The President’s recent address from the Oval Office was clearly intended to reassure the nation. Whether anyone in fact felt reassured is highly questionable. As many observers noted, he offered nothing new to a strategy that has shown little sign of success thus far and gives little reason to believe that it will be more successful going forward. In fairness to the President, however, none of the current candidates for the presidency have offered a particularly persuasive path to a successful outcome for our struggle with ISIS and related elements of radical Islam.
The most detailed and comprehensive proposal for combating ISIS was provided by Hillary Clinton in a speech on November 14. Clinton’s proposal was similar to Obama’s existing policy, notably in prescribing a highly restricted role for American ground troops and hopeful reliance on the “65 country coalition.” It differed principally in a tone of greater urgency and a recognition, even before the San Bernardino shooting, that the past and present levels of effort were insufficient:
[T]ime is of the essence. ISIS is demonstrating new ambition, reach, and capabilities. We have to break the group’s momentum, and then its back. Our goal is not to deter or contain ISIS but to defeat and destroy ISIS.
One concrete difference between the Clinton and Obama policies was in Clinton’s call for the establishment of no-fly zones in Syria. Another was in Clinton’s determination to pressure Baghdad to arm Sunnis and Kurds and, if necessary, to arm them directly.
Several Republican candidates have also spoken in favor of no-fly zones and arming Sunni tribes. Some have also urged an expanded use of American ground troops but, with the exception of Senator Lindsey Graham, most have been vague about the number of such troops that might be required. The General Curtis Le May Award for bellicose bombast is a predictable tie between Donald Trump (“Bomb the shit out of them”) and Senator Ted Cruz ( “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”)
President Obama eschewed bombast for wishful thinking. He claimed that “we will continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground so that we take away their safe havens.” While the claim has some connection with reality with respect to Iraq, it is largely fantasy in the case of Syria. There are Iraqi troops and Iranian militia in Iraq although they have recovered relatively little territory from ISIS. It is possible to imagine that an intensified but limited effort in Iraq could produce success against ISIS, if the Kurds are better equipped and the Sunni tribes are not only equipped but effectively engaged. That, however, appears, to be a long shot given the Shia-centric nature of the Baghdad government and heavy influence of its Shia patron, Iran. Many Sunnis are unwilling to fight ISIS for fear that life under Shia domination would be no better and perhaps worse.
A test of Obama’s approach may be at hand as it is reported that Iraqi forces are preparing an attempt to take the key city of Ramadi. Whatever the result, however, the Ramadi initiative has already provided a stunning example of confusion and disarray within the administration. Secretary Carter testified on December 9 that the United States would, if asked, provide attack helicopters to aid the Iraqis in that effort, only to have the White House issue a statement a few hours later that the President was undecided on the use of attack helicopters against ISIS. One can only wonder at the effect of such uncertainty must have on our Iraqi allies.
In Syria the situation is even bleaker. That country, of course, was the site of the $500 million training program that produced “four or five” fighters. The fact is that, apart from the Syrian Army (supported by the Russian Air Force), and Kurds in the north, there are precious few Syrians fighting ISIS. Much of the effort by the Syrian Army is directed against the non-ISIS opposition and includes the horrific barrel-bombing of civilians. Correspondingly, the bulk of the energy of the splintered groups in the non-ISIS opposition is focused on attempting the removal of Assad. For our part, we have flown thousands of sorties but more often than not, planes have returned with bombs undropped because of strict rules of engagement. There is hardly anyone, including Obama and Clinton, who argues that ISIS in Syria can be defeated by the application of air power alone, but the essential ground forces must be derived from others in the oft-touted “65 country coalition.“ In reality, however, not a single member has shown any willingness to put “boots on the ground.”
Indeed, as The New York Times recently pointed out, the contributions of the coalition have been spotty at best. In a November 29 article, “A Coalition In Which Some Do More than Others,” the Times surveyed the participation of coalition members and found that participation was often more symbolic than substantive:
I don’t know why the White House has put as much emphasis on the coalition as it has, because it’s been fairly transparent for a long time that the overwhelming majority of those nations have sent in their $25 contributions and not done much more,” said Daniel Benjamin, Mr. Obama’s former State Department counterterrorism coordinator, now at Dartmouth College.
Put another way, Obama’s reference to thousands of ground forces fighting ISIS in Syria reminds one of the old line attributed variously to Groucho or Chico Marx, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”
For their part, Republicans have been more realistic in pointing out that no effective coalition now exists. Their assumption, however is that such a coalition could be assembled under American leadership if the United States were to contribute American troops in a number that would be significant, but a minority of the total force. For example, as Lindsey Graham and John McCain wrote in The Wall Street Journal concerning Raqqa, the Syrian city that serves ISIS as its capitol:
The reality is that no ground force exists today that is both willing and able to retake Raqqa. Nor will one emerge on its own. So the U.S. should lead an effort to assemble a multinational force, including up to 10,000 American troops, to clear and hold Raqqa and destroy ISIS in Syria.
We think it is patently clear that a multinational force of ground troops will not be created without substantial American participation. We have argued from the outset, and continue to believe, that Obama is mistaken in ruling out substantial participation of American ground forces. On the other hand, we acknowledge that it is by no means clear that such a force could be created even with a substantial component of American troops. Frequently nominated as possible elements of a ground force are are NATO, Saudia Arabia and the Gulf states but none of those putative “partners” have shown any sign of interest in such a role. In fact, although Saudi Arabia has the third largest military budget in the world, it has devoted its air power to principally combating Houthi rebels in Yemen backed by Iran. While Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and the U.A.E., were early participants in the air campaign against ISIS, they have not conducted a strike in months. Part of the problem is that Saudi Arabia has maintained from the outset that Assad has to be defeated first in order to defeat ISIS.
That points to the fundamental conundrum in fighting ISIS: how to do so in the context of the enduring and bitter conflict between Sunnis and Shias (now further complicated by the presence of the Russians.) This is a conundrum with which neither Obama, Clinton nor the several Republican candidates have seriously grappled, at least in public. Obama did make a glancing nod in that direction when he said:
Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process and timeline to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war.
Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies, but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL, a group that threatens us all.
There are, in fact, meetings planned for later this month to undertake negotiations along the lines indicated by the President. But few observers are optimistic that the negotiations will lead to a cease-fire, let alone a lasting agreement as to the shape of a post-Assad government, or the process by which one might be constructed. Much attention in the media on whether and how quickly Assad could be removed, but relatively little on what would follow his removal. However, the opposing interests in Syria go beyond the persona of Assad and may, at least in the short run, be irreconcilable.
The demographics and power structure of Syria are, roughly speaking, the mirror image of those of Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Under Saddam, a Sunni minority controlled the Shia majority and when Saddam was overthrown, the Sunnis of Iraq did not fare well. In Syria, Sunnis are a majority, ruled by an Alewite minority, a branch of Shia Islam. If truly democratic elections bring the Sunnis to power, the Alewites will be at risk, no matter what formal protections may be incorporated in a written constitution. Also at risk in Syria would be the influence of Shia Iran — which has viewed Syria as an important element in the Iranian quest to become a dominant regional power. Russia would lose not only influence but would have specific concern for the status of its long-standing and recently expanded naval base at Tartus on the Syrian coast. The base helps establish Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean and has been described as “essential” by Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the commander in chief of the Russian Navy. We have seen little analysis of how the interests of Iran and Russian might be accommodated in a post-Assad, Sunni dominated Syria. Yet without some degree of accommodation, a cease-fire and progress in the removal of Assad may be unlikely.
If a cease-fire and a process of transition were agreed upon, assembly of a multinational force, including Sunnis, might be possible, though far from a sure thing. Failing a cease fire, there will be increased pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to establish one or more no-fly zones in Syria. We believe that is tactic which deserves to be carefully explored, but as we have cautioned in the past, it is easier said than done and carries with it significant risks. On October 27, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter pointed out that maintaining such a zone would not only require the military to deal with Syria’s air defenses and to deny flight to warplanes and helicopters, but would also require ground forces. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, testified at the same hearing that, while it would be militarily feasible to establish a no-fly zone, “The challenges in setting up the no-fly zone are political and legal and would require diverting resources now being use to fight ISIL.”
The legal basis for setting up a no-fly zone is by no means clear but has been little discussed by those who advocate doing so. Unlike the no-fly zone we maintained in Iraq for several years before deposing Saddam, a no-fly zone in Syria, is not sanctioned by any outstanding United Nations resolution and the authority, if any, would have to be implied from various more general resolutions. So far as United States law is concerned, establishing a no-fly zone would involve military action against Syria, a step far removed from either the existing Authorization for Use of Military Force or the draft AUMF submitted by the President in February. Perhaps the action could be justified under the President’s authority as Commander in Chief under Article II of the Constitution, but that would be an uncomfortable rationale for Republicans who have so often been highly critical of the President’s assertions of executive authority.
Apart from the issue of legality, the most formidable obstacle to a no-fly zone in Syria is that it would present a risk of direct military conflict with Russia, and the consequences of such a conflict are difficult or impossible to forecast. Senator McCain, however, was dismissive of the risk. Responding to cautionary testimony from General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs on December 9, McCain voiced exasperation: “General, I must say, that’s one of the most embarrassing statements I’ve heard from a uniformed military officer. That we are worried about Syria’s and Russia’s reaction to saving the lives of thousands and thousands of Syrians who are being barrel-bombed and massacred. So far, 240,000 of them.” Although we understand McCain’s sentiments, and generally respect his views, we believe that in this instance the balance between risks and benefits must be far more carefully weighed than McCain apparently finds necessary.
The next Republican debate will be on Tuesday, December 15. ISIS will be a major topic for discussion and there will be much criticism of Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s records and proposals. In our view, much of the criticism will be deserved, but we hope that the candidates will get past sound bites to discuss the complexity of the issues with the care that they merit.