Target ISIS, and Bashar Assad as well

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 08, 2014, on page 7.

By: Mouhanad A. Al-Rifay

My generation of college educated Syrian-Americans seems to collectively agree on a few points when it comes to Syria and the vigorously expanding wars in the Middle East.

First, we must not fight someone else’s battles. Second, we must not put Americans in the military in harm’s way for any reason other than to defend the American homeland. Third, we should stay true to our values and support those who share them. Balancing these concepts and preventing slaughter around the world, especially in our ancestral land, is our dilemma.

The ongoing bloody conflict in Syria and the region will harm President Barack Obama’s legacy for a long time, and will haunt our generation for decades to come, due to Obama’s inability so far to strike the right balance between American beliefs and interests. It’s time for the president, who had us believe in hope and change, to lead us out of this confusion.

Obama’s policies have only aided the escalation and spillover of violence into neighboring countries, leading to the emergence of ISIS

Thus far, Obama’s policies toward the Syrian conflict have only aided escalation and spillover of violence into neighboring countries, leading to the emergence of ISIS, with its savage tactics and antiquated caliphate. ISIS is a consequence of the Obama administration’s noninterventionist stance and its lead-from-behind ethos.

Indeed, Syria’s conflict could have been avoided altogether had the administration chosen to defend the peaceful protesters back in 2011, just as it defended the armed insurrection in Libya. It’s disheartening and unfathomable to hear Obama defend the latter intervention while failing to explain his unwillingness to support the nonviolent protesters in Syria during that heroic year between March 2011 and March 2012 – a period when unarmed protesters faced Assad’s tanks saying “peaceful, peaceful,” as Obama himself repeatedly acknowledged in his public statements at the time.

But when it came to Syria, Obama had only platitudes to offer for the most part, which served to empower Iran, Hezbollah and all sorts of sectarian Sunnis and Shiite militias – ending with ISIS. Moreover, it was a huge mistake on the part of the administration to turn its back on America’s traditional allies in the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan – leaving them to improvise on their own, each backing its favorites, further fracturing and radicalizing the rebel groups.

It will be equally disastrous if the administration at this stage undertakes any coordination with Bashar Assad’s regime in its fight against ISIS, as some are advocating. Such a policy could serve to radicalize many rebel groups currently adhering to a more moderate line. The administration needs to develop a more holistic approach to the question of intervention in Syria, one that seeks to empower the moderate forces and defeat those who are benefitting from the growing sectarian divide, especially ISIS and the Assad regime.

The administration has been seen as allied with the region’s Shiite communities at the expense of the democratic aspirations of the majority Sunni inhabitants. This perception should not be allowed to continue. America’s security is at stake, and not only for the two years left in Obama’s term, but also for decades to come. To remedy this general situation there are a number of options that the U.S. should consider.

First, it should recognize the political opposition, represented by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

Washington should hand over to the National Coalition all diplomatic posts in the U.S. and work with its allies in Europe and the United Nations to do the same. This recognition shouldn’t be given, but earned under specific U.S. terms and conditions. For example, the U.S. should pressure the coalition to commit to a unified, democratic and secular government in Syria that is friendly to America’s regional interests.

In addition, the opposition must commit to a national reconciliation process that includes, but is not limited to, the Alawite, Kurd and Christian minorities.

Furthermore, to maintain stability in the region, the Syrian opposition shall maintain peaceful relations with its neighbors including Israel. Recognizing the National Coalition as the representative of the Syrian people will grant it the legal means to represent the Syrians and take legal measures against the Assad regime. This would also paralyze the regime’s diplomatic power.

Second, the U.S. should provide arms and training to moderate rebels. Most rebel groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army are driven by a nationalist rather than an Islamist ethos, which is why they often come in conflict not only with pro-Assad sectarian militias, but also Islamist rebels, including the Nusra Front and more often ISIS. But these groups sorely lack resources, weapons and training. Every attempt at uniting them in a coherent structure has so far failed due to the inconsistent nature of the logistical and material support offered. Their growing skepticism vis-à-vis the U.S. and other Western countries stems not from ideological enmity, but from the series of broken promises of support they have received in the last three years.

Yet this can be remedied with a strong program of support that includes arming, training and joint planning on the military and political levels. Rebel units trained by the U.S. to combat ISIS will in time form the backbone of Syria’s new national army, and will allow the political opposition to emerge as a more credible alternative to the Assad regime.

Third, the U.S. should launch airstrikes against both the Assad regime and ISIS. These are easily justified as part of the ongoing U.S. war on terrorism in the Middle East. The Assad regime has been a staunch supporter of jihadist groups across the region, and its policies have served to facilitate the rise of ISIS, as many American and Western experts and officials have noted. While strikes against Assad should be limited in scope and meant simply to prevent it from attacking rebel-held positions and the civilian communities that support them, strikes against ISIS should be designed to end their threat once and for all.

Once ISIS is neutralized and Assad’s ability to rain terror in the form of barrel bombs and poison gas is eliminated, the ground will be set for political dialogue that could end the bloody conflict. The endgame should include the removal of Assad, who could be given immunity and allowed to depart to Iran or Russia, and a special arrangement for governing Syria’s Alawite-majority areas.

Fourth, the U.S. should seek to further develop the technocratic capacity of the Syrian opposition to enable them to lead the transitional period effectively.

Once a measure of stability has returned to rebel-controlled communities, National Coalition members could move into the country together with the local councils to begin the long process of establishing new and accountable governance structures, returning basic services, and embarking on reconstruction projects. International aid should be made conditional on the ability of the opposition to act democratically and inclusively.

If these recommendations are followed, the Syrian conflict could be brought to an end before Obama leaves office, and very few American soldiers will be at risk in the process. A plan that targets ISIS and spares Assad, like a plan that shows disdain for rebel groups and prodemocracy activists, is simply not commensurate with America’s interests or its values.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 08, 2014, on page 7.