Frederic C. Hof
Part one of this
discussed why it is not easy to arrive at a coherent national security objective for Syria.
The Trump administration inherited a policy catastrophe from its predecessor: The carcass of a state
set upon by a ruling family whose homicidal excesses were protected by Iran (with which the Obama
administration desperately wished to have a nuclear agreement); and Daesh (ISIS), which was given
sufficient time to sink roots in Syria and mount ferocious terror attacks in Turkey and Western
Europe. Having been dealt this worst of all possible hands, what could the new administration
realistically hope to achieve in Syria?
This writer had found substantial
agreement among some Obama administration officials that civilian protection was the portal through
which rational policy planning could proceed; that if civilians were on the bull’s-eye of the Assad
regime and other terror organizations, nothing good could happen politically in Syria. With
constituents being vaporized, terrorized, traumatized and stampeded, there could be no negotiation,
compromise, agreement, or reconciliation.
As dauntingly complex as Syria’s
failed state situation has become, the starting point for anything good happening is the end to the
war on civilians: A war in which the Assad regime has far outstripped Daesh and other sectarian
primitives in terms of thoroughness and body count.
It was, therefore,
vitally important for the Trump administration to respond the way it did to the Assad regime’s
chemical assault on the citizens of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, 2017. It is essential that the regime
and Russia not obtain from the administration any assurance or impression that the cruise missile
retaliatory attack of April 6-7 was a one-time gesture never to be repeated. Indeed, it would be
ideal if Russia and the regime were to understand that, henceforth, any mass civilian casualty
operation would potentially provoke a strong American military response. Chemicals, after all,
account for under 1 percent of the civilian fatalities caused by Assad regime
Stopping the deliberate, state terrorizing of civilians is the
portal through which policy must pass if there is to be a civilized political outcome in
Yes, depriving Assad and his entourage of their preferred pathway to
political survival will ultimately undermine a criminal regime and facilitate transition to
something better. But “ultimately” is not 20 minutes from now. Russia and Iran have focused
successfully on saving someone whose value to them has far outweighed the recruiting he has done for
Daesh, Al-Qaeda, and others. For Russia, Assad personifies the state allegedly rescued from an
American regime change plot. For Iran, Assad’s willingness to subordinate Syria to Hezbollah is
A realistic national security objective for Syria must,
therefore, acknowledge that Bashar Assad will remain as president of what is left of the Syrian Arab
Republic for the foreseeable future. Moscow claims to see no alternative to
Russians tell American counterparts they fear that “instability”
might occur if the author of Syria’s destruction, the catalyst for the rise of Daesh, the cause of a
refugee crisis in the neighborhood, and the prime contributor to a migrant crisis that swept through
Western Europe in 2015, were to disappear.
They suggest that once
“terrorism” is defeated Assad can be judged by the Syrian electorate in a free and fair election.
They seek to package their client as an agent of stability and legitimacy, taking his fatal
weaknesses and portraying them as desirable strengths.
seeks to sustain Assad indefinitely, even in the unlikely event of a free and fair Syrian election
happening in the next decade. Assad alone, among Syrian political figures, is willing to kowtow to
Iran’s Supreme Leader and to Tehran’s man in Lebanon: Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah of
Hezbollah. Unless Tehran’s foreign policy undergoes substantial change, Assad is literally
irreplaceable for Iran.
Given, therefore, the determination of Moscow and
Tehran to sustain a regime that facilitates Iran’s sectarian-fueled hegemonic drive into the Arab
world while inspiring violent sectarian responses from other Islamist extremists, what is it that
might survive the laugh test in terms of an American national security objective for
Surely adherence to the goal of political transition must be
preserved, along with the canonical, internationally endorsed formula for political transition
enshrined in the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communique. Assad is, after all, the antithesis of
He serves Iran and promotes extremist reactions to
his own misrule and to the presence in Syria of Iranian-led foreign militias replacing his ruined
army. Through the promiscuous application of state terror, he has demonstrated to his regional
neighbors and to all of Europe that there is nothing about the Syrian catastrophe that is in any way
As long as he draws breath politically he will be a threat to
the peace and a challenge to American national security interests in the region and far beyond. The
West accepts him as a long-term influential actor in what is left of Syria at its
But Iran and Russia have secured him, and Washington has prioritized
the neutralization of a major symptom of Assad misrule: Daesh. The Tampa-based United States Central
Command – presumably speaking for the government – said it would pose no objection to Iranian-led
foreign Shiite militiamen and Assad regime forces helping themselves to the chunks of eastern Syria
provided they fight Daesh.
Although ending the territorial aspect of the
“caliphate” in Syria is important and long overdue, doing so will neither destroy Daesh nor implant
in Syria the decisive antidote to the country serving as a host for extremists and terrorists:
political legitimacy. Indeed, welcoming Iran and the regime to replace Daesh in eastern Syria – a
policy based on Obama-era legal restrictions and a military mission narrowly contrived in terms of
providing support to a Kurdish-dominated militia fighting Daesh – is the definition of self-defeat
in all of Syria.
Clearly the United States does not contemplate going to
war to oust the Assad regime or physically block Iran from securing strategic depth for Hezbollah in
Syria. Still, there are near-term and long-term national security objectives for Syria worth
considering, such as:
An end to all armed conflict in the
Humanitarian aid to all in need.
and the internally displaced returned to their homes.
from human rights abusers.
Terrorist organizations (Daesh, Al-Qaeda,
Hezbollah, etc.) gone.
All foreign military forces except those
internationally mandated gone.
Territorial integrity with empowered local
Full independence with no outside power exercising
Transition from rule by family to legitimate governance rooted
in consent of the governed.
Full economic and political
Accountability for war crimes and crimes against
Achieving some or all of the foregoing will require a heavy and
sustained diplomatic lift, one endowed with real leverage. The appetite for such a lift in official
Washington seems to be very much under control. Still, how to achieve these objectives and with whom
as partners requires further discussion and examination.
Suffice it to say
now that to double-down on Obama administration policies is inadmissible. Civilian protection is the
price of admission to a future Syria in which terrorism and mass homicide have no place. Civilian
protection is the gateway to political transition. Civilian protection enables the United States to
regain a reputation gratuitously sacrificed at a great and needless
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle
East. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at:
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily
Star on August 04, 2017, on page 7.