Absent such a negotiated transition, a second alternative lies with the Kurds who have already secured a fairly large swath across northern Syria. The hundreds of thousands of Kurds fleeing into Turkey coupled with the capture by Daesh of several hundred Kurdish villages in Syria’s northeast, including parts of Kobani, mobilized the Kurds in Turkey and the Peshmerga from Iraq to support the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and successfully counter-attack Daesh. Although their territory abuts both the areas controlled by Daesh and by the non-jihadi Sunnis, the Kurds are ambivalent about widening their efforts beyond protection of the Syrian Kurds themselves. Why should they take casualties and risks for elements in Syria that have never welcomed them or wished them well, indeed have been hostile to them? Better, perhaps, to consolidate their restricted gains and watch, then deal with a more settled environment later. The answer would necessarily entail both Western financial and military help as well as a guaranteed place of safety, respect, and assured Kurdish participation in a new Syrian political order. (Better yet, from their perspective, would be to include the Kurds in a new Kurdistan, including Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, but that still remains a step too far for any of the other protagonists, including the United States.)
As already noted, direct support for the Kurds would antagonize the Turks, at least Erdoğan. His political position in Turkey is now stronger after his November election victory (just shy of 50 percent of the vote but enough to regain a parliamentary majority) which he described as a validation of the AKP’s hardline stance against the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Notwithstanding that Erdoğan’s anti-terrorist, anti-Kurd election strategy clearly paid off, a generous response in which his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were willing to find an accommodation with Kurdish ambitions for greater decentralization and more autonomy within Turkey would undoubtedly weaken the insurrection and perhaps even energize Turkey’s moderate, non-PKK Kurds. Were there less conflict, less violence within Turkey, Ankara might be more willing to see an enhanced Kurdish role in Syria as well, especially since that would also mean less turmoil on Turkey’s Syrian (and perhaps even its Iraqi) border. However, given the AKP victory and Erdoğan’s hard line against the Kurds during the campaign and afterwards—airstrikes against the KPP resumed just one day after the AKPs electoral victory—arming and supporting a Kurdish force in Syria would mean convincing Ankara that the Kurds are a necessary ally in the fight against both of Erdoğan’s enemies in Syria, the jihadis and Assad, and therefore a necessary evil. Alternatively it would mean supporting the Kurds notwithstanding Turkey’s objections, perhaps the least difficult, least objectionable, most digestible of the policy options.
The third option remains the illusive preference: supporting the Syrian “moderate” rebellion and some version of the Syrian National Front or the Syrian Arab Coalition (the “moderate” or at least anti-jihadi insurgents but minus the stigmatized Kurds). But so far that has been a sterile inclination. The recent revelation by General Lloyd Austin, Combatant Commander of U.S. Central Command, that after spending $500 million on training such a force (planned for 5,000-6,000), the total number of trained, combat-ready soldiers is less than 70 with only four, possibly five, actually engaging in the combat is beyond just embarrassing. It is a complete failure, at least for the moment. Worse yet, apparently the number of U.S.-trained combatants is higher, but many of them have defected or surrendered or sold their equipment to al-Nusra or Daesh. Moreover, internal differences within the Pentagon about a plausible scenario for success make that job more difficult as indicated by the additional revelations that some in the intelligence community believe Centcom has inflated even the very meager good news in the assessments the intelligence community has provided. The Pentagon will be hard-put to convince President Obama let alone Congress that any such the program and attendant funding should continue. Indeed the Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has taken that option off the table, at least until a plausible successor package can be developed. Moreover, even in the most optimistic scenario, the coalition would be unlikely to control all of Syria and so would be forced to deal with other political and military elements. At the very least, it would probably result in a Lebanon-like environment in which different communities would each control part of the country and in which something like a national government would consist, at best, of a coalition of the communities with very limited, if any, authority over the entire state. That may be the inevitable result in Syria but it would be nearly certain under this option.
The proposal for a no-fly zone to provide a safe-haven for humanitarian efforts and for the non-jihadi combatants is at best only a tactic in the second or third option. Although it would house and hopefully safeguard refugees pending some kind of resolution of the civil war and would provide a physical location for refugees deported by Europe, Lebanon or Jordan, it would at most defend the population from attacks by air but not from the ground. Moreover, without ground forces to guarantee its safety and ready to push out of any such zone, it would create an indefinite island in the protracted war around it, not a tactic in a larger strategy for success. Moreover, without Russian concurrence, a no-fly-zone would come with heavy risk of conflict between allied and Russian air assets.
In one sense, the second and third options are the same, except for sequencing. The Kurds have no ambition to take over the government of Syria after driving the Assad forces out, nor could they. The roughly two million Kurds represent only around 15 percent of Syria’s pre-war population. So even a complete YPG victory in the north would achieve, at best, a safe Kurdish enclave from which, or adjacent to which, other Syrian forces, presumably Sunnis, would, again best case, be able to advance against Assad and his allies and against Daesh. The creation of such a safe haven is hardly new and so far it has not worked, but the YPG is much better organized and combat-tested now and could clearly defend the terrain they wrested from the Syrian National Army in the first place.
What should the United States do?
So far, the Obama administration has defined neither clear, realistic U.S. objectives nor, therefore, a convincing strategy to achieve them. The stated goals—removing Assad and containing then destroying Daesh—are also at best tactics in a larger strategy for the former and an objective for the latter. They do not constitute a plan. Even if Assad goes, what, in the administration’s view, would be the larger resolution in Syria and how could it be achieved? And with what constellation of post-Assad elements? In particular, with what resolution of the communal conflicts and those between the foreign stakeholders? A broad liberal democracy, however desirable, is surely utopian in the near term and cannot be the foundation of a realistic U.S. strategy. But what would more realistic aims and plans look like?
It is fair enough that the United States not elucidate in detail its preferences, objectives or outcomes or even, perhaps, that it have in mind one among several possibilities all of which would dislodge Assad and his immediate entourage, destroy or isolate Daesh, end or contain the conflict between the other contending groups so that they can concentrate on Daesh, and bring some kind of peaceful, consensual order to Syria. It certainly should not broadcast the compromises for which it would settle.
But to provide leadership, the United States will need to signal some organizing principles, some clearer set of objectives, around which to rally the fissiparous stakeholders. That would clearly include a regime change which, properly understood, means not just a change in personnel (in this case Assad and his entourage) but a fundamental transformation of structure and process, in this case from a narrow, sectarian, brutal authoritarian dictatorship to a regime that represents the aspirations of the majority of the various Syrians, a modus vivendi among its constituent communities, and institutions and procedures that encode some kind of consensus. In the unlikely event that the various constituent elements could agree on even a nominally efficacious central and representative government, one possibility is a federal union with extensive decentralization to local, probably communal, sub-divisions. As noted, another possibility is a Lebanon-like, confederal state which may well be a Westphalian entity in name more than in substance.
For domestic reasons, most of the stakeholders outside Europe and North America are averse to both federalism and confederalism. The governments at the Vienna table are not notable devotees of constraints on central power. And they are concerned about the potential for centrifugal, separatist tendencies to challenge the coherence of the Syrian state. As already noted, no one (yet) seems to be willing to contemplate Syria’s complete partition into several mini-states. Notwithstanding their aversions, these are the most viable choices however.