RESOLVING THE SYRIAN SITUATION
(with some perspectives on how best to salvage something from it)

After nearly five years of civil conflict during which several hundred thousand have been killed, millions displaced as refugees, and the rise of extremism in the form of ISIS, conditions in Syria are no nearer to being resolved, nor likely to be resolved any time soon, even with the UN sponsored talks in Austria trying to do so.

The international community’s failure to intervene early in this conflict is why things are the way they are there today. That failure never gave the “Free/Moderate Syrian Opposition” any chance to coalesce and consolidate into a unified viable entity warranting support in its efforts to either reach some kind of negotiated political deal with the Assad regime, or, to be a viable alternative to replace it. Because it never had that kind of “safe haven” within Syria where it could do so, it has therefore been kept constantly on the run and unable to unify. Thus, to expect that a Russian-American accord promoting a “cease fire” might then lead to some kind of brokered political settlement to end Syria’s civil conflict…is unrealistic. As long as the opposition to the Assad regime remains in its current fractioned and unconsolidated condition, nothing can be resolved. Compounding the problem has been the rise of ISIS, and its brutally criminal tactics to carve out its own enclave in all that chaos have now placed it between what’s left of two failed nation-states…Iraq and Syria…neither governments of which have either the means or the will to confront and eliminate it.

That is, the Assad regime, having lost whatever legitimacy it had the moment it turned its military forces loose upon its own people, is now only concerned with retaining power by any means, and the only thing sustaining it is the backing of external powers such as Russia and Iran. It has little or no effective control over most of Syrian territory beyond what its military firepower of the moment can seize and hold.

As for the current Iraqi government in Baghdad, while it has improved relations with both its Kurdish and Sunni elements, it is still mainly Shia dominated and controlled. Thus neither the Kurds nor the Sunni there have any real motivation to fight for it. For their part, the Kurds have used, and are using, the situation to further consolidate and solidify their autonomy, if not de facto independence. As for the Sunni, these have little enthusiasm for either Baghdad or ISIS, so their tribal leaders are more concerned instead with how best to protect their own and what they still have. Given such a situation it’s obvious that the key for resolving the problem has two components. One concerns the Assad regime. The other concerns ISIS. So what is needed is a double-barreled approach to simultaneously take care of both, not in a piecemeal and incremental way, but with a concurrent effort to: a) First and foremost provide that missing safe haven for the Free/Moderate Syrian Opposition so that it can consolidate and organize itself into a viable potential alternative to the Assad regime, and in the process, also make it a sufficiently attractive alternative to reduce the current refugee flow out of Syria, or possibly even reverse it. b) Provide the necessary military means to simultaneously eliminate ISIS’s hold on its so-called capital at al-Raqqah, as well as conducting search and destroy operations to root out any remnants of its forces in both Syria and Iraq.

To accomplish the first of these efforts (a), the only feasible “safe haven” area for that purpose now is the Syrian territory beyond the left bank of the Euphrates River, extending from the Turkish to the Iraqi borders. The Euphrates provides a geographic feature as a clear line of demarcation for such a safe haven area. With the combined use of drone and combat aircraft resources, from both the US and members of the so-called Coalition, that would prevent both Assad or ISIS forces from approaching, crossing, or firing into it, in any manner. For that purpose it would also be necessary to imposed a minimum 25Km deep buffer zone beyond it all along that river’s right bank, designating it as a free-fire zone against any Assad military air or ground forces of any kind found intruding there, or, against any ISIS forces attempting to attack or cross over into any part of that safe haven area.

Given the demonstrated combat quality of the Syrian Kurdish Peshmerga these could be used as the initial main boots on the ground forces to defend that Euphrates River line. As other Free Syrian forces joined in these could then be further integrated into the defense of that line. Once such a defensive line was established, NGO’s would then have safe avenues of access from Turkey to begin to move into the area to help re-establish destroyed infrastructures, provide for proper medical, housing, educational, food and water needs, etc.. Meanwhile the Free Syrian Opposition would be encouraged to form an interim civil government in that safe haven area where all elements of their population would be represented and could participate. International assistance for that would further enhance and accelerate that development. It should also be noted here that major oil resources are located in the far corner of that area close to the Turkish border, thus providing it with a potentially viable source of revenues to aid in these reconstructive efforts.

To accomplish the second (b), of these requirements will require a carefully planned and launched military effort of sufficient size and composition to completely surround and seal off al-Raqqah from the rest of the area. Since al-Raqqah is a major city of some 250,000 people, rather than an all out assault, an approach similar to the one previously used at Fallujah in Iraq would be necessary. That is, strong enough to seal off al-Raqqah from the rest of the area, while concurrently clearing out ISIS elements neighborhood by neighborhood (plus offering safety to any of its civilian population seeking to escape from ISIS control). Such a military effort would also have to have sufficient numbers to conduct collateral operations to hunt down and destroy any outside ISIS elements, especially between al Raqqah and the Iraqi border. A follow-up bounty program for any ISIS individuals not killed or captured during such an operation to further help eliminate any remnants of it still at large in that area.

This is not something that can be accomplished with minimal effort. It will require military resources that no ISIS forces could withstand. While every effort should be made to include so-called coalition forces for such an effort, realistically, US forces are the only ones available with the means and the skills to ensure a successful conclusion for such an effort. As for ISIS elements in Iraq itself, these could be concurrently attacked by Iraqi forces. Such a coordinated military operation would overwhelm and destroy ISIS military capabilities and its capacity as an organized entity.

Besides perhaps cornering and eliminating the top echelons of the ISIS hierarchy, thus cutting it off from external support, and destroying most of its armed followers in the field, it would also liberate one of Syria’s major cities, to provide the Free Syrian Opposition with its own secure and viable “capital”, and thereby, place it in a much stronger and more viable position from which to engage in any further negotiations with the Assad regime thereafter. More importantly it would help stem the flow of refugees out of Syria, and motivate many of those who have already left it to return, because they would now have some reasonable hope of a safe place to help rebuild and restore some kind of an open, free, and civil society in their country, and for the ultimate re-unification of all of Syria, once the Assad regime is out of power.

So, to paraphrase from Shakespeare…if it were done it should be done quickly. The element of surprise (as much of it as possible) would have a significant impact on ISIS’s ability to resist such a move. Concurrently the immediate imposition of a no fire/no fly zone as describe above would also energize the Syrian opposition to get itself properly organized and begin gathering all elements willing to work towards restoring a peaceful and prosperous Syria. Conceivably, over time, its reach could be progressively extended beyond its safe haven zone, especially further along the Turkish border toward the Mediterranean, as more and more Syrians from elsewhere in the country or from returning refugees, could see its growing validity as an alternative to either the Assad regime or ISIS.

CENTURION

FURTHER NOTES:

  1. Concurrent with these efforts, there needs to be strong back-channel US led negotiations to resolve Turkish/Kurdish contentions. The main “selling” point for resolving these being that it’s in their mutual interest to do so. That is, Turkey would thus acquire a strong buffer entity between it and any ongoing Shia/Sunni conflicts in the region, as part of a de facto tri-partite “alliance” between itself, the Kurds, and the US. An alliance providing better mutual economic, military, and political benefits and security.
  2. While creating such a safe haven might seem like partitioning Syria, such an effort offers a stronger and more viable means to progressively reduce the authority and power of the Assad regime until it becomes completely irrelevant, especially if the Free Syrian interim government demonstrates its validity as a viable alternative if it remains welcoming and inclusive for all Syrian religious, ethnic, and political elements willing to become part of a free, open, and secular society, without extreme partisan conflicts. Its international standing will then also grow, and at some point, formal diplomatic recognition of it as the new legitimate and sovereign entity for all of Syria will then occur. The Alewite core of the Assad regime will then realize that its only salvation will be to abandon the Assad regime and join with the Free Syrian Opposition.
  3. Once such a Free Syrian entity is established that way, and shows its viability, then efforts to call upon Assad military forces to desert that regime, and re-join with the Free Syrians, could further accelerate the erosion of the Assad regime’s hold on power. The key pitch to such Assad military forces being…instead of fighting against something…why not fight for something…that is to rebuild a new and free Syria.
  4. Lastly, with such a development neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, plus the Gulf States, and even Israel, would then be much stronger in their support of it, thereby helping to reduce Iranian hegemonic influences and stabilizing the region. All of which would be in the best interests of the United States.