On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the recent chemical attack in Syria as an “undeniable” fact -- not a subject for debate. He called it “moral obscenity” and laid the blame squarely on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The statement was an undisguised war speech. The only question now is what form that war might take and how long the battle will last.
There are several rumors swirling. One is that the Obama administration would prefer a mere “punitive” campaign. Some precision-timed leaks to the media seem to point in this direction. But such a strategy would accomplish nothing if the goal is to deter the Assad regime from ever using chemical agents again. Over the past year, Israel has waged half a dozen pinprick strikes on caches of advanced weapons inside Syria, likely because they were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. The very number of operations attests to how little they altered Assad’s mindset: he still imports high-tech hardware.
Another rumored plan, which NBC reported, citing senior U.S. officials, is that sorties over the next few days would not aim to kill Assad or topple his regime, but may seek to destroy or to degrade his command-and-control facilities, artillery systems, and airfields. That is surely a smarter option, provided that the strikes rise above sending a message and do some lasting damage to the regime’s military infrastructure. Anything short of that would be strategically useless and a waste of expensive missiles.
Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama should rearticulate his policy of regime change for Syria, which he first announced in the summer of 2011 and has quietly revised and rescinded ever since. And he should gear any intervention toward furthering that policy, in accordance with what key American allies have said is their own preferred method for dislodging the 40-year dynastic dictatorship: the opposition’s gradual assertion of control. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there are already examples that this can work in Syria.
The easiest way to achieve regime change is no mystery to policymakers or to Pentagon war planners. Its initial phase might be called regime isolation. The United States should degrade or destroy the Assad regime’s aerial resupply capacity. This would entail no deployment of U.S. forces to Syria, nor would it spell the collapse of the regime overnight. But it would hinder his ability to move men and weapons around inside Syria.
The strategy would have the added benefit of isolating Syria from its allies. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has repeatedly downplayed the importance of the Syrian Air Force, claiming, for instance, that of all the Syrian fatalities in the two-and-a-half-year war, only about a tenth have been caused by rockets and bombs dropped from Assad’s aircraft. But this statistic elides a more important aspect of the regime’s use of airports, helicopters, and planes: Russian and Iranian military and commercial planes arrive daily to offload weapons (some of them advanced air or sea defense systems), ammunition, and personnel. Iran is spending an estimated $500 million a month to keep its ally afloat.
As a consequence, Iran has virtually inherited the Syrian security portfolio. By Syrian security officials’ own admission, Iran and Hezbollah have helped Damascus construct a 100,000-strong sectarian militia called the National Defense Force, without which, as The Wall Street Journal concluded on August 26, those recent regime victories in Homs would simply not have been possible. In some cases, Iran has even been flying conscripts for the National Defense Force to Tehran where they receive guerrilla warfare training. Because all of Syria’s borders -- save the one with Lebanon -- are either controlled by the rebels (Turkey, Jordan) or are easily monitored by them (Iraq), land transports of equipment and personnel are growing less frequent. But the shipments that make it to Damascus International Airport and Mezze airbase, which is controlled by the Fourth Armored Division and located southwest of the capital, are not.
So, it's as simple as this: if you take out the runways, Iranian and Russian planes cannot land, nor can Syrian planes take off.
The good news is that there aren’t many high-use tarmacs left to hit. Of the 27 airbases in Syria that are capable of assisting with the Syrian Air Force’s primary missions, just six are left in full use. The others are either rebel controlled or fiercely contested. Chris Harmer, senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, has shown that the Syrian Air Force is down to around 100 fixed-wing mission-ready aircraft. In a series of intricately detailed briefings, Harmer has also outlined a credible plan of action for seriously degrading Assad’s air capability without “any US aircraft entering Syrian air space.” Instead, the United States would rely chiefly on naval-launched cruise missiles or aircraft stand-off systems fired from international or allied territory. Israeli, Jordanian, Saudi Arabian, Turkish, and even Italian soil could all be used for this purpose. Those countries would all allow it, too.
Already, the USS Mahan, the USS Barry, the USS Ramage, and the USS Gravely -- all Arleigh Burke-class destroyers carrying Tomahawk land-attack missiles -- are en route or in position in the eastern Mediterranean. All are equipped with defensive weaponry against which any Syrian naval assault would be ineffective. (Tomahawks have a range of 1,000 nautical miles; Assad’s most advanced anti-ship missile, the P-800 Yakhont, has a range of 180.) The number of Tomahawks in the region could effectively double if the United States deploys attack or cruise missile submarines there, too. Furthermore, as Harmer notes, if the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier division, which includes two Ticonderoga class cruisers and two additional Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, were repositioned from the Red Sea, where it is now, to the eastern Mediterranean, “it would significantly increase the striking power available to hit targets in Syria.” Targets for these munitions can and should include runways, stationary rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, air traffic control towers, army vehicles, air defense systems, naval ships, and regime headquarters.
No direct U.S. military engagement would work without a concomitant commitment to building up the armed opposition, which has also been a long-neglected official U.S. goal. A responsible and trustworthy rebel army could be tasked not only with fighting the regime and its manifold proxies but also with safeguarding U.S., European, and regional interests from the rise of extremists in the Levant.
Following Assad’s earlier violation of Obama’s red line on chemical weapons, the White House announced that it would begin sending light weapons to the Supreme Military Command, a United States-backed coordination and logistics umbrella for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led by Salim Idris, a man with whom every Western intelligence agency has grown quite familiar. To date, however, few if any weapons have been delivered. The status quo policy of allowing indirect gun-running in the Gulf states does persist.
And yet, in spite of such torpidity, there are encouraging signs. Little covered by the international press and policy wonks, in recent months, the southern front in Syria has seen rebel units backed by the West and its allies winning more and more territory at the expense of both Assad and al Qaeda, which has been using the war in Syria as an opportunity to expand its reach to establish what it hopes will be a Islamic emirate in advance of a worldwide caliphate. The credit for this goes mainly to Saudi Arabia and to what it calls its “southern strategy,” or the buildup of rebel forces in and around Damascus, particularly in the towns of Barzeh, Jobar, and Qaboun, where rebels have seized regime weapons caches and even overtaken an electrical facility. All of these towns are located in Eastern Ghouta district, the very same area that Assad gassed last week and had gassed before then, too.
As part of its southern strategy, Saudi Arabia has worked closely with Jordan -- a development that Saudi Arabia has downplayed, even denied, owing to King Abdullah’s fear that Assad will retaliate against his southern neighbor. Together, the two countries and their American, British, and French counterparts have set up and run an undisclosed joint operations center in Jordan to train vetted Syrian rebels in tactical warfare methods, intelligence, counterintelligence, and weapons application. One Syrian I interviewed this month confirmed that his brother had recently been through the training program. He remarked on the stark before-and-after contrast in his sibling’s martial skills, which now include proper breathing techniques during aiming a rifle. Roughly 1,000 trainees are said to have graduated from the program so far.
The United States should now make recruiting and training many thousands more rebels a top priority. One incentive for doing so is that, unless Washington plans to dispatch Joint Special Operations Command units into Syria at a later date (and that does not seem likely), it will require its own proxy -- a Syrian gendarmerie -- for curtailing the military and political influence of al Qaeda.
Some have said that building a trustworthy rebel ally is an impossible task. But there is perhaps no better indicator of the readiness of certain rebel formations to play ball than the confidence with which top FSA commanders in Deraa openly condemn Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- the two al Qaeda franchises in Syria -- and label them hirelings of Syrian intelligence. A meeting I had two weeks ago with Ziad al-Fahad, the Supreme Military Command’s top commander in the southern front, was instructive. Fahad told me that “the only reason people ever started fighting for extremist groups was because they had weapons and means.” By contrast, he said, “we had weapons and means in the south -- we raided regime caches effectively. This is why the extremists here are not as strong.” He also spoke in no uncertain terms about the fact that the struggle for Syria is now a struggle against the regime and jihadists. Why? Because if “extremists get all the advanced weapons, [the FSA] will themselves become victims.”
Self-preservation, it should be remembered, was the main reason that rebels took up arms against Assad in the first place. Their fear of being beheaded by militants after Assad leaves is justified, and is a strong calculation in their forward-planning. Both Fahad and his deputy, Abu Fadi, with whom I also spoke, relayed several anecdotes about how FSA units and local populations have defied or expelled Jabhat al-Nusra from villages in Deraa. Their stories were subsequently corroborated by activists. All in all, defiance against al Qaeda-aligned militants is an embryonic example of, as well as an object lesson for, a kind of Sunni awakening, or sahwa, that will be crucial for any U.S. strategy.
Unfortunately, the prospect for sahwa in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, and Raqqa is much dimmer than in the south, given the prevalence of jihadist forces there and the dependence of local populations on these groups for everyday needs such as food, water, and medical care. (The Islamic State even put on carnivals and distributed toys for Syrian children in Aleppo during Ramadan.) Still, Teletubbies and musical chairs notwithstanding, al Qaeda is still al Qaeda. It is already making all the usual mistakes associated with the Zarqawist “state-building” initiatives in Iraq. For instance, it imposed sharia punishments for perceived crimes of blasphemy, shooting 15 year-old Muhammad Qata'a in the neck and face in front of his parents. It detained respected tribal elders in Raqqa, the only fully “liberated” province in Syria, who disagreed with its draconian governance style. It recently backed the assassination of a top-level FSA commander in Latakia. And it very likely kidnapped and murdered Paolo Dall’Oglio, a Catholic priest who is much revered by the opposition for his early support of the anti-Assad protest movement. All that spells public disenchantment: demonstrations against the Islamic State have been consistent and growing in Raqqa. As one Syria analyst put it to me recently: “When was the last time you saw an FSA unit grow so unpopular that, within about two months, it incited protests against itself in five cities, one of which continued every day for at least two weeks?”
Conditions are fertile for the weakening of the jihadists at the expense of the moderates. Beyond training, there are ways that the United States can help. Already, Turkey seems to have realized that, by leaving its border open for every type of scrofulous mujahideen to walk across, it has fashioned a rod for its own back. There are rumors in Ankara that Turkish intelligence has finally begun curtailing the weapons flow to Jabhat al-Nusra in northern Syria. (Although the Turkish government denies ever turning a blind eye to extremists, it has been reluctant to crackdown on them because of their formidability in the theater. Not least among the tragedies of Syria has been seeing al Qaeda deferred to as the poor man’s special forces.) The United States should expend every effort to make rumors of al-Nusra’s interruption a reality. Turkey is desperate for intervention. The United States can use that to its own advantage by making its involvement contingent on better border discipline. It can also offer the FSA units in Aleppo, Idlib, and Raqqa performance-based incentives for cleaving their military operations and civil administrative responsibilities away from the crazies. If weapons get shared, seized, or simply “go missing,” no more will be forthcoming. Idris himself has offered just such an accountability agreement to the United States.
Finally, the U.S. Treasury Department, which has already designated al-Nusra as a terrorist entity, must pressure Gulf countries -- Kuwait and Qatar in particular -- to eliminate whatever private or quasi-state fundraising mechanisms al Qaeda and other non-FSA-aligned extremists groups in Syria exploit to keep themselves in cash and bullets. In Kuwait, the advertising campaigns to raise money for Ahrar al-Sham, another major Salafist brigade that will surely pose a security challenge in the future, are public affairs. This is a scandal, but an easily remedied one.
It has taken two and a half years and more than 100,000 lives for several myths about Syria to be shattered. The first is that a state run by a brutal crime syndicate -- the Sopranos with WMD -- could be pressured or coaxed from power peacefully. The second is that a Baathist dictator would never again deploy poison gas against a people he enslaves, much less do so in the age of the cellphone camera and YouTube. The third is that any direct military intervention would be unilateral and therefore met with international skepticism or censure.
Obama never needed to go searching for a coalition of the willing for Syria; one comes pre-assembled for him and has been knocking, in fact, at the door of the Oval Office for quite some time. Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, all see Syria as a grave short-term threat to their national security. Great Britain and France, both justly petrified of the return of radicalized militants to European soil, appear to glimpse at least a medium-term threat to their own borders. All will participate in a U.S.-led intervention, as has been made amply clear this week. And with four U.S. destroyers stationed in the Mediterranean -- and pock-marked runways in Damascus -- it is unlikely that Russia and Iran, neither of which share contiguous borders with Syria, can do much beyond scream and shout. Materially speaking, they’ve already done everything they can, and it’s led us to where we are now.
In the next few days and weeks, then, it is not just live images of explosions in Damascus that should consume the United States’ attention, but also to activity at the northern and southern borders of Syria. Are the rebels receiving adequate weapons and training? Are they gaining ground in the southern front? Has Idris stopped drafting open letters to the president begging him for more help than he’s yet received? The answers will indicate whether a coherent strategy is in play.
Even so, it would be folly to have witnessed the shattering of previously held myths about Syria only to see the recrudescence of another: that a Syria with Assad in it will prove more stable and manageable than a Syria without him. Obama needs to start by recognizing how foolish and dangerous that assumption is. Two or three days’ worth of airstrikes that are not geared toward regime change would do little to prevent the emergence of a Congo on the Mediterranean. But they would guarantee that the United States will be returning to this conflict later, at time not of its own choosing.