The McCain Institute hosted a debate last Thursday on the question, “Syria: Should the United States Do More?” Arguing in favour of the motion that the United States should do more was Michael Doran and Andrew Tabler. Arguing against were Joshua Landis and Aaron David Miller.
Doran and Tabler made different but complementary arguments, while Miller and Landis quite seriously disagreed among themselves. There was no debate that the U.S. should supply more humanitarian aid, but Landis had a blanket opposition to U.S. involvement that might alter the course of the war, specifically opposing the U.S. giving weapons to the Syrian rebellion, while Miller was in favour of building up the opposition, but was not in favour of acting forcefully to depose Bashar al-Assad. And in many ways that is what the motion came down to: Did the panellists favour removing the Assad tyranny?
Doran was very clear in favouring the removal of Assad. To destroy what he called “Jihadistan,” this proto-State controlled by the Islamic State (I.S.) on the territory from Baghdad to Aleppo, Doran said it was necessary to blunt the influence of Iran, which is in de facto control in the regime-held areas of Syria. As Tabler pointed out, Iran organised the formation of, and commands in the field, the National Defence Forces (NDF), the sectarian militia that is essentially all that is left of the Assadist State, and fighting alongside the NDF are members of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), the Hizballah, which is effectively the Levantine wing of the IRGC, and the thousands of foreign Shi’ite jihadists that Iran has moved into Syria. Defeating the I.S. without massive, unilateral U.S. action requires moderate Sunni partners, Doran said, and there will be no Sunni partners, in Syria or the region, if the U.S. is “perceived as having a policy that is beneficial to Assad”.
Doran also argued “the neutral choice doesn’t exist”: non-intervention—or the present condition of intervention that has no practical effect—is a pro-Assad/Iran policy, and we can already see its effects: 300,000 people are dead, half of Syria’s population has been displaced, the regional order is falling apart, and terrorism has been exported to Western cities. More of the same, or an explicit alliance with Iran’s Axis, is not going to make it better. The crucial thing, Doran said, about a regime-change policy for Syria—which he reminded the audience still is the formal policy of the U.S. government—is conceptualising it. Once it is determined that the U.S.’s strategic intention is to have done with the despotism in Syria, the options are then numerous. It could be something akin to the Cold War (as is often forgotten now, containment is a regime-change policy). Or it could be something more aggressive with no-fly zones and Special Forces directing the rebels. But nothing can happen without U.S. leadership; the region cannot fix itself.
Tabler agreed that moderate (Sunni) rebels were the way to dismantle the Takfiri Caliphate, and to put Syria back together would require a political settlement—which would almost axiomatically mean Assad’s removal. Tabler argues that had the U.S. intervened earlier, it could have prevented the rise of the Islamic State. The “non-strike incident,” when President Obama stood back from his promise to punish the Assad regime with airstrikes for the massive chemical weapons attack in Ghouta that slaughtered 1,400 people in August 2013, gave the perception that the U.S. was not going to help the rebels and the Sunni jihadists filled the vacuum, says Tabler. Tabler also made a point that is somewhat delicate but which is so obvious it is unavoidable: the worry about what the Sunni majority—well over seventy percent in Syria—would do to Syria’s minorities should they triumph is rather misplaced when Sunnis are being killed on this scale. Tabler further argued that those who wish to remove moral considerations and say that, practically speaking, Assad and Iran are partners against the I.S. are mistaken: Assad cannot pacify Syria, even with Iranian backing.
Tabler then concluded by asking what will prove to be the most important question, relating to Barack Obama’s plan to train and equip a rebel army of 5,000 men: What will the U.S. do when the regime attacks them? At present the U.S. is in a state of “uncoordinated deconfliction” with Iran, deniably co-ordinating the airstrikes into Syria against the Islamic State. What happens when the U.S. puts into the field a force that offers an alternative to Iran’s proxy regime, and Iran’s proxy regime attacks it? “At that point,” says Tabler, “the contradictions in this policy are going to become fully visible to all of us.”
Miller seems to slightly struggle with the concept of a debate. At his last debate on Syria, he conceded essentially all of his opponents’ arguments, and here again he opened by conceding everything Doran had said. Miller declared himself “puzzled” as to where the differences were among them: “we’re all interested in supporting the opposition,” which was not true of his debating partner, “and we’re all interested in intensifying the fight against ISIS”. The only discernible difference Miller detected was about whether or not force should be employed directly against the regime. Miller didn’t give a direct answer, but focussed on the need for a counter-terrorism policy, which is the kind of talk that makes a nice fit with the regime’s objectives. Miller argued that the caution of President Obama meant that there was not a lot that could be done—to which Doran interjected that solving this crisis was a longer-term project than that, and Miller conceded it. Miller gave a vague nod toward support for these local “ceasefires,” which have in practice proven to favour the regime, but ultimately concluded that there was not the “capacity or the will” to do much about Syria, unlike Iraq, where the U.S. has “assets—intelligence, proxies, and influence, maybe—but not in Syria”.
Landis began his talk by saying that the wave of killing and expulsions across the Fertile Crescent was a “great sorting out,” akin to the slaughter and mayhem of World War Two or the Balkans in the 1990s that homogenised the nation-States of Europe, and that there was nothing the U.S. could or should do about this. The U.S. had tried adjudicating these sectarian questions in Iraq by deposing the Sunnis and empowering the Shi’ites, said Landis, and it has had dismal consequences; it shouldn’t be repeated in Syria. (Landis did not appear to have considered the possibility that a lack of intervention to see Iraq’s transition through might be the problem.) Landis was adamantly against arming the rebellion, insisting that the only opposition of any significance to the dictatorship was the Islamic State, Jabhat an-Nusra, and some—in his telling—hardline, ultra-sectarian forces like Zahran Alloush’s Jaysh al-Islam who would cleanse Damascus of minorities if they took it over. Landis agreed that to take out Assad would cause the regime to unravel: Assad is the focal point that keeps all these Alawite Generals, who believe they can do the job better than he, unified, and they would collapse into internecine fighting if he fell. Landis flatly denies that acting earlier to buttress the moderates could have helped and expresses disbelief at Doran’s suggestion there has been a pro-Iran tilt by the U.S.: are there not still “crushing” sanctions on Syria and Iran, after all? Landis argues that the U.S. cannot fix Syria, that the region has to fix itself, nor can the U.S. force unity among the opposition to provide a credible alternative to the regime and the Salafi jihadists, therefore “if we [the U.S.] don’t send more arms in, [the war is] going to end sooner with less bloodshed.”
At the end, one was left with no clear answer from Landis and Miller on what they themselves said was the crucial question: “Jihadistan”. Landis’ argument amounted to saying that if the U.S. did nothing, it would solve itself. Miller favoured more action, but was unclear on exactly what. The solution, said Miller, lies in “good governance … security, cohesion, [and an] equitable distribution of power”—and so it does. But how to get there is the tricky thing, and on that point he had ne’ery a word. (“A long movie,” was all Miller said when challenged.) Both Miller and Landis also strenuously denied that theirs was a pro-Iran policy, but this makes the mistake non-interventionists always make of not understanding that not choosing is itself a choice. “We cannot pick a side” in this Sunni-Shi’a battle, Landis said. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are “sectarian powers” that we should “balance,” he added. But as Doran pointed out, by choosing to stay out, Landis “picked a side”: Iran. With Russian weapons and Iranian fighters flooding into Syria to help the regime, U.S. non-intervention is tipping the scales in favour of Russian and Iranian pro-regime intervention. Neither Landis nor Miller owned that reality, as could be seen when Landis said, in arguing against supporting the rebellion, that “just arming-up one side is not going to stop the bloodshed,” which in present circumstances is an argument much better directed to Moscow and Tehran. Landis’ basing his argument on the idea that Syria should sort itself by itself falls apart on acknowledgment of the fact that the degree of foreign interference has been quite considerable and most consequential on the regime’s side.
Landis’ argument that the only alternatives to Assad are fanatical, sectarian forces bent on the destruction of the minorities is an old one—indeed it is something he has said since the start of this, when he warned of “growing sectarianism” that would overtake the revolution, while Assad held the line and “enforced” a “vision of tolerance and secularism”. In the question-and-answer section, Landis was challenged on the fact that he had said during the debate there was no point supporting moderate rebels given that they controlled “less than one percent” of Syria, but he had said exactly the same thing when the moderates held fifty percent of Syria. Landis’ unchanging stance has at every stage favoured the regime. There are those who feel this is no accident. More pointedly, when Landis was highlighting, as he has before, some of the viciously sectarian things Zahran Alloush has said, someone in the audience asked who released Alloush, a reference to the fact that as part of its efforts to “change the narrative … to one of sectarianism, not reform,” when the revolution broke out, the regime released the violent Salafists and foreign al-Qaeda forces it had in its prisons. Landis conceded that the regime had released Alloush—because “the human rights workers asked for him [to be released] because he was a ‘political prisoner’.” This is a novel interpretation of the Assad tyranny’s behaviour in mid-2011.
On the bottom-line question of what do now, Landis suggested the alternative he gave to Fareed Zakaria on CNN: partition. Assad would be given the western corridor of the country, where most of the population is, and the south, and Turkey would then occupy the remaining areas of the north and the east, disarming the militias and restoring order. Even Landis doesn’t see this as a realistic alternative. It was agreed that leaving the Islamic State, and al-Qaeda, in place to train fighters and export their violence against the West was not an option. Miller’s argument for treating the symptom (the I.S.) while leaving production facility (Assad) in place is not very convincing.
Tabler’s argument that when the U.S.-trained rebels enter Syria it will expose the Obama administration’s contradictions, on the other hand, is consistent with the evidence we have. For example, the Obama administration has declared as a “nonstarter” proposals for a no-fly zone in Syria because it would “constitute an act of war against the Assad regime,” which is a real red line. But once Assad attacks the U.S. proxy, it is going to put the administration in a very difficult spot. Tabler also laid out some reasonable steps for making Syria better, which is about all that seems possible at the moment, including weakening both the Assad regime and the Sunni jihadists by “encouraging fights between the two.” It is a simple military fact that both Assad and the Islamic State have directed their firepower against the nationalist rebels and all-but left one another alone. “If Assad wants to fight extremism, and he brags about it all the time, we should let him, and in the process weaken him,” Tabler says.
Doran’s argument that the U.S. has ceded Syria to Iran as a sphere of influence in an attempt to win favour for a nuclear deal that keeps Iran from nuclear “breakout,” at least during Obama’s term in office, is admittedly-circumstantial but nonetheless persuasive. When the airstrikes were finally extended into Syria against the I.S., Iran was given assurances that Assad would not be a target. The U.S. has been co-ordinating with Iran’s proxies in Iraq using the Iraqi military as an intermediary, and “opened a quiet back channel to Iran to ‘deconflict’ potential clashes” in both Iraq and Syria. Doran’s argument for treating Iraq and Syria as one theatre, and abandoning the Iraq-first strategy in combatting I.S., has been borne out by evidence gathered this week by the Pentagon. Reviewing the airstrikes against I.S. the Pentagon found that while I.S. has been somewhat chastened in Iraq, they have “enlarged their hold on Syria,” which is functioning as a de facto safe-haven for the takfiris, one of the reasons defeating the I.S. in border-areas like Sinjar has proven impossible. Doran argued convincingly that “the Middle East will not put itself together absent the United States putting together a larger vision for the region and bringing the major powers together” with the immediate need being a “military strategy,” and the “political vision [having] to be built on top of that”. Given that all except Landis agreed that moderate Sunnis were the key to defeating the I.S., if “Jihadistan” is viewed as one entity and the initial response is agreed to be a military one, then the solution becomes obvious: the primary need at this moment is to save the moderate rebels in Aleppo from the pincer attack of the regime and the Islamic State.
Ultimately, the arguments of the Doran-Tabler side were more convincing because the Landis-Miller arguments have been the ones executed as policy. Landis and Miller had to say, as only Landis dared, that the present circumstances in Syria are the best one could have hoped for and that for the U.S. to have seriously done something earlier to support the moderate opposition, or for the U.S. to seriously do something now, would make Syria worse. Since that is so obviously wrong, it gave Doran and Tabler an easier time of it. But Doran and Tabler also had a much more convincing argument for how to get to peace and stability. As the old saying goes, something always beats nothing, and neither Landis nor Miller had a convincing answer to the question of what to do; they simply shot down others’ answers as unworkable and attempted to explain why masterly inactivity would make the Syria crisis go away.