A Plan for Syria

The United States must think outside the box.

Writes David Ignatius, "The military situation in Syria is slipping away as the President ponders." New Zealand scholar and historian William Harris laments "the immensity of death, flight and destruction in Syria" perpetrated by the Assad regime, which "has become the crime of the 21st century." CIA deputy Michael Morell, concluding a 33-year agency career, rated the situation in Syria ahead of Al Qaeda and Iran's nuclear program as the number one threat to U.S. security interests in the world.

Too hard for Washington?

Some will say, not without justification, that President Obama's reticence reflects the hope of keeping new foreign entanglements from complicating his second-term agenda. Others will say, in so many words, that the Syria situation is just too hard, and nothing the United States does can ensure an end to the killing, destruction and displacement, or guarantee a more moderate and democratic Syrian leadership in the aftermath.

The U.S. national security bureaucracy has, over the past seventy years, responded many different ways to circumstances assessed to be the number one security threat to our national interest. Doing virtually nothing because the problem is 'too hard' would, however, represent a novel foreign policy posture for the country long defined by its aspiration to remain the accepted leader of the free world.

Syria is indeed a wicked problem, and the President does have other priorities. But leaders in Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara, Doha, Amman and Moscow among others have obviously determined that their future interests require concerted efforts to influence the outcome in Syria, if only to stave off the worst contingencies. In the belief that no outcome is foreordained in Syria, that the Assad regime's use of military force against the population must not pass with impunity, and that American adversaries Iran and Hezbollah could be severely weakened while the security of Jordan, Turkey and Israel is reinforced—or the opposite, depending on what happens from here on—the United States is obliged to exert superpower influence on this crisis.

For many years now, Pentagon doctrinal documents such as the Quadrennial Defense Review, the National Defense Strategy, the National Military Strategy and others, have made reference to national-level efforts and whole-of-government responses. Yet, these concepts live on only in Powerpoint slide decks. In today's crisis-response playbook, the pages in between symbolic sanctions and verbal hand-wringing on one end, and introduction of military forces on the other, are sparse. The talk about 'whole-of-government' within DoD in particular has never been answered by the establishment of credible non-military capability within other departments and agencies that can exert leverage overseas, with or without military force, on a scale remotely comparable to a Pentagon operation. Even General Dempsey, in clarifying his position on a U.S. response to the Syria crisis, said, "I'm not suggesting that the international community do nothing. I am suggesting that you need a strategy to tie military options with other instruments of power."

Here is how it might be done.

A Transformed American Response to the Syria Crisis

The following represents a different kind of U.S. response to the Syria crisis, with three defining features: first, there are no U.S. military "boots on the ground" or pilots over Syrian airspace; second, many if not all of the elements deviate from the way Washington now operates; and third, incumbent practitioners in the concerned agencies would be expected to resist and dismiss as unrealistic most if not all aspects of such a reimagined American campaign. The change depicted here is, therefore, as much cultural as organizational.

STRATEGY—There must be unity of effort. This begins with a single leader, in command of the effort, whose mandate comes from the Principals Committee, to which he/she answers. The concept of command is not strong outside DoD, yet this commander should almost certainly be a civilian, preferably with expertise on Syria, perhaps Arabic language capability, professional knowledge of military and intelligence operations, and high-level diplomatic and negotiating experience. (Lest the reader consider this description a fantasy persona, it is not.) Task-force members and staff are hand-selected and seconded from various organizations, e.g., State, CIA, DIA, OSD, SOCOM, CENTCOM, funded by their parent organizations but answering to the commander.

All lines of effort among U.S. agencies, and preferably those of cooperating allies as well, are tailored in support of clear policy goals:

A) Assad and circle removed from power;

B) Political process aimed at stabilizing conflict and protecting all communities’ interests;

C) Impose maximum political/reputational costs on Iran, Hezbollah, and Sunni extremists, and seek to deny them influence in post-Assad Syria;

D) Maintain constant attention to security equities of Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq;

E) Seek maximum coordination, unity and mandate between the United States and like-minded countries for their mutual efforts toward these ends.