Is it time to reassess our policy (assuming we have one) in Syria?

It has become painfully obvious that the United States’ policy toward Syria – and the entire Middle East for that matter – is not working. The Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), still controls vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, despite over a year of an American-led air campaign.

The Syrian civil war which has claimed over 250,000 lives still rages on multiple fronts with no end in sight. The much-touted American program to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight ISIS has produced less than 10 fighters currently in the fight – most of the initial cadre were killed, captured or defected to Islamist groups in Syria. Millions of dollars were wasted in what can only be described as incompetent execution of a flawed plan.

While I want to focus on Syria in this article, I should mention that the situation in Iraq is not much better. The Iraqi Army, despite over a year of renewed American and European forces‘ training efforts, is virtually useless. No matter the rhetoric emanating from the Iraqis in Baghdad, the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, or the political mouthpieces in Washington, the Iraqi military is incapable of mounting effective operations, even with the Iranian-trained and led Shi’a militias. I recall the claims last year that the Iraqi Army was about to mount a campaign to regain control of Mosul – they can’t even retake the city of al-Ramadi, a mere 65 miles west of Baghdad.

Then again, how would we know what is actually happening? No one trusts the statements from either the State or Defense departments. Why should they? As I wrote last month, “someone is cooking the intelligence to make it fit into the narrative dictated by the White House and the political leadership at the Pentagon.” (See the entire article, Is your government lying to you about the war against ISIS?

It has been an American policy objective that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad must either step down or be removed from power – that has been the policy since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Yet, in 2012, when the secular rebel group known as the Free Syria Army (FSA) requested assistance from the United States and our European allies, we offered only token amounts of non-lethal aid. It was a combination of this short-sighted position in Syria and the premature withdrawal from Iraq in late 2011 that led to the genesis and rapid expansion of ISIS. By 2014, the situation was ripe for ISIS to move from Syria and seize control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

It was not until 2014 that the Obama Administration recognized the serious threat posed by the group now calling itself “The Islamic State” – deployment of U.S. military trainers to Iraq began, soon followed by commencement of airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. In President Barack Obama’s own words: “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy.” Sounds good, but….

To say that the US-led coalition air campaign has been anemic would be kind. The overly restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and the fear of causing any collateral damage has hamstrung what passes for the air operation. Sorties rates are dismally low, and pilots often return to base without employing any of their weapons, again citing the ROE and a convoluted target approval process that takes hours instead of seconds or minutes. For some insight into these self-imposed limitations, see my article from March of this year, Why is American airpower not stopping ISIS?.

Because of the lack of American political commitment to the air campaign against ISIS, the Islamist group has made significant gains in Syria, losing basically only one battle, that being for the Kurdish city of Kobani, which was saved only through an uncharacteristic display of American airpower. Combined with successful ground operations by several of the Syrian rebel groups, especially a coalition of Islamist groups, the Syrian army has been pushed out of much of the northern part of the country and has come under attack in the south and in the suburbs of Damascus.

The situation is beginning to look much like mid-2012 when the al-Asad regime appeared to be on the verge of defeat. It was only intervention then by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hizballah that the Syrian military was able to regroup and stave off defeat.

Now that the al-Asad regime is again on the ropes, a new savior appears – none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why the Russians? It was not our failure to effectively take on ISIS as Putin may want the world to believe, but the specter of the collapse of the Syrian regime that convinced him to take action. The fall of Bashar al-Asad may threaten what Putin believes is a vital Russian national interest – continued Russian access to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

Since the mid-1970’s, the United States has effectively pushed the Russians out of the region – with the exception of Syria. The Russians have maintained a small presence at a joint Russian-Syrian naval facility in the port city of Tartus and for a time a presence at a desert air base in central Syria. When the decision was made to move combat aircraft to Syria, I expected the Russians to again use the air base at Tiyas. However, recent ISIS gains have put that area at risk.

In the last few weeks, dozens of Russian transport flights have landed at Humaymim air base, located just south of the port city of Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. This area is also the home of the ‘Alawis, the sect of which Bashar al-Asad is a member. For more on the Russians in Syria, see Russian intervention in Syria – what is the endgame?

As of today, there are over two squadrons of Russian Air Force fighter, fighter-bomber and attack aircraft at the air base, as well as helicopter gunships. An anonymous American official confirmed the presence of 12 Sukhoi SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) fighter-bombers and 12 Sukhoi SU-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) attack aircraft – see image.

Here is a short but good quality video of a Russian Ilyushin IL-78 (NATO: MIDAS) aerial refueling aircraft with four SU-24 fighter-bombers deploying to Humaymim air base a few miles south of Latakia. For my readers who do not speak Arabic, the speaker in the video explains that these are Russian aircraft heading west over the north rural area of Homs governorate – that puts them on a course for the air base at Humaymim.

Now that the Russians have deployed a small, but fairly potent expeditionary force to Syria, one has to ask, what are President Putin’s intentions? Is he going to use his aircraft against ISIS in conjunction with the Syrian Air Force and the U.S.-led coalition? Is he also going to order his pilots to attack those rebel forces (some of which are supported by the United States) attempting to remove Bashar al-Asad from power? Or both? I believe he will publicly do the former and covertly do the latter.

Keeping Bashar in power meets Putin’s goal of assuring continued Russian access to the area, while degrading ISIS serves his interest in combating Islamist fighters, many of which have come to Syria from Russia, most notably from Chechnya. Killing them now in Syria is preferable to fighting them later in Russia.

How does the current situation affect American policy? Perhaps it is time to recognize the reality that removing Bashar al-Asad from power – a good idea in 2011, 2012 and 2013 when we could have and should have supported it – may not be feasible now. Too much has changed since that policy goal was articulated, but it has been the rise and expansion of ISIS that has emerged as the major threat to American interests – ISIS far eclipses the threat posed by the al-Asad regime. Syria might be considered a regional threat because of its close ties to Iran and Hizballah – Syria is the conduit for Iran to continue to fund, train and equip the Lebanese Shi’a militia – but ISIS is now a far greater threat to the United States.

There is a common enemy for all parties involved – it is a strange match up indeed. The United States, Europe (including Turkey), Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf Arabs, the Kurds and Hizballah are all fighting ISIS in Syria and/or Iraq. Now we have the deployment of Russian combat forces into Syria. While the elimination of ISIS is a desirable outcome, the presence of so many different military forces operating high-performance aircraft armed with sophisticated weapons in close proximity to each other without close coordination creates the potential for unintended confrontation. Confrontations between jet fighter aircraft tend to be quick and lethal, over in seconds.

The informal coordination (or more correctly, notification) channels that now exist are inadequate. Of course, the Pentagon claims that we do not coordinate coalition air operations with the Syrian Air Force (and now the Russians). While technically true, we do coordinate with the Iraqi armed forces – is anyone naive enough to believe that the Iraqis are not communicating with the Syrians while taking on a common enemy? It would be irresponsible to send American pilots into Syrian skies without some notification to the Syrians to not interfere.

With the presence of Russian fighters, fighter bombers and attack aircraft in Syria ostensibly to fight ISIS, now might be the time for a more formal coordination/notification protocol. Since it is likely impossible politically to coordinate with the Syrian Air Force – they drop crude barrel bombs on their own civilian populations – we should establish a coordination mechanism with the Russian expeditionary force in Syria. The Russians can work with the Syrians. If it is not true coordination of air operations against ISIS, at least we should be able to deconflict the operations of the various parties. We do not need an armed confrontation between an American pilot and a Syrian or Russian pilot at 600 miles per hour 20,000 feet over northern Syria.

On the ground, we should also reassess how we are going to take on ISIS in Syria. Obviously, the 10 U.S.-trained rebels are not going to make a difference. Despite any assurances or deals we have made with the Turks in return for access to their air bases just north of Syria, we need to better support the Kurds, they are the only effective fighting force now engaging ISIS on the ground.

This is a ready-made solution requiring a bit of spine, something seemingly in short supply in Washington. Provide better weapons and materiel to the Kurds in Syria. With U.S.-led coalition and Russian airpower supporting the Kurds on the ground, this could take the fight to ISIS effectively.

Let’s destroy (not defeat, but utterly destroy) ISIS, then we can worry about the dictator in Damascus. Eliminate the threats one at a time – ISIS first, Bashar second. It has a chance to succeed, whereas our current policy is an abject failure.

Author: Rick Francona. CNN Military Analyst / Middle East Analyst
Source: Middle East perspectives by Rick Francona

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