Obama’s Legacy in Syria and Strategic Options for President Trump

To suggest U.S. President Donald Trump has inherited a mess in Syria would be a massive understatement. Indeed, the conflict has been coined the “geopolitical Chernobyl” by General David Petraeus and “the worst civil war of the 21st century” by Michael E. O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seeks to restore a monopoly of force over pre-civil war borders; al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) hope to carve out territory for their global caliphates; and Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for the title of regional hegemon. Of course, that is to say nothing of Russia, Israel, Turkey, the Kurds, and a host of other actors—all of whom aggressively pursue strategies to achieve divergent goals.

President Trump has thus far failed to promulgate a clear strategy for Syria. Though widely praised, the decision on April 6 to launch nearly 60 cruise missiles at an airbase in response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons is insufficient. President Trump must meet with his National Security Council staff and be relentless in asking complex, uncomfortable questions of his top civilian and military advisors. What are our core security interests? How do we come up with a “solution” to the problem that will be politically attainable, publicly palatable, and militarily feasible? Which countries and non-state actors stand in the way of achieving those goals? And finally: Can it be done within a four- to eight-year timeframe?

President Trump should focus on three overarching objectives. First, the United States should prioritize more forcefully containing and degrading ISIS, this time by supplying Kurdish forces with weapons to push the insurgency out of its “capital,” Raqqa. Second, adjusting the already laudable U.S.-led humanitarian aid process in allied Middle Eastern states to focus more on integrating Syrian refugees into society, rather than just supplying them with food and shelter, would be helpful in stabilizing Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. European states that have refused to take in refugees should be urged to open up their borders. Finally, the Trump administration should shy away from explicitly advocating regime change for the Assad regime, and instead call for negotiations and use purported U.S. influence over opposition forces as a bargaining chip to secure a favorable outcome, whether or not the talks are realistic or feasible.

President Trump has a genuine opportunity to shape Syria and the greater Middle East in such a way that will responsibly restore U.S. leadership to the region, reaffirm commitments to destabilized allies, and prevent adversaries from consolidating geopolitical gains. Doing so, however, will require a willingness to learn from former President Obama’s biggest blunders. It is therefore worthwhile to describe in some detail the challenges the former president faced in order to understand his reasons for failing to act as assertively as he could have in Syria.

Obama: Leading from Behind?

While struggling desperately to fulfill his campaign promises and wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama made a bold declaration in his first publicly articulated National Security Strategy (NSS) in May 2010: “The United States of America will continue to underwrite global security—through our commitment to allies, partners, and institutions [and] our focus on defeating al-Qa’ida and its affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and around the globe.” Just eight months later during the Arab Spring, civil unrest spread through North Africa and the Middle East, testing the administration’s resolve. The ensuing violence ousted reigning presidents in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as Libya following an operationally decisive (but politically disastrous) NATO-led campaign that forcibly removed the Gaddafi regime and ushered in a civil war.

The civil war that materialized in Syria, however, proved to be more intractable and the one most deserving of U.S. attention. But rather than sufficiently engage and “underwrite security,” as enshrined in Obama’s NSS, the administration balked, time and again, at crafting and implementing a coherent strategy for the region. The consequences have been far-reaching and profound. As of mid-March, roughly five million Syrian refugees have fled the country. Upwards of 500,000 people have been killed. More than 13.5 million require humanitarian assistance. The refugee crisis continues to disrupt the economies and general security of allied nations such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Moreover, the overflow of Syrian refugees to an increasingly inward-looking Europe has cultivated an “ideology of fear,” which has led to the rise of nationalism and continental disunity.

“How do we come up with a ‘solution’ to the problem that will be politically attainable, publicly palatable, and militarily feasible?”

In 2013, two years after the war began, President Obama failed to live up to his “red line” promise and act in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, delivering a colossal blow to U.S. credibility. Both liberals and conservatives excoriated the administration’s dismal handling of the situation. Testifying in Congress in early June of that year, the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka maintained that the failure to do anything signaled to the world that the United States was a “paper tiger.” Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, called the handling of the crisis “a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation.”

Worse still, Russia then exploited Obama’s dithering by taking the lead in orchestrating a multilateral agreement intent on ridding Syria of its chemical weapons stockpiles and binding the Assad regime to the Chemical Weapons Convention. Though it is now clear that the stockpiles were in fact not completely removed, the initiative shown by President Putin made Obama critics nervous that U.S. adversaries would be emboldened and assert themselves more forcefully in Syria and beyond.

In hindsight, it appears the critics were right to worry: both state and non-state antagonists, including Russia, Iran, al-Qa’ida, and ISIS have all capitalized on a lack of U.S. leadership and credibility. In March 2014, Russia unilaterally invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, calculating that the West would not do that much to retaliate, save for applying limited sanctions, which have arguably backfired since Putin has been able to blame the resulting economic hardships on the West, increasing regime support through a rally-around-the-flag effect. Then, in 2015, Russia further escalated its involvement in Syria by sending troops to fight on behalf of the Assad regime—marking Moscow’s first military engagement outside the former Soviet Union since the end of the Cold War.

Unsurprisingly, the most enduring regional adversary of the United States and its allies, Iran, has also been deeply involved in the Syrian crisis. For Iran, “the stakes in Syria border on existential,” mainly because a stable, pro-Iranian Assad regime allows Iran to maintain a relatively unfettered area through which to supply Hezbollah—labeled a terrorist organization by the United States—with arms, military training, and financial aid, among other means of support. An empowered Hezbollah, whose military forces intermittently clash with Israel’s, is beneficial to Iran because its presence in Jordan keeps Israel, and by extension the United States, continuously insecure and on edge. What’s more, Iran has sent at least 7,000 of its own forces to fight on behalf of the Assad regime, and leads a pro-Syrian militia of over 20,000 men, signaling to the world how seriously committed it is to shaping the conflict’s outcome.

Non-state actors have played an equally, if not more worrisome, role in destabilizing Syria and trying to sustain and consolidate geopolitical gains in response to the Obama administration’s unwillingness to act more forcefully. Al-Qa’ida remains influential in Syria’s northwestern provinces. ISIS controls wide swaths of territory in the east. In fact, aside from the government’s control in the western regions, and the Kurdish-controlled north along the Turkish border, al-Qa’ida and ISIS dominate much of the rest of the territory.

ISIS became a core regional concern for U.S. allies and adversaries alike in 2014 after making shocking territorial gains in western Iraq and eastern Syria. It remains one of the wealthiest insurgent groups worldwide, accruing an estimated $3 million daily from oil and gas exports alone. It also generates revenue from kidnappings and extortion, toll taxes, and bank seizures. In total, ISIS has upwards of $2.4 billion in its coffers. It has become increasingly clear that ISIS is sophisticated, and has been doing a competent job at not only controlling said areas in Iraq and Syria, but effectively governing as a state would. In his recently released book, ISIS: A History, author Fawaz A. Gerges maintains that

ISIS has set up a rudimentary functioning bureaucracy, administration, and institutions; it improved security and law and order—though harsh—and provided jobs in decimated economies. Residents report that ISIS delivers important services, such as bakeries, policing, a swift, shariah-based justice system, identity cards and birth certificates, consumer protection, garbage collection, day-care centers, and clean and well-run hospitals, and it has procured teachers to work in its schools, even though the quality of these services is neither stellar nor free.

It was evident almost from the beginning of the war that these key actors were much more vested in the outcome of the crisis, and that the United States was not going to take the initiative or lead with any amount of meaningful force toward clear-cut political objectives. That said, it would be unfair to state that the Obama administration did nothing or completely lacked a strategy. In short, while there were U.S. actions implemented in Syria, they were inadequate and often counterproductive in stabilizing the situation.

As the civil war unfolded, President Obama was glued to the belief that a diplomatic solution to the problem might be possible. He frequently and aggressively reached out to the United Nations, the Arab League, and other multilateral coalitions to negotiate a settlement that might stanch the bloodshed before the issue spiraled out of control. U.S. declarations for Assad to step down, and for Russia to immediately cease its support for the tyrannical regime, fell on deaf ears because there was no reason to believe the Obama administration would follow through with a show of force. In truth, President Obama fully expected Assad to be toppled just as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was in early 2011, according to U.S. intelligence sources operating in the area. But year after year, Assad maintained power, rendering Obama’s words hollow.

“In hindsight, it appears the critics were right to worry: both state and non-state antagonists, including Russia, Iran, al-Qa’ida, and ISIS have all capitalized on a lack of U.S. leadership and credibility.”

To his credit, President Obama ensured that U.S. aid—water, food, shelter, and medical supplies—was available to non-combatants within and outside Syria who were adversely affected by the violence. Between 2012 and 2016, the United States administered just over $5 billion in aid, $2.6 billion of which has gone to those within Syria itself. The rest has been distributed to regional allies such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. While arguably morally responsible, the distribution of aid has done little to fix the underlying structural disasters the war has engendered. It will likely not help the United States thwart Russian or Iranian influence, or supplant the popular support that extremist groups like ISIS or al-Qa’ida currently enjoy. Aid should be distributed in conjunction with a more comprehensive, long-term political strategy. To date, that has not happened.

The only U.S.-led effort established under the Obama administration that appears to be making any headway toward stated core interests has been the targeted airstrikes on ISIS in coordination with allies from Europe and the Middle East. Daily airstrikes throughout ISIS-controlled pockets of Syria and Iraq have helped liberate “virtually all of Anbar province and half of Mosul” in Iraq, and anti-ISIS forces have started encircling Raqqa, the group’s main stronghold and alleged capital in Syria.

President Trump has inherited unequivocal momentum in achieving Obama’s goal of “degrading” the insurgency through these airstrikes. But this, too, must be linked with an overarching strategy. Obama critics such as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton maintain that to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS does not go far enough. Instead, Trump “can be more economical in his language: His goal should be to ‘destroy’ ISIS, without qualifiers.” Of course, that would probably require U.S. boots on the ground, and President Trump would have to consider how much U.S. blood and treasure he is willing to invest—and more importantly, how much the U.S. public is willing to endure—to sustain what might be another irresponsible jump down the rabbit hole toward perpetual war in the Middle East.

As it happens, it was the risk of getting the United States entangled in another seemingly everlasting war in the Middle East that most frightened President Obama, resulting in his reluctance to engage more assertively in Syria. Obama supporters have claimed he made the right decision by acting cautiously, suggesting there is a “silver lining” in knowing that almost no U.S. soldiers have died “in service of a set of amorphous, unachievable objectives.” Detractors would contend that by not placing boots on the ground or directly arming the Syrian opposition, President Obama simply kicked the proverbial can down the road. When, not if, inevitable U.S. military intervention in Syria comes, they say, it will just be costlier.

The U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya weighed heavily on Obama as he began to outline potential policy toward Syria. If he had not had such dismal results in those locations, he would have been more likely to take a riskier approach. According to Obama himself, decades of war without noticeable results for the resources invested changed his calculus:

A president does not make decisions in a vacuum. He does not have a blank slate. Any president who was thoughtful, I believe, would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our military—any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.

Notably, President Obama was elected, in part, on a platform that vehemently opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Indeed, “opposing the Iraq War had been central to Obama’s rise,” and he happily hastened the drawdown of forces set in motion by his predecessor that ended in 2011. Unfortunately, three years later the ascent of ISIS required President Obama to refocus military efforts there.

In Afghanistan, President Obama felt increasingly boxed in by his military advisors, mostly Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, who he believes placed undue pressure on him to commit an additional 40,000 troops to wage a counterinsurgency campaign that was by no means certain to succeed within an acceptable timeframe. Fear that the war might become “over-Americanized” also became a primary concern. U.S. forces remain there today.

Finally, during the multilateral, NATO-led war against Gaddafi in Libya, Obama got his wish for more international support, but the subsequent civil war that ensued practically paved the way for ISIS to spread its influence there. Thus, fearing similar counterproductive and equally wasteful uses of force that might further foment anti-American sentiment, Obama ultimately decided that substantial engagement in Syria simply was not worth the expected costs—not to mention the unexpected ones.

“The U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya weighed heavily on Obama as he began to outline potential policy toward Syria.”

Trump’s Way Forward: Embrace Clausewitz

President Trump and his foreign policy gurus would do well to take the time to fully grasp why President Obama pursued the policies he did in Syria, and where the U.S. stands now as a result. Unlike his predecessor, who campaigned on military disengagement, President Trump had no qualms about pledging more military force against ISIS, vowing at a rally in Iowa to “bomb the shit out of them.” Should he decide to pursue an escalated U.S. military presence as part of his administration’s new Syria policy, he could probably get away with it, at least for now. A Pew Research survey revealed that nearly 60 percent of Americans approved of missile strikes against Assad’s airfield after his use of chemical weapons, but 61 percent said that the U.S. president does not have a clear plan for dealing with Syria.

President Trump should adopt a strategy that prioritizes (1) restoring U.S. credibility to the region by containing and degrading ISIS through arming the Kurds; (2) stabilizing regional allies through a more comprehensive and enduring approach to humanitarian aid; and (3) calling for negotiations to end the violence and use what influence the United States has over the moderate opposition forces as a bargaining chip to secure a more favorable outcome.

Addressing ISIS should take precedence because its defeat remains a core interest to U.S. allies and adversaries alike, including Assad, Russia, and Iran. The momentum against the insurgency through airstrikes has been successful in large part because of the reliable Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have proven to be “disciplined, competent, and—unlike many Syrian Arab rebels—free of confusing Islamist sympathies and apparently impervious to Islamic State infiltration.” The YPG’s support on the ground has been indispensable in driving back ISIS, and so arming them with light weapons might be just the support needed to liberate Raqqa—or at least grind down and contain ISIS’ grip on the city and surrounding region.

Indeed, placating Turkey would then have to be a priority, since it has a longstanding hatred toward the Kurds, an offshoot of which—the PKK—is considered a terrorist organization, even by the United States. Though Kurdish, the YPG is not the PKK. To make further gains against ISIS, a solution “has to involve providing arms to the Kurds, whether Turkey loves the idea or not.” One potentially workable answer could be to reach out to create a temporary and limited “safe zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border. U.S. and NATO forces could be deployed to deter attacks and de-escalate violence while closely working with the YPG to focus on the operation to relieve Raqqa of ISIS influence.

Though not perfect, the plan has myriad advantages for the United States. First, it restores U.S. credibility by pledging ground forces to the region, even though they are there primarily to de-escalate tensions between the Turks and YPG and not to directly engage ISIS. It allows the United States to work face-to-face with YPG fighters to closely monitor how they would use the supplied weapons in the Raqqa assault, which, were it to be successful, would likely boost Trump’s domestic support. The presence of U.S. forces could also plausibly put pressure on Russia to encourage Assad to negotiate a peace agreement mutually beneficial to all sides.

The second portion of Trump’s strategy should be focused on improving an already laudable humanitarian aid process. Providing assistance in the form of food, water, shelter, and medical supplies labeled “made in the USA” to the millions of refugees who have flooded into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as those who remain displaced within Syria, is an effective use of soft power. However, as already mentioned, it fails to address structural problems destabilizing these countries.

Syrians make up over 25 percent of Lebanon’s population, for instance, and have placed enormous pressures on the state economy. In Jordan, the “quality of education and health care has suffered, rents have risen, wages have fallen, and unemployment has grown.” The United States must work closely with each allied government and international aid organizations to assist refugees with societal integration—e.g., by providing them with jobs so they can earn a livable salary to support their families and give back to their new communities, since a return to Syria is probably not in the cards anytime soon. Refugees who are discriminated against or unemployed, especially younger males, are more prone to radicalization. The last thing the United States needs to contend with is an impending state collapse of Lebanon or Jordan.

The United States should also pressure European countries that have failed to fulfill their legal obligations to refugees to help more. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, adhering to a so-called policy of “effective solidarity,” for example, have essentially closed their borders, leaving other countries such as Malta, Italy, and Germany to take in an overwhelming number of refugees. The latter group should remind the former that they are in violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the Common European Asylum System, which they became legally bound to when they joined the Union in 2004.

“Promoting regime change in any way besides through a multilateral negotiated settlement is at this point completely untenable.”

European economic powerhouses like Germany could use financial leverage to compel other European countries not doing their fair share to open up their borders. Similarly, the United States might be able to get creative, by perhaps suggesting that a pledge of support in the form of larger troop contributions to the proposed NATO-led safe zone on the Turkish-Syrian border would suffice. Admittedly, this might be hard for the United States, especially since President Trump ran his campaign on an explicitly nationalist, anti-immigrant platform. However, it is certainly worth trying, since getting more European countries to accept refugees and increasing support for refugee integration efforts within Syria’s besieged neighbors remains a Western security priority.

Finally, no Syria strategy would be complete without considering future U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran. While the U.S. is making gains in degrading ISIS in the east, the same cannot be said for the west, where the Syrian regime “is on the front foot [and] has successfully neutralized nearly all the remaining pockets of rebel control within the key western corridor running from the Syrian coast down through Homs to the capital Damascus.” Whereas the United States has the best chance of shaping the conflict in the eastern theater—where ISIS has predominantly been focused on fighting the Kurds—government forces intermixed with those of Russia, Iran, and al-Qa’ida in the west present an entirely different story altogether.

Promoting regime change in any way besides through a multilateral negotiated settlement is at this point completely untenable. Arming the moderate opposition forces, unlike arming the Kurdish YPG, would be dangerous and counterproductive because they are splintered among themselves; some have ties to terrorist organizations. To arm them would risk weapons falling into the wrong hands, which could be used against U.S. or allied forces later on. Harvard University’s Stephen Walt is correct in criticizing former President Obama for jumping the gun, so to speak, in declaring “Assad must go” without having any leverage or credibility behind the words. President Trump can learn from this mistake and stick with seeking to deter Assad from using any more chemical weapons.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the collapse of the Assad regime could present a much more dangerous situation for the United States than the status quo, were explicitly anti-Western extremist groups like al-Qa’ida or ISIS to take control. Russia and Iran would be scrambling to fill the void with puppet regimes. Though many think Russia has major influence over Assad, for instance, news coverage following Assad’s most recent chemical weapons attack seemed to challenge that prevailing narrative. Iran, for its part, is probably the state that benefits most from the preservation of the Assad regime.

The most prudent way forward, then, will be to publicly shame Assad for his atrocious war crimes, Russia for its support of such a despicable ruler, and Iran for continuing to be a state sponsor of terrorism. Calling for the regime’s overthrow, however, should be avoided. Rather, the best alternative would be for the United States to initiate multilateral talks toward a settlement, whether or not they are feasible or realistic. If talks do materialize, the United States can use its purported support of opposition forces as a bargaining chip for a more favorable outcome. Should that not work, there’s always the option of continuing extensive intelligence operations and ensuring that neither Russia nor Iran gain too much leverage over the country.

There is no clear solution to the Syria question. No strategy will be perfect, but if President Trump learns from former President Obama’s experience, he has an opportunity to restore U.S. credibility to the region, provide more practical forms of aid to European and Middle Eastern allies accepting refugees, and frustrate encroaching influence from regional adversaries Russia and Iran. Trump would be wise to heed military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s wise words before jumping down the Syrian rabbit hole: “No one starts a war—or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so—without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.”

ImageU.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter visits Turkish Defense leaders on February 4, 2013 in Ankara.


Luke A. Drabyn is Managing Editor of Nations & States and a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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