A New Plan for the United States in Syria

October 19, 2015

Gen. David Petraeus called the conflict in Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl, spewing instability and extremism over the region and the rest of the world.” Now in its fifth year, the war has claimed over 250,000 lives, displaced nearly half the population, and literally torn the country apart. In the process, it has evolved into a different type of problem for the United States. The U.S. strategy to deal with the conflict was unrealistic from the beginning. As the Obama administration rethinks its Syria strategy, it should start by redefining U.S. interests in the face of an increasingly fractured Syrian conflict and adopting a new strategy that seeks to immediately reduce the level of violence by enforcing a pause on offensive operations by all sides in Syria. The United States has the diplomatic and military tools already in place to do this. It would be difficult and require the adroit and shrewd application of power, but to do less would lead to more human devastation, further damage U.S. interests, and allow Russia to gain more influence over the region.

As the conflict in Syria has deepened, the U.S. response has focused on rolling back the Islamic State by building Iraqi capacity, conducting airstrikes, attempting to train Syrian opposition forces, and providing humanitarian aid. Notably absent (and widely noted) is a broader strategy for Syria, without which the counter-Islamic State strategy is doomed to failure. At the same time, the dynamics on the ground have increased in complexity and lethality. Cities and villages have changed hands repeatedly, taking a devastating toll on the Syrian people. The regime’s use of barrel bombs against rebel-controlled areas has killed thousands of non-combatants. Without an achievable strategic objective for Syria, the U.S. strategy floundered.

Until the Obama administration began a review of its Syria strategy in recent weeks, the U.S. policy objective for Syria was that Assad step aside and be replaced via a negotiated political solution, affirmed in the Geneva Final Communiqué from 2012. The Assad regime’s refusal to engage meaningfully in U.N.-sponsored talks meant that efforts toward a political settlement stalled. Yet, the administration neither adapted its policy objective in response nor created a coherent strategy to achieve it. This failed approach came to a head in late September when Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander of Central Command, testified before Congress that the $500-million rebel training program fielded only “four or five” trainees.


Behind U.S. policy towards Syria has been the view that there is no compelling strategic interest that drives the United States towards deeper involvement. This was best summed up by Stephen Walt’s recent reflection on Syria, “neither great nor minor powers typically run big risks or bear large costs for strictly humanitarian reasons.” This view was particularly salient in 2012, in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq after eight messy years of war. Unfortunately, the second- and third-order effects of the U.S. approach now threaten more salient U.S. interests.

The United States has vital national security interests now connected to the Syrian war: protecting populations against atrocities; ending the spillover of the Syrian humanitarian crisis that has brought upheaval to the EU; thwarting the Islamic State, which has created instability throughout the region; and preserving U.S. influence with its constructive Sunni partners.

As the conflict deepened, the human catastrophe came to Europe’s borders. Now U.S. allies in Europe must contend with the massive wave of refugees that threatens to drain security resources, burden their social systems, and serve as a new wave of first-generation Europeans vulnerable to extremist recruitment. The February 2015 National Security Strategy lists as one of the top strategic risks to U.S. interests “significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states (including mass atrocities, regional spillover).”

America’s failure to act against Assad also strengthened the narrative among Sunnis that the only meaningful alternatives were the Islamic State, Jabhat al Nusra, or other Islamist factions. In a bizarre way, the U.S. approach strengthened the Islamic State’s appeal as the strongest Sunni fighting force against Shia domination from Baghdad to Damascus. The fact that the United States chose not to punish Assad after he murdered 1,000 Syrians with chemical weapons caused Washington’s Sunni allies to question its intentions in the region. The National Security Strategy accurately outlines the responsibility and interest of the United States to respond to and prevent atrocities.

The mass killing of civilians is an affront to our common humanity and a threat to our common security. It destabilizes countries and regions … [and] creates grievances that extremists exploit. We have a strong interest in leading an international response to genocide and mass atrocities when they arise. … [It is] less costly when we act preventively before situations reach crisis proportions.

The situation in Syria is already a crisis, and it imperative that the United States prevent further atrocities.

The Obama administration’s approach to Syria has not only failed to achieve its strategic objective of political transition, but it has also ensured that the counter-Islamic State strategy could never work. While U.S. policy might eventually result in Iraqi forces recapturing Mosul, it was never a “comprehensive counterterrorism strategy to degrade and ultimately defeat” the organization, as stated by President Obama multiple times. The Islamic State will continue to survive and operate within its Syrian territory, with lines of communication and resources from which to organize and conduct future operations in Iraq.

Setting a New Strategic Objective

It is time to set a new U.S. policy objective for Syria in light of the complex situation on the ground and growing threats to U.S. interests. Assad’s removal is no longer feasible, and may not even be desirable. Even if the Obama administration were willing to use force against Assad, it is unlikely that the mix of Syrian actors would or could coalesce around a political transition and power-sharing agreement.

In order to stop regional spillover and defeat the Islamic State, one option is for the United States to reverse its position on Assad and actively support the regime. By giving up on the possibility of a “moderate” opposition, the United States could help set the conditions for Assad to regain lost territory from the Islamic State and other rebel groups. The strategic logic would be similar to that of the Kremlin: siding with the “devil we know” to help limit regional instability. Such an approach might even demand coordination with Russia, although this has been explicitly rejected by the administration. Enabling Assad to consolidate gains and expand his reach could help restore some of the lost territorial integrity of Syria, degrade the Islamic State’s lines of communication, and work in parallel with a long-term Iraq strategy to defeat the Islamic State, pinching them between two professional Arab armies.

However, this “Assad must stay” approach is not acceptable from the perspective of American values, and it would certainly undermine U.S.–Sunni ties. It would also cement the Islamic State’s narrative that they are the only viable Sunni alternative to Shia domination. Finally, from a suitability perspective, while this course may lead to some territorial reversals for the Islamic State, it will likely result in increased atrocities and spillover while Assad consolidates his gains.

Another option would be to defer the question of Assad’s status and shift U.S. sights to a closer target. A starting point should be to measurably reduce the level of violence that precipitated the spillover of the Syrian conflict. Once this objective is achieved, the strategy can turn to the next hurdle. When set in the context of “this is not the final goal,” then freezing the conflict is acceptable from the values and regional allies perspectives, and can suitably meet President Obama’s competing objective of avoiding another costly, large-scale war.

A New Framework

The United States should make a reduction in violence an immediate objective, while reconsidering the core principles from which to craft follow-on objectives for a long-term Syria strategy. These principles flow from U.S. interests, and should guide discussion on policy choices and be presented clearly to the American public. They should answer the following questions: What are the things that the United States will insist on regarding Syria’s future? For what is the United States willing to exert maximum effort to avoid or achieve? Syrian human rights should be protected to the maximum extent possible; therefore, violence must be reduced significantly. The Islamic State is a direct threat to the region — and, by extension, to the world — and it must be weakened. The United States should lead in setting conditions for a political process between key participants (except the Islamic State) to replace the current violence. This does not necessarily mean one central government in Damascus, and it does not exclude the survival of regime elements.

Using these guiding principles, the next step is to consider the strategic concepts (ways) and the instruments of power (means) that could achieve the first strategic objective of reducing the level of violence by all sides in Syria. Once again, it is important to consider the feasibility, acceptability, and suitability of the strategy’s choices, particularly in light of the evolving threats and opportunities.

The United States and European Union should use a combination of diplomatic and military initiatives to force all sides except the Islamic State to cease offensive or punitive operations. This difficult effort would require the United States to tilt the balance of power against the side that does not cooperate. In light of Russia’s recent airstrikes against rebel targets, it would require direct coordination with the Russians. It would also mean communicating through the Russians to the Syrians that the United States will shoot down any barrel-bombing missions by the Syrian Air Force. The U.S. military presence around Syria today gives the United States the capability to carry out that threat. During his recent testimony before Congress, Gen. Petraeus offered this precise recommendation.

The United States must also convince the Sunni (excluding the Islamic State) and Kurdish rebels to pause their offensive operations against one another and against the regime. This quid pro quo would be required in order to carry out the threat against Assad without backlash from Iran and the Russians. The United States would likely need Turkey, the Saudis, and the Qataris to help convince the rebels to pause offensive operations. If they do not cooperate, then the United States could ask the Gulf States to withdraw financial and material support to the rebels. Alternatively, the United States could pressure the rebels by making it clear that they cannot not stop the Russians from retaliating on behalf of the regime.

Clearly, the Islamic State has no interest in ceasing its offensive operations. The current, fragmented opposition is in their interest, and no other nation wishes to see the Islamic State remain viable. The United States (and the Russians) will continue to strike Islamic State targets. Diplomatic efforts with the Russians on pausing operations against rebel locations will create an opportunity to coordinate with the Russians against Islamic State targets. The ways and means of this new strategy refocus U.S. diplomatic and military activities on the protection of Syrian human rights, diminishing the Islamic State’s capabilities, and setting conditions for a political process in the future (i.e., not favoring one ethnicity over another).

The Bosnian War is an illustrative example of how a U.S. administration dramatically revised its approach to a bloody, sectarian conflict, and ultimately achieved a measure of peace. Four years into the war, the massacre at Srebrenica and a broader deterioration of conditions in the former Yugoslavia exposed the weakness of the U.S. strategy to that point, challenged U.S. credibility, and forced strategic change. Abandoning an ineffective approach, the United States adopted an integrated strategy that included arms embargos, economic sanctions and rewards, and airstrikes. The United States and its European allies coerced the warring factions into negotiations and prompted the pursuit of a new political reality.

Any Syria strategy must be subject to questions of how its elements may converge or diverge from the interests of Russia, Iran, and the Gulf States. One advantage of setting the initial strategic objective to reducing the level of violence is that it will yield immediate benefits in reducing the humanitarian crisis, allowing the United States, EU, and Russia to claim victory for its achievement.


Thus far, the U.S. approach to the Syrian war has lacked both strategic coherence and effective resources. The conflict has deepened, and it now threatens vital interests of the United States. It is time to discard the objective of Assad’s removal, and bring American power to bear on a more immediate goal: to protect innocent people from the ever-increasing violence.

Justice is an appealing concept, and Assad’s continuation in power seems unjust. Yet the undeviating pursuit of what the United States and its allies deem just outcomes may prolong the Syrian conflict and simply create more time and space for greater injustice, and the propagation of the toxic conditions that empowered the Islamic State. Sun Tzu wrote, “When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” This is sometimes called the “golden bridge” principle, and U.S. policy has ignored it to its own detriment.

Building on the three principles of protecting human rights by “freezing” the violence between the regime and non-Islamic State elements, continuing to weaken the Islamic State, and setting the conditions for a political process, the administration should develop strategic concepts and apply resources to achieve the new objective and adaptive follow-on objectives based on evolving threats and opportunities. The United States has the power to arbitrate between conflicting sides, using the shrewd application of diplomatic and military power to effectively bring a pause to the existing violence. This is not a comprehensive strategy, but it is a more effective framework upon which the United States can build a new strategy going forward.

There is no clear path to recovering Syria. However, if the administration is willing to define a new strategic objective for Syria, and appropriately apply the ways and means required to achieve it, it could improve the lives of millions of people and begin to minimize the “Chernobyl effect” on the region and the world.


Lt. Col. Ben Jonsson is an Air Force pilot and Regional Affairs Strategist currently studying at the U.S. Army War College. He studied in Amman, Jordan, as an Olmsted Scholar from 2006 to 2008. Lt. Col. Jonsson worked in Strategic Plans & Policy on the Joint Staff and most recently commanded a KC-135 squadron. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


Photo credit: thierry ehrmann