How Can the West Help Syrians and Defeat ISIS?

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A schoolgirl walks past damaged buildings in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria, on October 28. To help Syria, formal safe/protected zones defined territorially should come at the expense of ISIS, and quickly, the author writes. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

With well over 4 million refugees and roughly double that number internally displaced, Syria is an apt subject for the question "How much worse can it get?" The answer is "Much worse."

With Russia now engaged militarily in an attempt to create for Syrians and the world a purely binary choice between two horrific criminal enterprises—the Assad regime and the Islamic State militant group, or ISIS—it is hard to understand why any Syrian with a modicum of means and motivation would wish to stay in a country set upon by wolves.

At least the otherwise idle West can no longer comfort itself with the illusion that the Syrian crisis can be "contained." But what can be done? Should, for example, a no-fly zone be imposed?

Henri J. Barkey of the Wilson Center says no in "No Fly Zone No Answer for Syria" in The American Interest. His reasoning is solid: Without a ground force protecting a safe zone, populations assembled there would be extremely vulnerable.

According to Barkey, "air power can stop tanks, but can do very little when it comes to protecting civilian populations from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Nusra. Even Assad's paramilitaries could easily infiltrate the buffer zone and inflict their share of violence. All it takes is a few bands of marauders on foot to create mayhem and all the air forces of the world would be helpless."

The problem with the various prescriptions offered by people justifiably outraged by the failure of the West to lift a finger to protect Syrians from mass homicide and unbridled terror is that they often start with a label and proceed with the hope that the measure being named will do some good. The real place to start is with the desired end state. What is it that he or she who prescribes no-fly zones, no-bomb zones, safe zones and so forth wishes to see happen as a result of the methodology nominated?

If, for example, the idea is to stake out a sizable piece of northwestern and/or southwestern Syria to which refugees might return and others living under bombardment might move, then clearly a no-fly zone without a ground protective component would be to concentrate already terrified and traumatized humanity for prospective slaughter.

Barkey is correct. In this sort of scenario, a skilled, professional ground force endowed with very aggressive shoot-to-kill rules of engagement and the means to neutralize any combination of potential armed foes is absolutely mandatory. An observer force would not suffice. Srebrenica—a Syrian version thereof—would surely be the result.

It follows, therefore, that if Turkey—a country about which Barkey's knowledge is beyond impressive—really wants to see a piece of northern Syria fenced off for humanitarian and political (allowing the Syrian opposition to establish a government) purposes, it would be willing to provide most, if not all, of the protective ground combat component.

Barkey assures us this is not the case: "No one, including the no-fly zone's most vociferous supporter, Turkey—much less the U.S. or the Europeans—is willing to send ground troops into this safe zone." Indeed, the short-lived train-and-equip caper demonstrated the efficacy of trying to slip new trainees into an "ISIS-free zone" teeming with Nusra Front operatives.

If Ankara wishes to advise Washington to refrain from idle talk about red lines and people stepping aside, perhaps it should avoid calling for things it has no intention to facilitate.

The view here is that the civilian-protection end state in western Syria ought to be modest: Make it somewhere between very hard and impossible for the Assad regime to conduct indirect (artillery) or aerial civilian mass-casualty operations.

Chemical attacks aside, the regime has employed helicopter-borne barrel bombs, field artillery, Scud missiles and conventional aerial bombing and strafing to slaughter civilians. These practices are and will continue to be a recruiting gift to ISIS, a monstrosity Russia and the regime pretend to fight while others—the anti-ISIS coalition, nationalist rebels and Syrian Kurds—do the heavy lifting.

How to do it—how to make it really tough or even impossible for Assad to murder and maim at wholesale rates—would be determined by a three-step process.

First, President Barack Obama would clearly articulate his end-state intent as commander in chief to his national-security principals—particularly to the secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs.

This is different from saying things like, "Hey, I'm open to ideas, and I don't want anyone to think I have a closed mind or that I've decided what to do," which is a call for ideas and not a statement of intent. Such as statement is an invitation to a Department of Defense not looking for a new mission to cook up "options" that no one in his or her right mind would adopt. When the military wishes not to do something, it can be very creative in this respect.

Second, the national-security interagency—perhaps with the Department of Defense in the lead—would produce options for the president's review that would seek to minimize risk while still responding to the clear statement of presidential intent. It might well be that excluding regime and—if necessary—Russian aircraft from certain areas would be an option.

Engaging regime assets—aircraft, artillery and the like—in a retaliatory mode by sea-based standoff or other means might be considered. Ensuring that trusted assets inside Syria have the means to protect civilian populations by engaging aircraft from the ground might form the essence of a recommendation. No doubt there are more.

Third, the president would consult—within his national-security apparatus and with Congress—and decide. It is hypothetically possible—even in the wake of a clearly articulated statement of intent—that he would decide to do nothing.

There is, after all, literally nothing that is risk-free. But that includes doing nothing. And doing nothing in Syria to protect people from Assad-regime depredations has certainly been a most risky and self-defeating course of inaction.

Armed with options instructed by and responsive to his articulated intent, however, the president would likely have some alternatives actually worth considering. And when he considers the contingency of perhaps having to climb an escalatory ladder, he should not discount the constraints on adversaries contemplating whether to engage militarily with the United States.

The view here is that formal safe/protected zones defined territorially should come at the expense of ISIS, and quickly.

A quarter century ago, American diplomatic giants on the order of James Baker and Thomas Pickering were building a coalition to liberate Kuwait. A similar diplomatic heavy lift is needed now to recruit regional powers to provide the ground combat component to rout ISIS from Syria and enable—to paraphrase an objective once articulated by President Obama—legitimate governance to take root inside Syria.

Beyond leading the combat air component of the coalition, the United States may have to put some skin in the ground game with special operating forces and the like. But if Henri Barkey is right—if Turkey is permanently part and parcel of the all-talk, no-action response to the destruction and progressive emptying of Syria—then the diplomatic heavy lift may be for naught.

Syria is a problem from hell not susceptible to a quick or easy solution. Yet nothing good can happen if civilians remain on Assad's bull's-eye and if ISIS is given years to sink roots into a place where it has no natural constituency, where the only Syrians willing to give it the time of day are those left utterly unprotected by the so-called international community. Those who would suggest specific operational remedies might usefully begin by defining a desired end state.

In the end, however, debates about ways and means to protect Syrians and defeat ISIS mean nothing unless and until the president clearly conveys his intent to the proper people. And if his intent is to try to hold all of this at arm's length, he will, in a very detached, disinterested way, merely declare himself open to ideas if anyone happens to have any.

If he does not truly want and intend to protect Syrian civilians and beat ISIS on his watch, neither will happen.

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

How Can the West Help Syrians and Defeat ISIS? | Opinion