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What Can the US Salvage from the Syrian Debacle?

Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 2, 2012. (AP/ Manu Brabo)
Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district, in Aleppo, Syria, on Oct. 2, 2012. (AP/ Manu Brabo)

Joseph V. Micallef is a military historian, bestselling author, keynote speaker, syndicated columnist and commentator on international politics and the future.

The Obama administration intervened in the Syrian civil war in September 2014. Ostensibly, this was in response to the rapid territorial gains made by Islamic State (IS) militants in the region. In August, the White House had intervened in Iraq by deploying U.S. air power there for the same reason. Given that the newly formed Islamic State straddled both countries, the dual interventions were a logical consequence of the stated mission of rolling back the Islamic State.

From the very beginning of that intervention, the White House made it clear that the deployment of American ground troops was not a consideration and that the U.S. and its allies would develop "boots on the ground" from among the various factions fighting the Assad regime and/or Islamic State as part of the U.S. effort to dismantle IS.

Initially there was a tacit understanding between Washington and Damascus. The U.S. would not actively seek to overthrow the Assad government or attack pro-Assad military forces. In return Syria would not oppose U.S. air attacks against IS and other jihadist targets. The White House would advise the Assad government, via the Syrian ambassador to the UN, of pending attacks, although not the actual targets, and Damascus would graciously turn off its air defense systems to ensure it would not inadvertently attack the air forces of the U.S. and its allies.

There were two inherent weaknesses in the U.S. strategy. First, air power, by denying IS militants the ability to concentrate forces and by reducing their mobility, could slow down the expansion of the Islamic State; but airpower alone was insufficient to defeat IS. Finding "boots on the ground" would require Washington to sort through the various factions fighting in Syria to identify one that would be both military effective while espousing a political agenda that the U.S. could live with.

Secondly, the coalition assembled by the U.S. lacked a clear consensus on the mission's goals. Turkey and the Saudi and Emirate contingent of the anti-Islamic State alliance were more concerned with toppling Assad and rolling back Iranian influence in Syria than with defeating IS. In those instances where supporting IS advanced the cause of toppling Assad, they were willing to conveniently look the other way. In Ankara's case, the Erdogan government tacitly allowed prospective militants access to Syria while ignoring Turkish complicity in the smuggling of petroleum and stolen antiquities by Islamic State.

There was one additional weakness in the American effort -- one that was entirely self-inflicted. The White House imposed rules of engagement that severely restricted air operations and diluted the impact of overwhelming American air power. On average, only one in four missions actually delivered a payload on its intended target.

The U.S. finally found its boots on the ground in the form of the Syrian-Kurdish organized, predominantly staffed and led, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). All other attempts at organizing an effective ground force from the other anti-Assad factions had failed. The SDF proved to be an effective ground force, especially when supported by American air power.

There was a catch though, the Syrian Kurds wanted to liberate those areas of Syria, principally along the Syrian-Turkish border, that were largely inhabited by Kurds in order to create an autonomous or semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Syria. The SDF was prepared to fight anyone, Assad's military, Islamic State, other jihadist groups, and anti-Assad factions, to accomplish this, but there was little interest in risking Kurdish lives to "liberate" predominantly Sunni areas of Syria; areas where the Kurds would be viewed with suspicion and that were not suitable for inclusion into the proposed Syrian-Kurdish state of Rojava. The U.S. supported Kurdish effort was vehemently opposed by Turkey and was bound to lead to a confrontation between Ankara and Washington. That's precisely what happened.

Russia intervened in Syria in September 2015. While ostensibly the Russian action was also intended to fight the Islamic State, the Kremlin's intention from the onset was clearly to support its client, the Assad government, and to destroy the Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow him. By eliminating any alternative to Assad that the U.S. and its allies might have found acceptable, Russia could ensure both that the U.S. would have no choice but to support Assad, albeit unofficially, while at the same time allowing Russia a leading role in the anti-Islamic State coalition. That's precisely what unfolded over the course of 2016.

One additional complication was the Turkish intervention, Operation Euphrates Shield, in Syria in August 2016. Ankara's move was prompted by different objectives: support the Syrian rebels besieged in Aleppo as well as prevent Kurdish efforts to take control of the roughly 50-mile wide stretch of territory separating the predominantly Kurdish area of Afrin in the west from the Kurdish controlled areas in the east. The immediate result was that Turkey, a NATO ally, found itself fighting with the SDF, a U.S. proxy.

Critics have roundly condemned the Obama administration's policy in Syria as being ineffectual, vague and poorly executed. To be fair, the White House found itself in a position where the internal politics of the coalition it assembled didn't always allow a clear statement of purpose. Vagueness, when necessary, is a legitimate tool in the diplomatic playbook, but disastrous when trying to execute a military campaign. Moreover, despite its inconsistencies and vacillation, the Obama administration has made notable progress in rolling back the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.

Nonetheless, it's hard to call that policy a success. The Kremlin has succeeded in ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, dominates the agenda in Syria and, in the process, it has largely marginalized the American role there. The question is, what comes next? Especially given a new, incoming administration. Is it time to take whatever chips we have left and go home, come up with a new strategy, or double down on the old one?

During the presidential campaign the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, criticized the Obama administration's Syrian strategy -- declaring that we should seek an agreement with Russia and jointly focus on attacking and destroying the Islamic State. In what was interpreted as an attempt to forestall any move toward seeking an accommodation with Russia, the U.S. House of Representatives added a provision to the National Defense Authorization Act it passed on December 2, specifically authorizing the incoming Trump administration to arm "vetted Syrian rebels" with MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) -- in other words anti-aircraft missiles. The Senate passed its version of the bill on December 8.

The legislation was also prompted by the perilous state of the anti-Assad opposition in Aleppo. Now surrounded and subject to relentless air attacks by Russian and Syrian air forces, those groups are on the verge of collapse. Their defeat and the complete recapture of Aleppo, which was once Syria's largest city, while not the end of the anti-Assad opposition, would be a significant milestone in the Kremlin's campaign to ensure the continuation of the Assad regime.

Those missiles have only one purpose, to target Russian and Syrian planes over Syria. As such it would represent an escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria and the specific targeting of Russian planes by de facto U.S. proxies armed with American armaments. This is a very bad idea for two reasons.

First, once those missiles are introduced into Syria, the U.S. would lose control over how and where they would be used. There is a risk that they could end up in the hands of jihadist groups and end up being used against American aircraft. There is also the danger that they could be used to bring down a civilian aircraft in order to embarrass Washington. In fact, it's virtually a foregone conclusion that the FSB already has such an operation ready to go and only waits for the opportune moment to trigger it. In addition to discrediting U.S. policy in Syria, such an incident would also provide cover to the Kremlin for the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the Ukraine by Russian armed separatists there.

Secondly, supplying anti-aircraft missiles to the Syrian rebels would merely prolong the conflict. There is little doubt now that the Assad regime will survive. Putting aside the obvious human cost of extending the war, the continued civilian deaths, and the increase in refugees, what U.S. purpose is served by continuing the fighting against Assad?

The time for aiding the Syrian rebels has long since passed. It's questionable whether there ever was a "moderate Syrian opposition," but in any case there is little evidence that there is one now. More than four years of unrelenting conflict have radicalized much of the Assad opposition. Moreover, the fluidity of the various group's base of support, and the battlefield opportunism that is constantly shifting alliances, means it's difficult to get a fix on just who the moderate opposition is. As repugnant as the Assad regime is, what will likely follow would be even worse.

Only a full-scale Turkish invasion of Syria could change the outcome now, and that's not likely. Ankara's objectives were first and foremost to prevent the formation of a Kurdish autonomous state along its border with Syria. It has, for now, accomplished this. If it can take control of the town of al-Bab and the surrounding region, it will have an important chip to play in any subsequent negotiations over the future of Syria and more importantly of Rojava. A full-scale war with Syria and its Russian and Iranian backers is not in the cards and would be highly unpopular in Turkey.

Moreover, the U.S. position in Syria is quite precarious. Russia has moved aggressively to try to broker an agreement between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad government: recognition of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in a "federalized Syria in return for accepting the continuation of the Assad government. So far, no agreement has been reached. There is a lot of distrust between Syria's Kurds and Damascus. Such an agreement would ultimately be in the interest of both sides, however. What affect such an agreement might have on the role of the SDF and its reliability as a proxy American ground force in the war against the Islamic State is unclear. Turkey, fearful that such a Russian sponsored deal in Syria would leave it isolated and rollback the gains of its "Operation Euphrates Shield" is more intent on resetting its relations with Moscow than patching up its differences with Washington.

The Kremlin has done a masterful job of boxing in the Obama administration's policy options in Syria while positioning itself as the one player whose support is essential for both Kurdish and Turkish aims. Washington, in an unaccustomed role, can still, however, play the role of spoiler to Russian plans in Syria. That role is worth something and those chips can likely be cashed in for Russian concessions elsewhere. There are consequences to acknowledging that Russia has outmaneuvered the US in Syria. There are equally grave consequences in continuing to play a bad hand. For now, we can continue our efforts to roll back the Islamic State in Syria. As long as the Kurds want to cooperate, the U.S. has boots on the ground. Even if the Kurds find a new sponsor, however, Islamic State will still ultimately be rolled up by the Syrian military, its Iranian proxies and Russian air power. It will just take longer.

There is an old adage in poker circles. If you haven't figured out who the mark is in the first five minutes of the game then you're the patsy. The Obama administration has been sitting at the Syrian poker table for more than two years now; the White House still hasn't figured out who the patsy is.