THE BLOG
11/18/2014 11:12 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

Obama's Regime Change Strategy in Syria Will Only Strengthen ISIL

Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Barack Obama is looking to one-up George W. Bush in the toppling of dictators' category as he redoubles efforts to overthrow the Syrian government. Unfortunately, Obama's obsession to effect regime change in Damascus will likely only bolster the journalist-beheading Islamic State, which happens to be a sworn enemy of Assad the Apostate.

This isn't to recommend the sacred "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" credo, a hallmark of American proxy-war strategy employed across the non-Caucasian world, especially in places such as Central America, Central Asia and the Middle East. However, at a minimum, one would think the U.S. would try to avoid weakening the side that is fighting the primary enemy, assuming all agree that primary enemy is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, otherwise known as ISIL.

But, according to Secretary of State John Kerry's convoluted logic, ISIL and Assad have a "symbiotic" relationship, so both must be defeated. Defeating the extremes and bolstering the moderates has worked in the past, supposedly in places like Central America, where Kerry claims "right wing militaries and left wing guerrillas each exploited the extremism of the other and the cycle was broken only when the United States joined with regional allies and political moderates to build up the center."

CATO's Doug Bandow adeptly captures the irrationality of such an approach, saying that the administration wants to focus on "overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the name of fighting the Islamic State." The brain trust in Washington now wants to, foolishly, according to Bandow, "shift their focus to wrecking the most competent military force opposing ISIL: the Syrian army."

Obama's shift in strategy might be driven less by Kerry's new right-left-middle calculus and more by the Sunni-Shia regional rivalry. According to Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the recent strategic turnabout is due to pressure from the Sunni Gulf states and Turkey, who want Assad removed.

The current U.S. scheme rests on the misguided belief that a "moderate" militant faction exists on the ground in Syria in such numbers that, if adequately trained and equipped, could topple Assad.

The crux of the dilemma is that the so-called "moderate" component accounts for no more than two percent of anti-Assad forces, Syrian expert Joshua Landis told CNN's Fareed Zakaria on November 9.

Identifying and vetting moderates to train and equip in a sea of over 1,000 militia groups is another challenge. Mind you, the "vetting" process, according to Pentagon spokesperson Rear Admiral John Kirby, has yet to even begin.

One former CIA vetting expert recently admitted that the U.S. was way out of its league in trying to accomplish this mission, because the current system is "no match for the linguistic, cultural, tribal and political complexities of the Middle East, especially now in Syria."

Plus, this strategy isn't exactly new. Journalist Reese Erlich, in his book Inside Syria, points out that from the very beginning of Syria's civil war the Obama administration and the CIA have been trying, but have failed, to cobble together a credible pro-U.S. force capable of legitimately challenging Assad's army.

Then, assuming the U.S. can assemble a properly-vetted force, in order to "turn those two percent into winners," according to Landis, the Western-backed rebels would have to first defeat ISIL, Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front and the Khorasan group before taking on the Assad regime. Although now it seems Obama is reversing that order.

Landis' frank assessment of the odds of successfully pursuing the initial strategy still seems to apply to the inverse: "It's not going to happen."

Let us not forget that Russia and Iran, who are hardly going to sit around and allow Syria to fall into the hands of Sunni extremists, will only increase financial and military aid to Assad in response to efforts by the U.S. and its allies to unseat him.

Besides, ousting Assad might be the worst idea imaginable when weighing probable ramifications. The collapse of the central government would leave Syria more fractured, chaotic and harder to piece together than post-Saddam Iraq. And the power vacuum left by the secular Assad regime would likely be exploited by the Islamists to extend their caliphate.

The choice comes down to supporting a futile uphill battle pitting a few thousand supposed moderate fighters against overwhelming odds or allowing Assad's 100,000-man army and 300 jets to take on ISIL. The only requirement being for the U.S. to get out of the way.

As an alternative to a military solution, Landis recommends partitioning the country along current battle lines that have been more or less static for the past two years. Leave Assad in place in the south while formalizing the de facto Sunni state in the north.

However, partitioning could also exacerbate the situation. We should avoid trying to "fix" and retrace the divide-and-rule lines drawn by colonial powers nearly a century ago, which, to be sure, was a catastrophic and unnatural realignment that remains a prime source of the current crisis. Yet enforcing partitions could serve as another convenient pretext for external actors to put boots on the ground.

What seems sorely lacking is any type of indigenous solution -- what that looks like and how that would shake out is anyone's guess at this point -- but it seems apparent the solution isn't more foreign meddling, be it through arming, bombing, regime-changing or remapping.