When it comes to U.S. policy on Syria, indecision is a decision.
The initial balky response by the Obama administration to Syria’s version of the Arab Spring, for instance, did little to help the relatively secular movement trying to topple President Bashar Assad, who has cruelly ruled his country.
The indecision continues today — not just in the push to oust Assad, but to, in President Obama’s words, “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The latest chapter in this effort is the announcement that fewer than 50 special operations troops will deploy to Syria.
While the White House claimed the deployment is not a combat mission, any time troops are injected into such a violent environment there are risks. Among the stated goals is to advise local fighters combating ISIL. But it’s hard to envision such a limited effort making a significant difference against the extremists. And by design, the strategy does not address the fate of Assad, the original source of Syrian misery.
Obama’s decision may have been more of a response to Russia’s muscular intervention on behalf of its ally Assad than a significant strategic shift in the U.S. anti-ISIL campaign. It may be intended to prod Russia to realize that the intractable conflict, which has drawn in multiple Mideast countries, can only be solved diplomatically.
It’s worth noting that last week’s diplomatic talks in Vienna included Iran — a fact that understandably rankles some in the U.S. But Tehran’s backing of Damascus cannot be ignored, and any deal will need to recognize the theocracy’s influence with Assad.
Obama’s reluctance to put more boots on Syrian ground is understandable. And in fact, the limited deployment is just “a small toe in the Syrian war,” Andrew Tabler, a fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an editorial writer. It would take a far larger commitment to achieve U.S. policy goals, Tabler added. “If your goal is to defeat ISIL or bring about a settlement in Syria, you need to become much more involved militarily,” he said. “There is no way around it.”
At the very least, it’s well past time for more strategic clarity from the administration on Syria.
If more forces are needed, how many and in what capacity? To date it appears that Kurdish forces are the only consistently effective regional fighters. But it’s essential that indigenous Arab forces are effectively fighting for their country, too. Now that the Obama administration has acknowledged that the plan to vet and train more “moderate” Syrian forces has failed, what next? And what specifically can be expected from regional allies, as well as NATO nations, whose countries are convulsed by an epic migration crisis sparked in part by Syria’s vicious civil war?
Obama, the commander-in-chief, must explain the stakes, strategy and geopolitical implications of escalation, de-escalation or maintaining an incremental approach. And because the Syrian crisis likely will continue after Obama leaves office, 2016 presidential candidates should also be pressed for specifics.