In recent years Pentagon contingency planners have imported, from social science, the concept of the “wicked” problem—that theoretical future security crisis that defies solution. Today that future security crisis is here, and its name is Syria. How important is the eventual denouement of this catastrophic civil war? Apparently, important enough to draw major security responses from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Qatar, Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and Sunni militant Islamists from across the Arab world.
Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan face major humanitarian relief burdens for displaced Syrian civilians, fleeing at a rate of more than five thousand per day. Iraq’s tenuous internal cohesion is being stressed by the sectarian breakup next door. France and Britain are exerting what leverage they can in domains they once controlled. Israel—after decades of fending off conventional and nuclear dangers from the regimes of Hafez al Assad and his son Bashar—now must contemplate a future northern neighbor in which Hezbollah may be further strengthened, a vengeful Sunni Muslim Brotherhood could vie for power long denied by the Alawite regime, and even jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra fighters from across the Arab world will seek a new operational base.
For the United States, Syria has long held strategic importance. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, President Nixon escalated the nuclear-alert level to DEFCON 3 to deter Moscow from sending Soviet troops to bolster Syrian forces fighting against Israel; Moscow was deterred. During President Reagan's intervention of U.S. Marines along with French, Italian and British forces seeking to stabilize Beirut after Israel's 1982 incursion against the PLO, Syria served as a staging ground for young Iranian fighters sent into Lebanon's Bekaa Valley to arm and train Shiite Lebanese members of the new militant Hezbollah organization, which then launched catastrophic truck-bombing attacks on U.S. diplomats and Marines in Lebanon. Kissinger's famous dictum, "No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria," is surely no less true now that Syria is engulfed in sectarian conflict.
The Obama administration, however, appears unconvinced of the impact Syria's crisis could have on future U.S. security interests. Obama has long been critical of the way President George W. Bush engaged forces in long and costly interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, and no longer refers to a Global War on Terrorism. Today, as the death toll surpasses one hundred thousand and militant jihadists flock into Syria, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warns that any U.S. military mission beyond humanitarian assistance, provision of ‘non-lethal’ support and positioning of limited defensive assets with neighboring allies could require hundreds of combat platforms, thousands of troops and billions of dollars.
Obama administration spokespersons cite humanitarian aid to refugees in Turkish and Jordanian camps and 'non-lethal' assistance to opposition forces as evidence that the United States is seriously engaged in dealing with this crisis. Beyond the halls of government in Washington, however, the perception is quite the opposite. Clearly, the United States is expected to do more.
Two years ago, on August 18, 2011, President Obama said, "[T]he time has come for President Assad to step aside." Yet many observers believe Assad's position has only solidified, not weakened, in the interim. One year ago, on August 20, 2012, President Obama declared, "[A] red line for us is...chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus." Yet no such change seems to have followed the revelation on June 13, 2013 by Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes that the U.S. intelligence community, with "high confidence," assesses that “[T]he Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including sarin...against the opposition multiple times in the last year."
Rhodes' briefing was followed by word that President Obama intended to provide military aid to the opposition forces in Syria, yet to date there has been none. The opposition-force leader, Major General Salim Idriss, reportedly
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.