Obama’s Dangerous “No War, No Peace” Strategy in Syria

"U.S. leaders should respond to Moscow with a combination of strength and pragmatism rather than weakness and inflexibility."

President Obama is about to add another dismal chapter to his foreign policy record. He may believe that his administration's “no war, no peace” response to Russia’s intervention in Syria will avoid subjecting the United States—or him—to the potential costs of making a choice between two unattractive alternatives. Unfortunately, this posture may well be the most dangerous approach of all for it conveys both weakness to U.S. allies and inflexibility to Moscow, thereby encouraging further assertiveness at America’s expense while allowing Syria’s civil war to rage and ISIL to gain ground.

Before Russia’s intervention in Syria, four years of civil war there had firmly established America’s conventional wisdom: the United States has no good options, a view this president clearly shares. Now, after several days of Russian airstrikes and a few cruise missile attacks, a new conventional wisdom is emerging: standing up to Moscow should serve as Washington’s defining objective in Syria. But this is in essence a sharply negative foreign policy, one that rests, not on forwarding American interests, but on seeking to stymie the Kremlin. Has the administration or outside advocates thought carefully about how the United States might advance its new aims in Syria--or what unintended consequences might ensue?

It is unfortunate, if predictable, that much of Washington’s foreign policy elite would line up behind a confrontation with Russia over Syria. Americans perceive Russian President Vladimir Putin as an autocrat and a bully and are frustrated that he appears to have outmaneuvered the Obama administration. Add in Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and you have more kindling for an emotional bonfire to torch the U.S.-Russia relationship. Moscow’s bogus claims that it is focusing on attacking the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Syria and that it is not intervening in Ukraine make it only more attractive to cut Putin down to size.

Yet if one considers U.S. key strategic objectives in Syria and globally, a fixation on opposing Putin makes little sense. America’s principal objective in Syria must be to prevent ISIL’s domination of the country or its establishment of a sanctuary there. In either case, ISIL would have a base for attacks in Iraq and even the United States. Washington’s second objective is to oust Assad, who the administration accurately argues has generated far more violent extremists than he has eliminated.

Despite years of effort and billions in expenses, however, the United States and its partners have failed to assemble a credible military force to remove Assad. On the contrary, without ISIL or the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and its wider coalition, Syria’s anti-Assad forces would essentially be impotent. As a practical matter, this means that the only major army available to fight both Assad and ISIL is al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra, which President Obama is appropriately reluctant to support. After the September 11 attacks, that would be a truly remarkable decision. Indeed, despite his butchery and deceit, few have considered Assad a threat to the United States—and he is not responsible for killing 3,000 Americans. Moreover, while Assad’s support for Hezbollah has threatened U.S. ally Israel and indirectly killed Israelis, he is likely a safer neighbor for Jersualem than al-Nusra.

The need to fight both ISIL and al-Nusra is one of the reasons that the Obama administration and most foreign policy experts prefer to avoid dismantling the Syrian government and the Syrian army. Both will be necessary, under different leadership, to fight Syria’s violent extremists. Avoiding the costly consequences of the Bush administration’s mistaken emasculation of the Iraqi government and military is already a component of current U.S. declaratory policy in Syria.

Indeed, from this perspective, Donald Trump is quite right to suggest that if Putin is attacking al-Nusra and ISIL, and helping Assad’s forces to gain ground, this is not in itself contrary to U.S. interests in Syria—though there are two important caveats to his audacious statement.

First, Russian strikes on U.S.-trained or supported groups are a blow to U.S. standing and directly undermine U.S. policy, however ineffective it may be absent such attacks. Allowing Putin to look like the architect of a new Syria, with the United States on the sidelines, would be even worse. Second, Assad’s indefinite hold on power is an insurmountable obstacle to any lasting solution in Syria and destabilizes the whole region.

However, neither of these caveats precludes engaging Moscow in a meaningful dialogue about destroying ISIL and gradually but certainly easing Assad from power. In dealing with the first, Putin has said that Russia would welcome not only targeting suggestions but also information on whom to avoid attacking. The Obama administration should test Moscow--in both areas--stating clearly that we are experimenting and that attacks on identified U.S. partners would gravely breach our trust. There should be ways to start by providing information that Russia and Assad already have in order to avoid potentially delivering intelligence to Damascus.

Second, neither Russia nor Putin is capable of structuring a comprehensive anti-ISIL coalition or an international diplomatic settlement. In this regard, President Obama has been correct to state that Moscow’s actions reflect weakness rather than strength. In fact, Putin himself has said openly that his policy cannot succeed without cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition. Washington can quickly end any speculation to the contrary in Russia by extending judicious assistance to non-extremist rebel forces, including anti-tank missiles but not anti-aircraft missiles.