Since the launch of U.S.-led coalition strikes on the Islamic State (ISIS), U.S. President Barack Obama has made it clear that the U.S. will maintain a strict policy of “no boots on the ground.” Rather than committing U.S. troops to a ground war, the administration has said it would train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS in its stead.
But the strategy is rife with complications. Analysts say there needs to be a functioning ground component to taking on ISIS, at a time when rebel groups are struggling to unite and fight effectively. Over the weekend, the latest attempt at an umbrella group was announced; the Revolutionary Command Council, comprised of 72 rebel factions, was criticized for being heavily Islamist, with moderate rebels holding only a handful of the executive positions.
We spoke to Ambassador Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former adviser on Syria to U.S. President Barack Obama, about the perils of the current policy. He spoke to Syria Deeply about rebel groups, buffer zones and the ISIS strategy as it stands.
Syria Deeply: Let’s start with the U.S. effort to arm and train Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. In view of the more active U.S. role on the ground, what is right or wrong with how it’s being done?
Hof: The concept is not bad. What’s needed in Syria in the battle against ISIS is a ground component. You can’t chase these guys around with airplanes unless you want to devote many years to the task. If you look at the various candidates who can fulfill that role, you come down very quickly to the Syrian Nationalist Opposition to the Assad regime. For one thing, they have to fight ISIS and are being attacked by them, particularly in the Aleppo area. Calling on the regime to do it would be a useless undertaking. Assad has demonstrated an ability to work hand in glove with ISIS, and it is clear that he is part of the problem.
Syria Deeply: Is it too little, too late?
Hof: I don’t think we can make that assumption. We have to move as quickly as possible. It needs to move much more quickly. My sense is that its going to be a troubled undertaking unless there is some for of a protected zone inside Syria, where existing units can be called upon to jump start the recruiting process. If this is going to be done exclusively in places like Turkey, Jordan or various locations in the Gulf, it will fall short of producing the requisite numbers of trained personnel in an acceptable period of time.
Syria Deeply: You’ve watched the opposition suffer from a war of attrition. How strong and capable are they of carrying this weight of responsibility against ISIS?
Hof: It remains to be seen. They’ve been resource poor and suffered chronic leakages of personnel to jihadist elements who are swimming in money, ammunition and weapons. There can’t be a clear answer to that question until these individuals and units that the U.S. wants to use as a ground component against ISIS are properly resourced.
An ISIS-centric mission is potentially a fatal defect in this whole undertaking … if the U.S. and its partners are going to draw upon Syrians to do heavy lifting in terms of combat, Syrian objectives need to be kept in mind as well. While these units will have no problem at all in fighting ISIS if they are properly trained, equipped and beneficiaries of U.S. air cover, they are also going to have a strong interest in fighting the regime, which is barrel bombing, shelling, starving, artillery shelling them. [Those] priorities have to be taken into account. This can’t just be a mission formulated by foreigners for the benefit of foreigners.
Syria Deeply: What are the potential benefits and drawbacks of having that kind of zone, a buffer or no-fly zone?
Hof: There are very strong humanitarian justifications to be able to protect people inside Syria rather than see them race across borders as refugees. There is a strong political justification for it. In mid-October, when President Obama addressed foreign military chiefs at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, he [hit[ on the crux of the matter: there needs to be the growth of decent, legitimate governance in Syria, a governance that would ultimately be extended to all Syrians.
I don’t see how the president’s words can be implemented unless there is a starting point where Syrian political leaders can get out of exile, where dysfunction and pettiness reigns, and get them inside Syria where things really matter. You can’t do this, at least initially, without a zone that is protected by some combination of the U.S., Turkey, perhaps Jordan in the south and others. To tell the Syrian opposition to get out of Istanbul and to go into Syria is to invite a Levantine Bay of Pigs. Even though the Obama administration is reluctant to go there, it understands the logic, conceptually, of why this undertaking is important.
Syria Deeply: What is Turkey’s position? What role do you see it playing in the mix?
Hof: If you are going to talk about a protected zone, protection by definition consists of more than just protection against airstrikes. There has got to be a ground element. If the U.S. is going to take on the task of grounding the Syrian air force with respect to a protected zone, then the role of Turkey would be to provide a ground element to try to stabilize the situation and if necessary regime elements that are engaged in starvation sieges and the like, and push back ISIS elements who are pressing on the nationalist opposition.
If President Obama ultimately says yes to President Erdogan in terms of suppressing Syrian air attacks, will Erdogan say yes to committing Turkish ground forces to help defend a protected zone? I suspect we will see the answer to that question quite quickly.
Syria Deeply: Syria’s opposition is dominated by Islamist groups. How does that play out for Syria’s future? Will the U.S. end up supporting people it may not like in the future?
Hof: There is no guarantee that we will be able to support people who years down the road will be allies of the United States. That’s not what we are looking for here. We are looking for is decent, legitimate governance inside Syria. Syria will be charting an independent foreign policy course, no matter who is in charge in the future. It’s important, as we build capability militarily and politically, that we support people who understand and welcome Syria’s cultural diversity, and look for a political solution that is inclusive and consistent with rule of law.
It’s not necessarily bad that political groups inside Syria have an Islamist political agenda. Syria had a very respectable Islamist political component before the coming of the Baath [Party]. The U.S. has to make it clear that it supports a Syrian that is inclusive, has respect for others, and one that recognizes the supremacy of citizenship. Syria will need a lot of support in the future if it’s going to undergo reconstruction and reconciliation.
Syria Deeply: How would you explain U.S. policy to Syrians themselves?
Hof: As President Obama saw the Syrian conflict begin to expand, I think he looked at it as a place where there was a danger of the U.S. being drawn into a situation that somehow would be similar to Iraq, a slippery slope to invasion and occupation. The avoidance of that kind of scenario, probably more than anything else, explains U.S. policy in the past three and half years.
It’s not an easy argument to make to Syrians – many of them believe, particularly those who are against the Assad regime, that there is a secret handshake between Washington and Damascus. That is not true. The correct explanation is the similar one: President Obama is a person for whom the invasion and occupation of Iraq made a very formative foreign policy impression.
The consequences have been enormously negative. I’ve had very serious reservations about the president’s policy, but the explanation is the same.
But its undeniable that Syria today is the sum total of unattended consequences of a policy that has tried to hold it at arm’s length, tried to commit humanitarian resources, but in an attempt to stand back from the situation has unintentionally, inadvertently contributed to a crisis that is now out of control.