It's the Wrong Time to Talk to Iran and Russia on Syria

The fight against ISIS is not going well. In Iraq, the Obama Administration's declared main theater of the battle, an anti-ISIS military offensive has stalled amid allegations of politicized intelligence.
09/30/2015 04:28 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

The fight against ISIS is not going well. In Iraq, the Obama Administration's declared main theater of the battle, an anti-ISIS military offensive has stalled amid allegations of politicized intelligence. Next door in Syria, Congress was recently shocked to learn that only 4 or 5 U.S.-trained fighters are now battling ISIS despite a $500 million program. Last week, the Syrian commander of that program resigned, citing the program's lack of seriousness. It was also revealed last week that President Obama's anti-ISIS "war czar," General John Allen, will soon resign due to dissatisfaction with White House policies.

Meanwhile, Russia has been expanding its regional influence in a dramatic and dangerous way over the past month, especially in Assad regime strongholds in Syria. Russia has already sent 1,700 troops to Syria and reportedly plans to send 2,000 more in the near future. The Russian Army has taken over administration of the main airport in Syria and is now building new jetways in a second airport to expand its aerial presence. While Russia claims to be fighting ISIS, U.S. defense officials have observed Russian planes flying mainly over western Syria, where the mainstream Syrian rebels are strongest.

Because most Syrian rebels also fight ISIS, a Royal United Services Institute report concluded last week that Russian intervention for Assad -- and against the Syrian rebels -- could very well end up helping ISIS. An added concern is that Russia has set up advanced anti-aircraft missiles in Syria. These missiles can not be meant for ISIS, which has no air force, however, they could complicate U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS in the future. And to top it all off, Russia seems to be replicating its mischief in Iraq, as they have set up a separate "anti-ISIS" coordination cell with Assad and Iran in Baghdad.

It is in this context that Philip Gordon, President Obama's former Middle East chief, penned an op-ed on Friday entitled "It's time to Rethink Syria." Briefly, the op-ed argues that the goal of "displacing the Assad regime has proven unachievable," so the U.S. should instead work toward a "U.S.-led contact group" on Syria that includes the Gulf States, Turkey, Iran and Russia. However, a U.S.-led contact group for countries backing Syria's opposition has existed since 2012. Therefore, Gordon's main proposal is in fact that the U.S. begin working with Assad's backers, Iran and Russia.

I have been a supporter of the Syrian opposition since day one, but I find Gordon's proposal strangely refreshing. Obama Administration "support" for the Syrian opposition has always been more of a rhetorical strategy than a policy. When over 3,000 Iranian proxies first flooded into Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry provided no support to stop the assault and even strong-armed the Syrian rebels into attending peace talks. When Assad regime barrel bombs began raining down on Syrian cities, The U.S. again dragged the rebels into talks while blocking weapons transfers to stop the onslaught. U.N. Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who convened those later talks, has since blamed the regime for their failure.

Don't get me wrong; I think a negotiated political solution is ultimately the best option for Syria. But it can not come about as Gordon suggests, with the U.S. cutting support to the rebels, Russia and Iran ramping up support for Assad, and the U.S. increasing coordination with Russia and Iran even as they escalate the conflict. The Syrian opposition has already been more open to concessions than the regime; U.N. Envoy Brahimi praised them in 2014 for having put forward serious ideas for a transition. Why should they continue to do so if their only reward has been a drop in U.S. support?

Meanwhile, Gordon's proposal rewards the pro-regime side for being intransigent. Why would Russia, Iran and Assad make real compromises when they can just escalate militarily and still have the U.S. drift toward their side? When the U.S. expresses concerns over Russian actions in Syria one week, then suggests military-to-military cooperation with Russia in Syria the next week, why would Russia treat seriously U.S. concerns over Assad, the Iranian arms embargo, Ukraine, or any other issue?

In one part of his op-ed, Gordon seems to provide an answer: Russia and Iran would compromise because "we would no longer be asking for...an outright victory for their enemies but for steps that would help achieve our core interest -- ending the war -- while preserving theirs -- avoiding an extremist takeover and maintaining some influence in the country." No doubt, Russia and Iran would appreciate decreased U.S. support for the rebels. However, Russian and American interests in Syria might not overlap as much as Gordon believes.

There are plenty of "political solutions" in Syria that would positively delight Russia and Iran, but would place Syrian civilians at continued risk, aggravate the refugee crisis, exacerbate radicalization, and vitally endanger American national security interests. For instance, let's say that Syria was subject to a de facto partition -- or, using Gordon's more polite terms, a "radical decentralization" by way of "local and regional ceasefires." This would, in broad terms, amount to freezing the conflict as is.

The main potential advantage to Syrians in such a plan is, as Gordon highlights, "the cessation of regime air attacks." This is certainly significant, since regime-dropped barrel bombs are the number one killers of civilians in Syria. But it is not enough, because airstrikes are not the only killers. At the moment, 600,000 Syrian civilians are under siege by the Assad regime, they have at times been reduced to eating stray dogs or weeds to survive due to food shortages. An additional 200,000 Syrians are detained in Assad's prisons, in which 11,000 Syrians have already been confirmed tortured to death.

Even if all the bombs stop in a de facto partition arrangement, the agony of those 800,000 Syrians could very well continue. Most of the 600,000 civilians under siege live in opposition areas near to major regime-held population centers. For a regime-held rump state to have contiguity or territorial integrity, Assad needs these opposition areas to disappear. This means that the regime's starvation sieges and its brutal air assaults on civilians will continue.

Similarly, most of the 200,000 Syrians in Assad's prisons are not hardened terrorists -- many of those terrorists were released from prison in the early days of pro-democracy protests -- but nonviolent civilians jailed for political reasons. Since large anti-regime protests have occurred in the heart of the Syrian capital Damascus, we can deduce that the regime is not popular even in many parts of its own capital. To maintain stability in a rump state, the Assad regime will need to keep its civilian opponents locked up in jail, and arrest any new opponents that emerge.

Therefore, if a de facto partition were to occur, chances are that Assad forces would continue to bombard, starve, arrest, and torture to death thousands of innocent civilians. Since 800,000 civilians would remain in mortal danger from the regime, it is quite possible that Assad forces would double the civilian death toll even after a partition agreement were reached. Unless the regime's intelligence services are dismantled -- and they won't be under a de facto partition -- the total of 800,000 can be expected to increase as Assad regime arrest raids on civilians continue. Such arrest raids might even accelerate once Assad's security services feel more firmly ensconced.

Gordon imagines that a de facto partition arrangement might lead to "the cessation of regime air attacks in exchange for an end to opposition offensives." While this is probably correct, it also highlights a major issue with de facto partition. Gordon never mentions an end to regime offensives or Assad artillery attacks. A ceasefire-partition could very well allow Assad to shell civilians willy-nilly -- and Assad would do so, even if only as a warning to opponents in his rump state -- while penalizing rebels who try to stop the shelling through ground offensives. It might even allow the regime to continue its own ground assaults, place even more Syrians under siege, and possibly resume its old practice of house-to-house massacres that kill hundreds of civilians in a day.

A political solution that does not remove Assad is simply insufficient to guarantee the safety of Syrian civilians, stop the flood of refugees that has convulsed European shores, or stem the flow of foreign fighters. To prevent the continued starvation of 800,000 civilians under regime siege, any political solution must include all of Syria, including major regime-held cities near the besieged populations. To prevent the spiriting away of even more civilians into Assad's torture chambers, any political solution must reform Assad's dreaded security apparatus from the get-go. This is what the Geneva I Communique -- which was signed by both the U.S. and Russia -- demands, and this is what the Syrian situation still calls for.

But there is another reason, more relevant to the everyday American, to reject a de facto partition of Syria. Such a partition would essentially freeze the conflict as is, which works out fine for the Russo-Iranian side. Russia would get to secure, and continue to expand, its longstanding naval base in the coastal heartland of Assad's Alawite sect. Iran would get to maintain its supply line to Hezbollah, even though that supply line runs through many towns whose residents came out strongly in favor of pro-democracy protests, only to experience sectarian displacement and become refugees.

However, America has a vital national security interest in removing ISIS from Syria and the region. Just as a de facto ceasefire would freeze regime territory as is, it would also freeze ISIS territory as is. The Assad regime simply has too much blood on its hands to rally the Syrian population against ISIS. Since Assad is responsible for the vast majority of Syrian civilian deaths, most Syrians view Assad as a worse threat than ISIS. Even the most moderate Syrian rebels would not accept to fight ISIS if they could not fight Assad, as the failed Syria train-and-equip experiment has shown. And Assad could not beat back ISIS alone -- his troops are now hemorrhaging territory to the Syrian rebels and ISIS alike.

This brings me to one final point of Gordon's analysis. He implies, but does not say outright, that overthrowing Assad would require an alliance with ISIS and Jabhat Nusra, the Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate: "The barbarity of ISIL has been apparent...The al-Nusra Front is an al-Qaeda affiliate...Joining forces with these groups to defeat Assad at all costs would be to truly lose sight of our actual interests." He also writes "If striking Assad in response led to ISIL or the al-Nusra Front advancing on Damascus, would we strike our own proxies?"

This seems to be a new talking point among supporters of the Obama Administration's policy toward Syria; as President Obama himself recently said, "The strongest [Syrian] opposition forces on the ground are vicious terrorist organizations." But even if we wanted to defeat Assad at all costs, joining forces with ISIS would be ill-advised. IHS Janes estimates that in 2014, only 13% of ISIS operations targeted Assad, while 64% targeted the rebels. By contrast, the Syrian rebels have been fighting ISIS fiercely since early 2014, when the rebels expelled ISIS from Syria's largest city. Even if, hypothetically, the U.S. took the zany decision to arm ISIS against Assad, the results would probably help Assad on balance.

And while it is true that Nusra has delivered many heavy blows to the Assad regime, other groups in Syria have also. The Southern Front, a massive coalition of over 30,000 Free Syrian Army fighters, recently evicted Assad forces from their main base in southern Syria. The Southern Front has excellent relations with minorities. It has taken casualties to rescue Christians from kidnappers and cancelled offensives to avoid agitating the nearby Druze population. These efforts have paid off; Syrian Druze recently held massive anti-Assad protests after the assassination of one of their top anti-Assad clerics.

Bringing Assad down does not require arming Al-Qaeda or ISIS; even if the U.S. were to arm only the Southern Front and the Druze minority against Assad, and to provide them with protection from regime barrel bombs, that new Druze-Free Syrian Army coalition would probably become the strongest in Syria and place Assad's control of the capital Damascus in vital danger.

In February of this year, the Southern Front was under 15 miles from reaching the Damascus suburbs, where the Free Syrian Army is still dominant and where the regime has enforced crushing sieges on tens of thousands of civilians for years. A massive, Iran-backed offensive -- probably the largest Iran-backed offensive of the Syrian conflict -- pushed them back.

A political solution to the Syrian conflict remains ideal, and a contact group involving Russia and Iran could advance that goal. But the U.S. can not penalize the rebels for making compromises, reward Russia, Iran and Assad for their intransigence, and expect a positive long-term settlement to result. Instead, the United States must first counter the malignant effects of Russia-Iranian influence in Syria by strongly backing those opposition forces who believe in a democratic, pluralistic, united Syria without Assad. Only then, after we have built leverage to shape a diplomatic outcome, should the spotlight return to the negotiating table.

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Ghanem is the senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council in Washington