We can add Iraq—yes, war-torn, deeply-divided, barely-sovereign Iraq—to the growing list of outside forces that have engaged in military action in Syria, as the Pentagon confirms that Iraqi F-16s crossed into Syria to strike ISIS positions in April. The list of belligerents in Syria’s civil war now includes the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Denmark, The Netherlands, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, Turkey, Russia, Jordan, Iraq and Iran, as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah and proto-states such as Iraq’s Kurdish region. That’s 18 militaries—not including the Syrian military, ISIS, al Qaeda, Khorasan and too many rebel groups to count—that have engaged, at one point or another, in Syria’s civil war. They’re not all on the same side or the same page; they’re not all targeting the same enemy; and they don’t agree on the objectives—all which explains the silliness of Vladimir Putin’s warning that further action against Assad would trigger “chaos in international relations.” Syria—with 6.1 million internally displaced and five million external refugees, with 500,000 dead, with the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare reopened, with Russians and Americans, Israelis and Iranians shooting at each other, with its cesspool of terror groups—is the very definition of chaos. The challenge now is to smother the chaos.
Doing so requires intense and focused effort on the part of the White House (not exactly President Trump’s strong suit), which brings us to our first action item: The president should appoint a trusted statesman to steer the U.S. through Syria’s chaos and into a tolerable, durable postwar status. Names like Leon Panetta (former defense secretary and CIA director), David Petraeus (former CIA director and commander of CENTCOM), James Jones (former commander of EUCOM and NATO and national security advisor to President Obama), Ryan Crocker (former ambassador to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan), Zalmay Khalilzad (former ambassador to the UN, Iraq and Afghanistan), Dennis Ross (an ambassador and State Department official under Presidents Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Obama) and Brett McGurk (special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS under Presidents Trump and Obama) come to mind.
This Syria “czar” would need to be given broad authority to identify and pursue the least-bad end state for America. The key phrase here is “least bad.” Given all that has happened to date, postwar Syria is not going to look pretty; the American people need to understand this going in.
Washington should use the imperfect process that brought some semblance of peace to the former Yugoslavia—another post-World War I minefield of ethnicities, nationalities and religions that exploded into war—as a model for a partitioned peace.
Partition should never be entered into lightly. It’s at odds with something we Americans deeply believe: that people can look past their superficial differences and find a way to get along, that character is more important than creed and tribe. In addition, it always looks better and simpler on paper than how it plays out in reality. (Think of the partitions of territory following World War I and World War II, the consequences of which we continue to deal with today.) And partition can undermine international stability. For centuries, the world has been organized and governed by nation-states with clearly defined and internationally recognized borders. This has served as the very foundation of international order. However, when trying to hold a state together becomes bloodier and more disruptive to international order than allowing it to break apart, the sensible course is to let that state dissolve.
That’s what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The peoples of Yugoslavia—some Catholic, some Muslim, some Orthodox, some oriented toward Europe, some toward Russia, some toward Turkey—did not get along. But they were held together by brute force—not unlike Syria under the Assads or Iraq under Saddam—until 1991. Over the next eight years, the wars that dismembered Yugoslavia claimed some 250,000 lives. Yugoslavia is now seven countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Hercegovina (which is further divided into Serb and Bosniak-Croat statelets). And Europe—thanks to the hard work and hands-on efforts of NATO, the EU, the OSCE and the UN—is more stable and more peaceful as a result of Yugoslavia’s dissolution.
We are nearing such a moment in Syria. It’s already partitioned in practice; the next step would be to make the new borders official, with the requisite international approval. Regional experts say four or five new states will likely emerge from what is, for now, known as Syria.
Unless we want to fight a war against Russia, we must come to grips with the fact that Russia is going to stick around in postwar Syria. This is one of the many consequences of President Obama’s failure to intervene at an early stage in Syria and enforce his own “red line.” But don’t take my word for it.
In 2015, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to President Carter, blamed Russia’s lunge into Syria on “American political impotence.” Panetta argued in 2014 that the Obama White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.” Noting that years of “inaction” carried “profound risks and costs for our national security,” Petraeus in 2015 called Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl—spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world…the fallout from the meltdown of Syria threatens to be with us for decades.” Jones said in 2017 “it was a colossal mistake to draw a red line,” adding that President Obama’s failure to enforce his red-line threat caused a “loss of confidence” in “a very important part of the world.”
In its early phases, Syria’s civil war was one of those cases where conscience and national interest coincided: Using airpower to level the battlefield (as the United States did in Bosnia, Serbia and Iraq in the 1990s) might have saved lives, checked Iran, blocked Russia’s reckless return to the region, prevented Assad from using chemical weapons, and even prevented the birth of ISIS, which fed off the symbiotic chaos of Iraq and Syria.
But what might have been is irrelevant now. With half-a-million dead, with Assad ensconced in Damascus, with Russia bolstering its new bases in Syria, with Iran and Hezbollah gaining battlefield skills, with the taboo against chemical weapons demolished, Syria is a geostrategic catastrophe for America. Recall that after Putin intervened to prop up Syria’s Bashar Assad, President Obama warned that “it won't work” and will end up with Russia “stuck in a quagmire.” What President Obama failed to grasp is that Putin wanted to be “stuck” in Syria. By intervening in 2015, not only did Putin rescue a puppet regime and limit U.S. influence; he secured Moscow’s long-term presence in a region it had been locked out of since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Assad in 2017 agreed to double the size of Russia’s naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, expand a Russian airbase near Latakia and grant Moscow the right to deploy Russian forces in Syria for the next 49 years.
There are two sides to this coin, however. If Putin wants to prop up the beastly Assad regime and revert to the Cold War practice of recruiting client states, then he can foot the bill for Syria’s reconstruction. Moreover, the U.S. is not obliged to make Russia’s unwelcome return to the region easy. U.S. Navy and Air Force assets should shadow, monitor and harass Russian assets as they move in and out of Syria. Likewise, diplomatic and economic tools should be used to persuade Iraq and Turkey that Russian military movement into Syria should not be permitted through their airspace. Those same tools should be used to persuade Iraq to block Iran’s continued overland access to Syria. If that fails, the Iraqis need to know there will be a price for siding with Tehran—and the Iranians need to know that U.S. intelligence and military assets will stymie their freedom of movement.
Related, the U.S. must speak plainly—albeit privately—with Turkey’s government. Since Erdogan’s values do not seem to align with the West’s, the focus should be on his interests. The message, best delivered by a retired flag officer experienced in dealing with Ankara, should be conveyed in a series of questions: Are you with Russia—your ancient foe—or the West? Do you trust Putin—serial violator of treaties, patron of Assad and self-interested opportunist—or NATO—which has stood by you for almost seven decades? Do you want your country to be alone again—accepted neither by Europe nor Asia, and outside the protective friendship of NATO and the U.S.? We don’t want to throw away that alliance; do you?
Washington should be prepared for Erdogan to respond in a manner that accelerates Turkey’s drift away from the West—and Erdogan should be prepared for the consequences of such a response. These include the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Turkey and their relocation to existing bases in Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) and Jordan; a reworking of Turkey’s relationship within NATO and perhaps an Article 13 action; and most worrisome of all to Ankara, full-throated U.S. support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
Policymakers spanning the political spectrum—from President Obama’s vice president to President Trump’s national security advisor, from Sen. John McCain to Sen. Chuck Schumer—have come to the conclusion that it’s time for Iraq’s Kurds to become fully independent. For now, Washington is right not to hasten Iraq’s dissolution. But when/if Iraq finally comes apart, the United States should be prepared to help the freest, most stable, most pro-American part of Iraq join the family of nations.
Finally, after the fighting stops in Syria, those aforementioned bases in the KRG will prove crucial to America’s ability to protect its interests and allies in the region. Published reports suggest there are as many as five U.S. bases on KRG territory today. Along with existing bases in Jordan, Kuwait and central Iraq, these bases will allow the U.S. to keep a close eye on Iran and Russia, provide training and support to friendly forces, smother jihadist flareups and prevent a replay of the chaos that followed President Obama’s decision to ignore his commanders and withdraw from Iraq.