For Washington, Eastern regions around Mediterranean holds “vital strategic interests” centrally to which lies Syria, policy makers within the White House and the State Department continue to face numerous challenges on how to adequately and effectively defend these “strategic interests” with “limited yet effective” military engagements. The “horrors” induced by Assad regime in this “complex” battlefield, coupled with the “rise of jihadist elements inside Syrian state”, further fuels an already “complexed battlefield”, which could potentially destroy the strategic interests of the US and their regional allies. Furthermore, the “ripple effect” from the on-going battle could involve neighbouring states.
Moreover, according to one estimate of the UNHCR: the conflict has claimed lives of over 117,000, whereas thousands have been wounded, leaving behind over six million internally displaced, besides devastated cities and towns, with more than half of the population without food and clean water, especially in the light of two chemical attacks. In the background of a “highly intense conflict”, the US even with “enormous military resources”, have fairly limited military option to bring this “saga of death and destruction” to a temporary halt. In the light of an increasingly “intense conflict”, even smaller military engagement could result in further escalation of this conflict. It is imperative for policy makers at the White House to completely “abandon” the option of a “direct military engagement” while redirecting all available resources to “limit the ripple effect within Syria”.
Washington’s strategic interests
Washington’s principle strategic objectives for regions around Mediterranean includes“ sustainable long-term stability, preventing easy movements of radical terror factions, preventing all categories of weapons of mass destruction, reinforcing Israeli security forces, ensuring a flourished economy, while promoting democratic values”. Washington must employ “viable measures” to prevent the reach of Syrian war beyond its boundaries. Furthermore, Washington must address the ethnic conflict between Shia and Sunni carefully and delicately, while systematically limiting this “ethnic” conflict, which is too delicate and vulnerable enough to engulf an entire region and with enough potential to establish “two ethnic centered poles”, giving further opportunity for nations such as Iran, to establish influence. Furthermore, policy makers must [if they have the means and resources readily available]eliminate internal clashes if the costs are acceptable.
Bringing an end to the Syrian civil war
In the background of regional instability, it is imperative for Washington to employ all available resources to prevent Syria from a total collapse. Indeed, the civilian casualties are rising phenomenally, with rapidly intense conflict coupled with the frequent use of chemical weapons, human bodies will continue to rise and so will the difficulties in post war reconstruction. Hence, one seemingly possible outcome, although likely, of the Syrian war will be of a “failed” state, which could become a “possible” hideout for Islamic radical militant factions such as Al-Qaeda and Al Nusra Front. Keeping in mind the on-going “intense clashes”, the damage induced by Syrians in this war will be too “painful” to recover regardless of any victor, especially with widespread lawlessness, death and destruction. With respect to US favoured outcome, the chances are reasonably low; as victors shall either be the Assad regime, left to govern shattered Syrian lands, or some Sunni centric radical militant factions with considerable dominance, but largely the outcome will be “continuous engagement until one side is exhausted”. Even if a “democracy favoured” liberal group emerges from the conflict, the total rehabilitation and reconstruction cost will be too difficult for Syria to bear, even if international aid organizations such as the UN assist financially the possibility for re-emergence of a civil war will remain high.
Keeping in mind the “moral values” of Washington,a large-scale US military intervention in Syria will not be significant enough to overthrow Assad regime or put an end to this conflict once and for all. Policy makers must note that, the Syrian conflict is densely spread in populated cities and towns, and is extensively carried out by multiple elements, and is not limited to a “stubborn” regime, but also extensively involves ethnic religious factions stretching the boundaries beyond a “revolution”. Moreover, Syria is different from other “Arab-spring” countries, the Assad regime, along with over 15% of the Alawiite population, are locked in a “death match”,the only way to achieve their freedom struggle. Many Sunni centred radical factions have called this “struggle as jihad”and are ready to die in this fight. This war is no less than “embedded in ethnicity, dipped in religious colours”,which will continue even after the fall of Assad regime, especially in the light of active “external factors” and “aggressive regional actors”. However, Washington’s strategic interests are best “preserved” if it manages to “contain” the conflict, and this is precisely where policy makers within the State Department should focus.
Bridging the Shia-Sunni clashes
One of the principle factors in Syrian civil war is the wedge that has been created between Shi’a and the Sunni ethnicity, which is rapidly increasing the gap between the two ethnicities. The causes which resulted in the Shi’a-Sunni divide are to “complex” to address in one article, but it will not be incorrect to state that, the Shi’a-Sunni conflict is “densely” gripped in Syrian Civil war. Moreover, major masses in Syria are Sunni whereas the Assad regime hails from Alawi sect, which is roughly 12% of the entire populous. Theologically, the Alawi were tied with Shi’a sect, however, the then Syrian President Hafez Al-Asad (who was an Alawi), after coming to power, received a fatwa from the then Lebanese religious-leader cum philosopher Musa Al-Sadr stating that the Aalwai’s were community with deep roots in Shi’a Islam, which which further cemented his stand when the Aalwi leader sided with Shi’a Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, highlighting his preference for Shi’a community, a legacy perhaps, passed on to his successor, Bashar Al-Assad.
To protect American strategic interests in the region, it is imperative for Washington to prevent further escalation of Shi’a-Sunni conflict, which has the potential to spread over in neighbouring countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen; particularly in Iraq, the Shi’a-Sunni ethnic clashes continues to escalate phenomenally, crossing the levels of post-US withdrawal which not only threatens the instability of the state but also has the potential to seriously cripple delicate “post-Saddam reconstruction initiatives”. Furthermore, intense ethnic clashes could further infuriate an already infuriated crisis in Yemen, while fuelling instability in an already “political-dilemma” struck Lebanon.
The issue of chemical weapons
It is in the regional American interests to prevent the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), however, Washington must focus their attention on chemical and biological weapons besides nuclear. Even in the aftermath of a successful Israeli air strike on one of the Syrian nuclear installation in early 2007, a large stockpile of nuclear weapons were hidden by Assad regime, to avert its destruction from probable in-future Israeli airstrikes. Also, on numerous occasions Washington too warned Assad regime against transportation and deployment of these weapons. In early 2013, the State Department confirmed the presence of chemical weapons in Syrian military installations and in late August, the regime deployed chemical attacks on Syrian masses. The then President Obama had warned Assad regime against any further use of chemical weapons on Syrian masses, further stating that the “red line has been crossed” and re-affirmed their announcement of early June “to provide rebel forces with adequate military support”.
The use of chemical attack in late August came amidst international condemnation, diplomatic engagements and threats for armed response, out of which, none of the engagements adequately involved threats against another possible chemical attack or its proliferation or trafficking. Moreover, again in early February, another chemical attack forced international communities to convene a session at UNSC which then established a “temporary ceasefire”. However, with temporary ceasefire in place, the attacks continue to create “horror and havoc” within Syrian masses. As per today, the Trump administration has not yet addressed the issue regarding proliferation and trafficking of chemical weapons within the region. Policy makers must note that, there are multiple avenues to traffic chemical weapons: to begin with, the regime could easily traffic stockpiles of weapons to a third actor (preferable Hezbollah in Lebanon, or any Shi’ite militant group in Iraq), or the rebel forces could easily traffic these weapons within Syria itself, in such a case,the Syrian rebels could seek assistance from Al-Qaeda affiliate Syrian groups who could then transfer these weapons anywhere in the Middle East and beyond.
Preventing the “spill-over” effect
The Syrian conflict is too intense and there is a high possibility for it to engulf neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Israel. It must be noted that, even the slightest spill-over effect of Syrian conflict could potentially destabilize the entire region. The aforementioned neighbouring states share borders with Syria, which are essentially porous, and roughly all of them are currently hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Hence, these camps could ignite the “fire of resistance” outside Syria, forcing the Syrian forces to cross borders in an effort to counter Anti-Assad factions. An incursion of these Syrian forces, even at an infinitesimal level could further escalate the conflict, which would result ina direct confrontation which in due course, will force the refugees out of these camps.
The “spill-effect” of Syrian conflict on other regional allies of Washington, would prove disastrous for America’s strategic interests. In the event of a Syrian civil war escalating beyond the boundaries, the spill-over would further deepen the Shi’a-Sunni ethnic divide, while opening doors for new actors which could further deteriorate an already deteriorating situation.
Washington’s “viable” military options
Policy makers at White House and State Department continues to face numerous “policy centric” challenges with respect to Syria; in the light of repetitive inconclusive engagement at all levels (military, diplomatic and political)reinforced with Trump administration’s “erratic non-pragmatic policies with respect to Syria”, Syrian civil war must remain a top priority, especially when America’s strategic interests are at stake. Furthermore, Washington must not engage in a direct military confrontation. In an effort to retain strategic interests in Syria, policy makers should focus their attention to some of the viable policies mentioned below:
Deploy military advisors to train the rebel groups which fairly covers, providing logistical support, heavy weaponry assistance and real-time based intelligence. The deployed military advisors can range between two hundred to two thousand, covering a cost of no more than 250$ to 500$ million. The deployment of troops shall be in designated “green zones” which could be established post-discussion with Joint-Chiefs and CENTCOM.
Limited maneuvered attacks and assisting the rebel groups, by specifically targeting HVT’s (High Value Targets), through precision guided bombs or JDAM’s. The objective is to eliminate the target that is valued by the regime or is irreplaceable enough to shatter regime’s power in certain areas. Such targets could be residing in Libya or Lebanon, or in regime HQ’s or safe houses, regime sponsored residential areas, military barracks or signal-intelligence headquarters.
Implement a no-fly zone, this would prevent any Syrian air assets from flying in the airspace to carry out attacks against Syrian communities and rebel groups.
Implement buffer zones, this would provide a safe “casualty collection points” for rebel forces, where they can also, train and receive medical treatment. The author suggests implementing buffer zones on the border with Jordan and Turkey. These buffer zones would provide adequate air cover against Syrian air assets; however, the size of the zone and its location would ultimately determine the staging limit for reinforcements.
Prevent the use of chemical WMD’s, the US must deploy its special forces to identify and destroy chemical weapons in Syria, especially their trafficking routes and technical equipments, making their movements possible. Destroying a chemical weapon on land would prove dangerous as, the wind could potentially change the direction of the chemical, which could result in massive civilian casualties, since its lethal effects could be seen for miles. Identifying the canister location could prove difficult, especially when the number of missiles and the size of it are unknown, thus, intelligence must be real time and accurate. Once the intelligence sources have identified the location of cannisters/missiles, special forces must be deployed for immediate transportation of these cannisters/missiles out from the enemy territories, ensuring that there is no leak. Furthermore, locating chemical weapons is quite difficult particularly when they are small, they can easily be concealed.
It is imperative for policy makers to consider all the aforementioned points as “strategic force implementation packages” but must keep in mind the costs and the benefits of these points, before formulating a response. They must evaluate all possible scenarios/ simulations, individually and in groupings: carefully monitoring their progress. These responses might strengthen Assad regime’s response, as they would definitely see the war as “fight against the West”, selecting some “special forces elements” from the Syrian army and re-tasking them to dedicatedly counter US forces. More importantly, the author advises policy makers to employ more “aggressive yet discreet measures”, but asserts policy makers to retain determination, particularly when it comes to implementing any of the aforementioned points, post which the enemy could aggressively respond.
The Syrian civil war is increasingly becoming complex and with its increasingly “complexity”, the challenges faced by Washington continues to increase. How should policy makers formulate viable pragmatic plan of actions in such complexity? Essentially, Washington wants to see the end of the Syrian Civil war, it is in their interests, but a US “aggressive” response to bring peace on the table, could remind policy makers of their engagement in Vietnam, especially when there are huge lists of commitment and very few allies for support. Moreover, like all civil wars (particularly Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia)the civil war in Syria will come to an end only when the resources are exhausted (Assad regime and rebel fighters), or when certain external actors stop assisting them with “vital” supplies. Although, the Assad regime has conducted numerous “unspeakable acts of violence and induced terror”, (so did certain rebel groups),Washington does not have enough resources to monitor every violent action induced by Assad regime and respond, which even if policy makers decide to, could potentially further infuriate the crisis. Taking into account the aforementioned arguments, Al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate could possibly be the victors, as the US does not have resources to shape Syria’s future.
The best possible option for Washington is to “contain the civil war”, that said, the containment itself will be a difficult especially in the light of recent “escalation”, this is precisely the “point of focus” for US military. Washington must assist regional partners in an effort to “contain the conflict”, dropping the option of a “costly military confrontation”. Furthermore, Washington must distance itself from the Shi’a-Sunni conflictas it would take one fatal error to escalate an already escalated conflict. Policy makers must note that, no country is benefiting from the Syrian civil war, irrespective of their religion or historical relationship/engagement with Washington. If this war escalates, it would engulf every actor. Containment is not only a viable option, but also the best possible one which would benefit every actor, and Washington must effectively initiate a policy on it. Containment will not invite easy choices, and will not immediately deliver results, however, it should remain at the core of Washington’s policy on Syrian civil war.