The Promise and Peril of Changing U.S. Strategy in Syria


The Russian bombardment of Aleppo has prompted calls for the United States to dramatically alter its approach to the Syrian conflict. Washington is currently losing its clandestine war against Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Russian intervention has altered the dynamics on the battlefield, largely because its air force has shown no remorse over the mass killing of innocent civilians. Moscow is committed to a Vietnam-style aerial campaign in support of Assad, despite possessing the capability to strike targets with precision. The Russian Air Force has defied expectations and continues to maintain a high sortie rate as a result of its very lax rules of engagement and the use of Russia-based strategic aircraft to augment its assets in theater.

To address recent Russian advances in north Aleppo, the United States is pushing for a ceasefire, with quiet support from Turkey and Arab countries. Recently, the United States finalized an agreement with Russia on the terms for a “cessation of hostilities,” a pause designed to allow the provision of humanitarian aid to besieged areas and aid with the ongoing political efforts to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil conflict. The agreement allows for the continued targeting of anti-Assad groups the United Nations has listed as terrorists. This carve-out will allow for continued American strikes on the Islamic State and continued Russian efforts to target Jabhat al Nusra, Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate. The problem is that Russia has used Nusra’s presence in anti-Assad areas to justify their heavy-handed aerial campaign. Areas of rebel control are not always clearly delineated from each other, a fact that gives Russia an easy excuse to target a wider range of actors. Russia’s campaign has proved effective in helping to change the dynamics of the battlefield in favor of the Assad regime, largely at the expense of the anti-Assad opposition.

It remains to be seen how this agreement plays out, but already, analysts and policymakers are asking: What happens if the agreement fails? And what leverage, if any, does the United States have to force a political transition once the agreement presumably breaks down?

The “Plan B” proposals on offer often call for military escalation, either through closer coordination with regional allies for the enforcement of a no-fly zone or by increasing the number of anti-tank missiles provided to rebel groups via Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-run operations centers in Turkey and Jordan. At first glance, there are merits to both approaches, particularly from a Washington-centric perspective wherein many wonks and observers of the region (from afar) are increasingly frustrated with the Obama administration’s approach to Syria. The enforcement of a no-fly zone would prevent the regime and Russia from bombarding anti-Assad opposition positions, while the concurrent delivery of TOW missiles could then change the dynamics on the battlefield. Together, these policies could force Assad and Russia to compromise on his departure from office, or at least give the United States more leverage to demand Russia change its tactics.

These proposals would entail increasing U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict under the presumption that this could increase American leverage with the parties to the conflict. They would also have the United States deter Russian air operations in northern and southern Syria, either through coercion or negotiation — an assumption based on the idea that Russia would not risk an actual shooting war with the United States and would therefore avoid escalating the situation.

But the devil is in the details. To establish a no-fly zone, coalition aircraft would have to be prepared to shoot down Russian and Syrian aircraft, bomb Syrian surface-to-air missile sites, and possibly engage Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system (which would require some sort of missile salvo, if the aim was to disable this system). Absent these escalatory steps, the United States would have to work closely with Russia to de-conflict airspace, which would require Russia abandoning its current strategy and agreeing to a ceasefire — the strategy currently being pursued.

Any escalation would also have a series of tangential problems related to how U.S. military actions would benefit Nusra in Syria and al Qaeda’s brand globally. Escalation has costs and invites new risk, and it is unwise for critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy to continue ignoring these facts.

There is merit to the current strategy, but it has to be tweaked if Washington hopes to gain the political upper hand against Russia, re-engage with regional allies, and fully align diplomatic efforts with the concurrent military campaign. This requires taking risks and weighing how even a small tweak to the current approach could strengthen al Qaeda in Syria — a group the United States has a clear interest in defeating.

This article outlines the numerous risks involved in deepening the U.S. commitment in Syria, before proposing a strategy of minimal escalation, designed to shape the composition of U.S. backed forces operating in eastern and northern Syria. This proposal rests on the United States using the rules of de-confliction to prevent Russian air operations in eastern and parts of northern Syria, combined with the levying of heavy pressure on the PYD to grant Arab majority towns total autonomy — including military and policing functions — in parts of territory along the Turkish border.

This approach would, in theory, create a more coherent force to liberate Raqqa and to occupy areas in the so-called Manbij pocket, both of which are now currently held by the Islamic State. This won’t be easy and it could, at least in the short term, empower Nusra in Idlib. However, over the longer term, the expansion of a more representative U.S.-backed force, combined with closer cooperation with the key regional allies would ensure that the United States can put pressure on Russia, while also having the tools for a long-term counterterrorism campaign in northern Syria.

Tactics vs. Strategy: The No-Fly Zone

The fundamental problem with the no-fly zone proposal is that it is merely a tactic. Absent a broader strategy, such an operation would only serve to eliminate the regime and its supporters’ control of the sky. In the short term, this would not be a bad thing. Presuming that the United States maintains a presence over the Syrian theater to deal with low-flying threats like helicopters, the elimination of Assad’s air force could prevent the barrel bombing of neighborhoods. However, over the longer term, U.S.-backed rebels on the ground would then be counted upon to make territorial gains against Russian and Syrian armor. Such success would require more anti-tank missiles at a minimum and likely would necessitate U.S. or allied air support against artillery — the largest killer of Syrian civilians by a large margin.

If the U.S.-backed anti-Assad opposition proved incapable of taking territory from the regime, as was the case in Libya against a less capable government-led force, the United States would then be faced with a choice. It could either escalate and provide close air support or face the prospect of a continued stalemate. Escalation would require the destruction of Syrian and Russian artillery, while acceptance of the status quo would engender prolonged insurgency under the cover of American airpower.

Choosing a Ground Force

The United States could also choose to invest more time in cultivating relationships with Syria’s most powerful rebel groups. Yet the most viable Syrian rebel groups come with obvious and perhaps insurmountable drawbacks for the United States by virtue of who they are and the ideology they espouse. The most capable groups in Syria are Jaysh al Islam, Ahrar al Sham, Jabhat al Nusra, and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). All of these actors have proved willing to fight the regime or Islamic State nation-wide and have relationships with key regional actors. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the most important external backers of the anti-Assad insurgency, have close ties with Ahrar and Jaysh al Islam. Ahrar is also used as an interlocutor with Jabhat al Nusra, allowing both Ankara and Riyadh to provide indirect support to the group. The United States, in contrast, works closely with the PYD. Various other anti-Assad groups fight alongside these major powers, most often because they have few options other than to bandwagon with a more powerful patron.

The United States has a choice to make: continue its efforts to prop up groups that have no relationship with Nusra (such as the PYD), or overlook these groups’ ties to Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate, in favor of a shorter-term focus on putting pressure on Assad.

The Saudi and Turkish policy has obvious drawbacks for the United States: The rise of Jabhat al Nusra in Idlib poses a long-term security challenge for American military efforts against al Qaeda’s global network. Further still, Ahrar has proven to be an ally of Nusra despite tensions over how best to work with the local population in Idlib and various attempts to empower the group as a means to isolate Nusra. Both groups represent different strands on the far-right spectrum of Salafi politics. Ahrar’s comparative moderation has prompted calls to make contact with the group and recognize that they do not pose a threat to the U.S. homeland, despite their hardline views on religion and politics inside Syria. The PYD is also a problematic ally as the Syrian affiliate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union, and Turkey. The PKK’s youth affiliate is currently battling Turkish security personnel in much of Turkey’s southeast.

Inside Syria, the PYD has hostile relations with Ahrar and Nusra in addition to a variety of Free Syrian Army groups active in north Aleppo. These key divergences would limit the effectiveness of a no-fly zone and complicate the formulation of the rules of engagement for American pilots. What happens when they start fighting each other? Which side will Washington take? When it comes to Nusra and perhaps even Ahrar, these decisions will be easy, but factionalism among Syria’s armed opposition will force more difficult choices, including how to direct airstrikes in any long-term campaign in the Syrian conflict. U.S. military officials would have to weigh the value of strikes in certain areas against whether the provision of close air support or coordinated airstrikes would roll back Assad, only to see him replaced with opposition elements like al Qaeda.

To maximize effectiveness, U.S. or allied military Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs) would have to embed with elements of the opposition or otherwise rely on local groups passing coordinates through a U.S. operations room. The United States currently relies on the latter approach, which slows the pace of airstrikes — yet this approach has nevertheless been effective in the war against the Islamic State. However, the deployment of JTACs with the non-Kurdish rebels would entail negotiating with Nusra or Ahrar, a task best left to Turkey and Qatar. However, efforts to reach an agreement over the deployment of U.S.-trained Arab and Turkmen fighters failed after Nusra attacked these Arab elements. In this previous instance, Turkey reportedly took responsibility for their crossing of the border, underscoring Ankara’s limited influence with the jihadi group.

How can the United States escalate in northern Syria without empowering al Qaeda? Jabhat al Nusra’s strength in Idlib should not be underestimated, nor should the strength of its relationship with Ahrar. While the two groups have clashed at times, they ultimately rely on one another in the areas where they are dominant. For Turkey and Qatar, Ahrar presents an opportunity: After the toppling of Assad, Ahrar can then be counted on to act as a counterweight to Nusra and eventually undercut its appeal in Idlib and within the anti-Assad insurgency writ large. Thus, as a first step, outside backers must give support to rebel groups that fight alongside them — both as a means to increase the potency of the anti-Assad opposition and to create a strong counterweight to Nusra in the longer term. In other words, empower the Free Syrian Army.

This poses a serious problem for the United States because Nusra’s presence would have to be tolerated in the interim. However, the joint U.S.–Turkish–Arab arming program does appear to have overlooked this political problem in deference to the need to strengthen vetted groups against Assad and the Islamic State. This program, however, is wedded to U.S. efforts to negotiate a political arrangement to end the conflict that includes Assad’s removal from power. The arming program was meant to put pressure on the regime, not topple it, thus avoiding the risk of total government collapse and the concurrent empowerment of Nusra and the Islamic State.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however, negotiated their own arrangement with Ahrar and Nusra, resulting in the formation of the Jaysh al Fateh group in March 2015. In turn, U.S.-vetted groups joined with these two elements before a large offensive resulted in sweeping gains in Idlib province. This offensive, it appears, prompted Russia’s intervention and increased Iranian support for the regime. Russia has also used Nusra and Ahrar as a pretext for its deliberate targeting of U.S.-vetted groups, a tactic it has used to justify its defense of the regime and its punishing bombardment of groups in the Azaz corridor. Nusra had largely withdrawn from this area in deference to Turkey, but a small number of Nusra fighters remain in Azaz and elsewhere. The PYD and Russia have exploited this fact to justify their recent actions in the area, a fact that undercuts U.S. efforts to stop Russian bombing.

Defining Interests: Weighing the Costs of Escalation vs. Staying the Course

This difficult set of circumstances does not preclude the enforcement of a no-fly zone, but it must be considered and weighed against two key questions: “What are the long-term U.S. interests in Syria?” and “How would military escalation in the conflict impact these interests?” The Obama administration has articulated two clear objectives: degrade and defeat the Islamic State. To this end, the current strategy is paying dividends. The group has lost territory to a range of forces in Iraq and Syria. However, the success of these two policy objectives depends on continued American military support for the PYD’s militia, the YPG. This reality has severely strained relations with Turkey, particularly after the group worked with Russia to take territory in the Azaz corridor.

The YPG’s actions are illustrative of a broader strategic problem U.S. policymakers must also consider. The Kurdish offensive is part of a much larger political project tied to the PKK’s long-standing ambition to establish local autonomous governance in areas under its control. Its war against the Islamic State is part of this project, and U.S. support for the group is contributing to the advancement of a political project most countries in the region reject. A similar dynamic is currently unfolding in Iraq, where Iraqi Kurdish forces from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are using the safety provided by American air protection to proceed with plans to hold a referendum for independence, despite a U.S. desire for Iraq to remain united. This has touched off a fight amongst rival Kurdish groups — the PYD/PKK and the party of KRG president Massoud Barzani, the KDP — for control of Sinjar, where fighters from these two groups, backed by the United States, defeated the Islamic State in mid-November 2015.

In the wake of the fighting, the KDP and PKK are now vying for the support of the local Yazidi population, which, prior to the rise of the Islamic State in June 2014, had allied closely with the Barzani clan largely as a result of the KDP’s patronage network in the area. The KDP’s defeat in the city and the PKK role in evacuating Yazidis from Mt. Sinjar have opened the door for a greater PKK/PYD presence in the area. The U.S. intervention exacerbated these tensions as both rival groups relied on U.S. airpower to defend their de facto capital cities: Qamishli and Erbil. And, in turn, these groups are now vying for influence in Sinjar. If the United States replicates these tactics over northwestern Syria, the no-fly zone would also protect Idlib, raising the possibility that the United States would be taking part in the ongoing political efforts Ahrar and Nusra are spearheading in the area.

Yet military inaction also has costs. The regime’s maintenance of air superiority has allowed it — with direct Russian and Iranian assistance — to use mass aerial bombing to de-populate areas, a strategy that appears linked to the regime’s efforts to starve, siege, torture, and rape elements of the Syrian population to win the war. The mass migration of people from Syria to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kurdish-controlled areas in Syria and Iraq, and the European Union has destabilized key American allies. Moreover, the participation of Iranian regular and irregular units has introduced a sectarian angle to this aspect of the conflict, deepening tensions with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar over concerns that the United States is looking the other way while Syria’s Sunni population is exterminated.

In the short term, the United States has the luxury of overlooking these grievances as it continues to have success against the Islamic State in eastern Syria. However, the maintenance of these relationships will be critical for the continued projection of American power in the Middle East in the longer term, once Assad is dealt with and the Islamic State is rolled back. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, for example, will remain critical actors in post-conflict Syria, and the United States will require their cooperation to continue with its current counterterrorism policies in much of the Middle East — including in Idlib, where Ankara is the dominant external power. Moreover, the current dynamics in Syria suggest a long-term Russian and Iranian presence, which the United States has an interest in working to contain. To do so, the United States will also have to work with its traditional Arab partners in the Gulf and the Levant and with Turkey, a process that will require some reconciliation of events in Syria before deeper cooperation can lead to a more coherent strategy in the Middle East writ large.

Policy Options

Moving forward in Syria, American policy should consider how its actions in Syria affect its broader geopolitical ambitions in the region independent of the current status of the war or Assad’s fate. This presents the United States with a menu of policy options, broadly divided into two categories: staying the course and escalation.

The American-led war in eastern Syria is going well, when judged against the narrow set of objectives that the Obama administration articulated. The Islamic State is losing territory and Syrian Kurdish forces, backed by a growing number of Arab groups, appear poised to launch an offensive for Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State’s caliphate. The United Arab Emirates, a state that long resisted giving support to various Syrian Arab rebel groups, will reportedly deploy special operations forces to aid in this offensive. Such a move would help to give an Arab face to what is now a Kurdish-dominated force and could help with future Kurdish–Arab reconciliation in other parts of Syria.

This approach would do little to effect change in western Syria, where Russia and the regime are making gains and therefore are strengthening Assad’s position at the negotiating table. The United States would, in this case, be at a disadvantage while trying to organize the anti-Assad opposition. However, it may soon be able to achieve its stated objectives vis-à-vis the Islamic State.

If the United States chooses to escalate, it could pursue one of two interrelated options. Short of declaring a no-fly zone, the United States and its Arab allies could agree to place troops in eastern Syria. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey could also be asked to deploy troops and airpower. Such a deployment could aid in the fight for Raqqa and sever Islamic State supply lines to Iraq without having to rely solely on the Syrian Kurds. This narrowly defined deployment could coincide with a more pronounced effort to support the Syrian opposition delegation selected in Riyadh in December 2015.

In reality, this deployment would require significant air support and therefore would constitute a no-fly zone in eastern Syria in all but name. However, it could be a way to attempt to change the dynamics on the battlefield and to codify the current reality in Syria: U.S. control over much of the northern and eastern skies, compared to Russia’s dominant position in the northwest of the country.

This approach would not be simple, but it would have the support of the United States’ regional allies and could be part of a long-term effort to shore up alliances, particularly against Russia. It would also require Turkey staying out of this aspect of the conflict on the ground. A large Turkish ground force would have to traverse Syrian Kurdish territory under such a plan, which would invite YPG retaliatory attacks. This could then collapse the eastern front with the Islamic State and undermine the plan to drive the group from Raqqa, while simultaneously bolstering Assad and Russia in the west. Thus, any Turkish component would have to be limited to airpower and include a strict provision against the targeting of the Syrian Kurds — a demand that would require Turkey to cease its shelling of YPG targets, as well.

A Way Forward: Tweaking the Strategy

There is also a third option that I call “tweaking the strategy.” This option would keep U.S. strategy focused on the Islamic State and the eastern air war, but with an important calibration to its footprint in northern Syria, where a reported 50 special operation forces are deployed at a small airfield near the Iraqi border. These forces appear to be coordinating closely with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a YPG-dominant militia that includes some Arab and Syriac tribal fighters. The U.S. military also appears to be trying to cultivate deeper ties with Arab groups outside Raqqa to prepare for a planned offensive to take the city from the Islamic State. The cultivating of closer ties with anti-Islamic State Arab forces in the area would require considerable U.S. pressure on the PYD to grant real autonomy to local Arab-majority towns and cities that SDF fighters take from the Islamic State. This includes the option to vote on inclusion in Rojava (Kurdish-controlled northern Syria), rather than automatically being consumed by the PYD’s larger political ambitions. The United States appears to be implementing elements of this approach already — the reported forthcoming deployment of U.A.E. special operations forces appears to be the first step in cultivating more concrete ties with Arab groups critical for a move on Raqqa.

The United States could use a heavy rotation of aircraft over this area and the rules of de-confliction to prevent Russia from bombing near Raqqa and eastern Syria. This approach would use diplomacy, rather than coercion, to deter Russian flights in eastern Syria, with the goal of protecting U.S. allied forces on the ground from future bombardment.

This approach could then be used as a model for greater Arab–Kurdish cooperation in northern Syria, particularly in the Azaz corridor north of Aleppo and near the town of Manbij. This would require close cooperation with Turkey, particularly about the future of PYD governance. To assuage Turkish concerns about Kurdish empowerment, the United States could propose a policy of autonomous Arab governance in areas and towns along the border, beginning with Azaz — a town opposite the Bab al Salama/Oncupinar border gate that Turkey has pledged to defend from Kurdish YPG/SDF forces based to the west.

To prevent the town’s fall to the YPG, the Turkish military is using artillery and has reportedly bussed up to 500 fighters from Idlib to Azaz to reinforce the Northern Storm brigade, a rebel group affiliated with the Levant Front umbrella organization. Ideally, the weaker members of the Levant Front could be co-opted to join with the SDF in exchange for autonomy and military decision-making in towns where their units are dominant. For this to happen, Ankara would have to remove its virtual veto and retract its frequent pledge to withdraw its financial and military support to rebel groups that cooperate with the Syrian Kurds. This would require Turkey to take a longer-term approach to its own internal Kurdish issue, which could get far worse in the spring once the snow melts in the mountains dividing Iraq and Turkey, allowing the PKK easier access to Turkey’s southeast for hit-and-run attacks.

In theory, this approach could put pressure on Ahrar and Nusra and begin to build up an alternative force capable of isolating these two groups in the longer term. In the past, Arab groups have joined with the YPG, including a small number of former Free Syrian Army units that now form the core of the Arab majority Jaysh al Thuwar. To be clear, this approach will be exceedingly difficult to implement, but at this stage in an atrocious proxy war that has torn a country apart, we need to think more creatively and boldly. Absent a serious push that includes Turkish–Kurdish communication, the dynamics in northern Syria suggest intra-opposition conflict in perpetuity. This conflict weakens Turkey and strengthens American and Turkish adversaries.

My proposal has an obvious drawback: Idlib would be left unprotected from Russian airstrikes, raising the prospect that the regime could continue to make headway in the anti-Assad opposition’s most important area. The United States and its allies could seek to augment these groups’ capabilities through the provision of more anti-tank missiles while also working to negotiate ceasefires to spare the region from bombardment — the Pentagon may already be proposing such a step.

This approach has the cost of indirectly strengthening Jabhat al Nusra. Thus, if a durable political solution is reached, the United States will still have to maintain the capability to conduct counterterrorism operations in the area for the foreseeable future. This is in addition to the need to think about a long-term counterterrorism approach to pockets of territory in which the Islamic State will remain popular and able to recruit young men. U.S. special forces appear to be making plans to do just this, and they could use a now-completed airstrip in PYD-held territory for drone strikes or as a jumping-off point for raids.

Clearly, ending the Syrian civil war on American-preferred terms has become more difficult in recent months. However, the United States still retains viable options. Each option has serious drawbacks that must be taken into account before moving ahead with either of the aforementioned approaches. It is critical that the United States re-engage with its regional allies. Long after Assad and the Islamic State are dealt with, the United States will retain an interest in counterterrorism operations in the region and will need its allies to balance against Russia’s growing presence in the region. Washington does have a range of options beyond directly challenging Moscow for control of the sky. The policy options are fraught with risk and have numerous downsides, but could form the foundation for a more durable American presence in the longer term, if leveraged properly. This presence is vital for the realization of future U.S. interests in the region, including the mending of relations with its Arab and Turkish allies.


Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.


Photo credit: Kurdishstruggle