankrupt, and “burnout” has always been a very uncertain road to conflict resolution.
As for Syria, the Administration has never honestly faced the steadily growing mess that now exists at either the security or civil levels. It has relied on the myth of effective Syrian moderate forces, and competent moderate political figures with actual followings. It has not addressed the reality that the vast majority of effective Arab rebel fighters against Assad are Islamist extremists with ties to al Qaeda. It has been equally unwilling to admit that Syria’s Kurds are effective fighters, but are divided and anything but moderate nationalists. It never addresses the fact that it is fighting ISIS in Eastern Syria, but most of Syria’s population is in the West where Assad is now gaining.
The Administration has never begun to explain how any ceasefire could lead to a workable government, deal with the anger and hatred growing out of the war, cope with nearly 5 million refugees and more than 7 million internally dispersed persons, and an economy only 20-25% of the size it was when the civil war began. Iraq is merely deeply divided and bankrupt, Syria is a desperate mess whose population has no clear hope for recovery, and suffers more by the week. It also has never publically addressed the fact that the defeat of ISIS in the East may end in dispersing many of its foreign fighters as terrorists while its Arab fighters join the Islamist extremist Arab rebels.
Enter the Outside Actors
Worse, a divided Iraq and Syria are now only part of the problem. Both a lame duck Obama Administration and the new Administration face a massive strategic shift since ISIS became a major factor in Iraq and Syria. The United States no longer dominates the military and civil scene.
Iran has steadily expanded its influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Turkey has actively intervened in Syria, is at war with its own Kurds, and has chosen sides in the Kurdish factional fighting in Iraq. The other Arab states have increasingly become pro-Sunni rather than “Arab,” but have failed to establish any serious power base or influence in Iraq, and seem more limited to arming Syrian Arab rebels rather than exercising any great influence over them.
Just as defeating ISIS in key urban areas like Mosul and Raqqa may end in creating new mixtures of Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, the internal ethnic and sectarian alignments in Iraq and Syria are likely to see even more Turkish and Iranian involvement the moment the “Caliphate” is gone.
Here, one key issue that United States will have to address is that the U.S. and its European allies may see ISIS as the primary threat or strategic focus of the fighting, but none of the regional states see ISIS as the primary threat. ISIS has been contained for over a year to the point where the key question for every local state and faction is what serves its interests relative to competing states and factions, and how this interacts with the broader struggle for the future of Islam that now increasingly is Sunni vs. Shiite and Alawite, and moderate/traditionalist vs. extremist.
It is not fair to blame the Bush or the Obama Administration for the lack of good options. As the UN’s Arab Development Reports—and the analyses of UNDP, IMF and World Bank—pointed out a decade or more before the Arab spring, the MENA region was headed for a major crisis because of misgovernment, corruption, and failed development and economic policies.
Every event since the uprising of 2011 has made this situation worse, and Turkish, Iranian, and outside Arab influence adds one more set of problems to the problems of Syria and Iraq at a time that tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia keep rising. The end result is a steady decline in U.S. leverage that has scarcely been help by JASTA and rising U.S. tensions, and a U.S. and European political climate that makes power projection and aid even more difficult.
Exit the Stage Chased by a Bear?
The final variable is Russia. There are good reasons why Shakespeare’s The Winters Tale is rarely performed. Like Iraq and Syria it is something of an ungovernable mess, and its most famous for a single stage direction—“exit the stage chased by a bear.”
The practical question for both the twilight months of the Obama Administration, and the dawn of the next Administration, is exactly how much pressure Russia will put on the United States vs. the pressure the United States will put on Russia. In blunt terms, there are only three options: The Bear chases the United States off the stage, the United States chases the Bear, or the United States and the Bear end up in an ongoing confrontation.
There is no way to really know how much hope and trust Secretary Kerry ever put in Sergei Lavrov. As long as the White House refused any form of more decisive military action, Kerry had to play the only hand he was dealt. Still, it has never been clear why the Obama Administration or anyone else thought that Russia would play by U.S. rules or share the same goals and values.
Russia never had all that much reason to care about ISIS in Syria and Iraq as long as the United States was committed to containing or defeating it. It is equally unclear why Putin felt a naval facility in Syria was all that critical or could not be retained after Assad’s fall. It was even less clear why Putin would think the stability of the MENA region was better than leaving it an unstable challenge to the United States and Europe. Russia is effectively a petro economy that has everything to gain from any uncertainty in oil and gas exports in the Gulf that raise prices and the demand for Russian exports.
No outcome in Syria was going to ease relations in Putin’s major areas of concern: Russia’s prestige and influence, and its control over the Ukraine and the “near abroad.” Moreover, this was never a game where Russia faced a “quagmire” unless it grossly overcommitted to a limited objective.
Russia never showed much humanitarian restraint in Chechnya or the Ukraine, and had no great reason to see any part of the Arab rebels as potential allies. Putin did not have to engage in anything like starting a “new Cold War,” when it could make major gains for Russia in 19th Century geopolitical terms at minimal risk and cost. Moreover, Russia effectively “won” enough to justify its intervention at its very start in September 2015—simply by showing it could intervene in the Middle East without any U.S. reaction.
Russia became an instant major player in the MENA region, and it never had to up the ante if Assad still lost, particularly if it retains its naval base in some ceasefire or conflict resolution deal. The military costs have been limited and well worth spending simply to test Russian military systems and gain operational experience.
This confronts the United States and the new Administration with three realities. First, Russia is a now broad strategic rival and is likely to remain so at least as long as Putin is in power. Second, the United States can’t rebalance to Asia away from Europe or the Middle East. And third, short of being chased off the stage, the United States will have to play out a weak hand in Syria to limit and contain Russian influence.
U.S. options simply are not that good. Arming the Arab rebels with effective air defenses is an option, but a dangerous one that could easily see these systems turned against Western targets. Using countervailing power by arming the Ukraine is another option, but one where Russia can up the ante in the Eastern Ukraine, pressure Poland and the Baltic states, or provide more advanced arms to Iran.
If there is a quagmire, it really isn’t Russia that faces the greatest problems. Russia really doesn’t need a favorable outcome in Syria or a stable Middle East. The result may well be a legacy where the next President inherits the combined legacies of both Iraq and Syria, and the new Great Game moves Central and South Asia to the Middle East. The unfortunate fact is that the Bear doesn’t have to chase the United States off the stage.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS.
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