Now Is the Time for U.S. Boots on the Ground in Syria

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A boy stands near a hole in the ground after a shell fell in the rebel-held town of Jarjanaz in the southern Idlib countryside of Syria on March 5. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

One week into the designated start of a cessation of hostilities in Syria, the results on the ground are mixed.

Of supreme importance, however, is that the tempo of Assad regime mass homicide (supported and supplemented by Russia) has slowed, particularly in densely populated urban areas. The number of desperately needy Syrians getting humanitarian aid is slowly increasing, as a Syrian bureaucracy bound to the Assad family moves with glacial speed to permit U.N. deliveries.

Reports of regime and Russian offensive violations accumulate, but the exclusion of the Nusra Front from the cessation of hostilities gives them the permission slip they need to shoot—even if they abuse it. Geneva talks are set to resume on March 9. So what next policy steps might make sense?

The Obama administration’s overall objective for Syria remains unchanged: Priority goes to degrading and destroying the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in the east and facilitating a negotiated political settlement in the west. The latter is deemed vital by the administration to the accomplishment of the primary degrade-and-destroy mission.

The top priority remains a work in relatively slow progress. The anti-ISIS coalition air campaign has done real damage but cannot on its own—even in conjunction with a Kurdish militia—deliver the decisive result sought by President Obama.

Objectively, there is, or should be, a sense of urgency in closing in and killing ISIS on the ground in Syria. CIA Director John Brennan has pointed publicly to efforts by the Raqqa-based ISIS to replicate—perhaps in the United States—the massacres it perpetrated in Paris on November 13, 2015.

Unless the administration’s preference is to assume that ISIS will fail and then, if it succeeds, respond with an all-American ground force, it will be putting the finishing touches on a ground-force coalition of the willing—top-heavy with regional and European forces—to go in and destroy in detail the Syrian branch of this barbaric enterprise.

That which may have dissuaded the administration from going down this path was its view—perhaps still operative—that only an indigenous Syrian ground force could root out ISIS in Syria.

The sources of this belief are at least three: applying to Syria that which is clearly true in Iraq; fear that foreign ground forces would, after ousting ISIS, be saddled with a long-term, Iraqi-style stabilization mission; and fear that a ground-force coalition of the willing, even one top-heavy with non-American units, would still require American boots on the ground.

The difference between ISIS in Syria and Iraq is that, in the former, it is entirely an imposed presence. It did not arise, as it did originally in Iraq under the name “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” embedded in a Sunni Arab insurgency. Even during the American-organized “surge” in Iraq, indigenous Sunni tribal forces were essential to a victory ultimately squandered by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In Syria, ISIS sits atop a restive population. Although a foreign-ground-force coalition of the willing clearly would have to enter the country with a civil-military stabilization plan enabling the Syrian opposition to link up with local committees (currently underground) once ISIS is neutralized, the residents of eastern Syria will not be concerned about the identities of their liberators, provided that the murderous Assad regime is not among them.

Time is of the essence in routing ISIS from eastern Syria and enabling the Syrian opposition to move from Istanbul and Gaziantep to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to help locals establish reliable and effective administration.

Yet the administration’s insistence on indigenous Syrian ground forces doing the heavy combat lift has all but stopped the clock. Publicly, it continues to maintain that an Assad-free transitional governing body incorporating existing institutions of the Syrian government must be formed so that the Syrian army and rebels can join hands to march on Raqqa.

Making decisive victory over ISIS in Syria dependent on a national unity formula produced by negotiations in Geneva is the practical equivalent of deleting decisive victory as an objective.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad—the Warren Buffett of war crimes and barrel bomber in chief—is singularly unqualified to pose, much less perform, as a unifying figure. On the other hand, however, Russia—after taking the measure of the West—has conducted a brutal, sometimes hospital-centric aerial campaign that has enabled Iranian-organized foreign fighters and Assad’s moribund army to make gains on the ground in the Aleppo area.

It is difficult to see how these advances will dispose Assad to step aside for the sake of anti-ISIS national unity. Unless Moscow abandons its goal of forcing Washington into collaborating with Assad against ISIS—an action President Vladimir Putin will portray to his countrymen as Russia’s glorious defeat of American regime change and democratization pretensions—the promised land of Assad-free national unity will remain an empty talking point.

Moving with dispatch on the ground to kill ISIS in Syria is essential. Even if the effort requires significant American “skin in the game,” surely President Obama can make the requisite case to the American people. The case might be much easier to make if ISIS were to do a Paris-like operation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Biloxi, Mississippi. But if that kind of operation is possible, why wait?

Although moving against ISIS now would do no inevitable harm to the Vienna-Geneva diplomatic process in whose basket the Obama administration has placed nearly all of its eggs, it would definitely shake things up.

Russia, Iran and the Assad regime would, to be sure, be outraged and disappointed by an American-led ground force killing ISIS in Syria. All three see the continued well-being of the false caliph as essential to the rehabilitation of Assad, his colleague in crime.

Although the current pause in high-tempo aerial operations by Russia may be inspired in part by Putin’s realization that he was destroying the credibility of his Western apologists and instead delivering a declaration of a renewed Cold War, a decisive ground operation against ISIS could inspire him to renew his Chechnya-like campaign in western Syria.

Whether or not a decisive, American-led move against ISIS in Syria is actually undertaken, relying on the decency of Putin and his Iranian and Syrian allies to protect Syrian civilians from mass murder should no longer be a feature of Western policy.

If the slaughter resumes, Russian pilots should be forced to deal with ground-based air defense, and the Assad regime should feel the impact of standoff weaponry on helicopters and air bases.

Again: The reduced tempo of Russian and regime air operations may reflect a fundamental strategic shift, albeit one still aimed at perpetuating Assad and forcing President Obama into a partnership with him. Yet mass homicide may well return to the fore.

And surely no one—certainly not American NATO allies—will continue to pretend that what happens in Syria stays in Syria, that somehow this massive effort to terrorize and eradicate human beings can be contained.

Indeed, while the relative quiet holds, the civilized world must bring pressure to bear on Assad and his allies to lift sieges and to allow U.N. humanitarian relief personnel to go where they want to save lives. This is fundamental.

Getting Syrian civilians off the bull's-eye is essential. There will be no worthwhile diplomatic process without it. Do Russia, Iran and Assad want one? Their actions will tell the story.

Frederic C. Hof is a resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.