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Syrian war: ‘This wasn’t written in stone; didn’t have to happen’

As of November 22, east Aleppo city—the Syrian opposition’s largest […]

22 November 2016

As of November 22, east Aleppo city—the Syrian opposition’s largest urban stronghold—is on the verge of collapse.

Russian warplanes are actively and currently firing on east Aleppo’s 250,000 residents. The Syrian regime is using artillery, mortars, tank shells and heavy machine-gun fire while pro-Assad militias battle on the ground to breach the rebel-held side of the city. Last Friday, east Aleppo’s last functioning hospital was destroyed.

“The future is frightening,” Valerie Szybala, executive director of The Syria Institute in Washington DC, tells Syria Direct.

Here, Szybala makes the case that the Obama administration missed a number of opportunities to end the Syrian war.

“There were so many pivot points where different decisions would have had different outcomes,” she says. “This scenario—which has become an out-of-control, international conflict that has destroyed the entire country of Syria and some of its neighbors—wasn’t written in stone. This didn’t have to happen.”

Szybala’s conversation with Justin Schuster is the latest in a series examining the implications of a Trump presidency for US policy in the Middle East, and specifically, Syria. [The first, Syria Direct’s conversation with Dr. Joshua Landis, is here, and the second, Syria Direct’s conversation with former US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte is here.]

“President Obama has said that Syria is what keeps him up at night…but he doesn’t know what he would have done differently,” says Szybala.

“That’s pretty disturbing for those of us watching Syria from the beginning.”

Q: Seemingly every day the situation in Syria defies expectations and becomes more and more tragic. Can a Trump administration steer policy in a worse direction than we’ve seen play out over these past five years?

Hillary Clinton had a pretty well defined and well-informed understanding of the conflict in Syria from her days as Secretary of State. With Donald Trump, there are so many question marks. A lot will depend on his cabinet, when you see who is going to be informing his foreign, military and Middle East policies.

The future is frightening—quite frankly—based on some of the positions that Donald Trump has casually thrown out, things like carpet-bombing the Islamic State. If he’s taking Russia’s opinion on where IS is located, then he’s talking about carpet-bombing Syrian civilians. Those are very dark thoughts, but I think it’s such a big question mark; it’s hard to go there right now.

Q: On the campaign trial, Donald Trump consistently said that the United States would stop arming rebel groups. What are the consequences of a total cutoff of equipping, funding, and supporting Syrian rebels?

This is a complex issue, and it’s hard to completely say because we’ve had a variety of channels of support to armed opposition groups. We’ve had a declared train-and-equip program, and we have had covert training. It’s been a bit of a mess.

We have vetted groups to be moderate, nationalist opposition. They rely on the US for weapons, training and salaries. These groups are the frontlines fighting against the Islamic State in many parts of the country. When you cut off support, you weaken them, and what you’re actually doing is enabling IS to gain territory and ground. That’s the reality, and it’s counterproductive.

Q: Does the Obama administration’s Syria policy constitute anything short of a total failure?

It’s been a tremendous failure. I know that in interviews, President Obama has said that this is what keeps him up at night, and he’s been very upset they weren’t able to do things differently, but he doesn’t know what he would have done differently. That’s pretty disturbing for those of us watching Syria from the beginning.

There were so many pivot points where different decisions would have had different outcomes. This scenario—which has become an out-of-control, international conflict that has destroyed the entire country of Syria and some of its neighbors—wasn’t written in stone. This didn’t have to happen. Whether we like it or not, the US was probably the main player. Based on our military might and our position in the world, we were the primary actor that could have taken more decisive action at many different points. This war is not over, and it’s getting worse.

Q: What were those critical pivot points from the past five years?

Today, Russia is the major stumbling block, but they didn’t intervene militarily until 2015. Iran didn’t come in full force to support the regime until early 2013. The Assad government is a shell of itself, and it was not able to sustain this on its own.

Up until 2013, if had we thrown more support behind democratic forces, we would have staved off the rise of jihadis, the spread of Iran, the growth of Hezbollah, Russia’s using Syria as a springboard in their pivot to power and all of these actors who pounced on this chaos to increase their own power. At least before 2013, every day was a potential off ramp. But after Iran started intervening full force, it became much harder, and then again in 2015 it became even more difficult.

The single biggest pivot point was back in 2013 after the August 21 chemical weapons where the government launched a number of sarin-filled missiles at 11 or 12 communities around Damascus, killing 1,500 people in one blow. Those communities are still besieged today.

After that, Obama said they’ve crossed a red line, and it looked for a little while like we were going to strike the Assad regime. It changed everything on the ground. It was the only thing that has caused the government of Syria real fear. They repositioned all of their forces. They hid everything. You could tell how big of a threat this was to them. But we didn’t strike, there has never since been such a threat, and the regime has gained in confidence.

Now, what Trump is going to be handed is by no means simple. I think the best strategists and statesmen will have problems getting us out of this, and I genuinely don’t know if Trump is up to that challenge.

Q: What was the pulse on the streets in Washington, D.C. after election night?

Things are weird, like the whole city is in mourning. There were vigils, protests and people crying in the street.

Q: For you, is there reason for optimism with the incoming administration?

No. I think I know too much about what Donald Trump has said to feel a glimmer of hope at this point. My only hope is that things prove me wrong.

Q: Let’s try to untangle what this election means for the future of US-Syria policy.

The only caveat is that it’s so fresh that I have to really think through some of these things. There wasn’t a preconceived notion for what this scenario would do for Syria and foreign policy.

Q: Let’s start with Russia. On the campaign trail, President-elect Trump made comments saying he is prepared to hand the fight against the Islamic State over to Moscow. Do statements like these really constitute that much of a break from the Obama administration’s policies which have done very little to curb Putin’s influence in Syria? Should Mr. Trump’s comments give us cause for concern?

If the United States’ goal is genuinely to destroy IS because we see them as a threat, then [handing Syria over to Russia] is not an effective course. In reality, what Russia and the Assad government have been doing is not in sync with their rhetoric. Very little of their military actions are actually targeting IS. They’re not fighting IS as much as the Kurds or as much as the US-backed coalition.

Q: With regard to combatting the Islamic State, President-elect Trump once suggested deploying as many as 20,000-30,000 American soldiers. Is such a heavy investment necessary in the fight against the Islamic State?

That question has to be answered as part of the larger US strategy regarding Syria [by acknowledging] who our allies are on the ground. Quite frankly, this has not been 100 percent clear. Maybe some of that is intentional because of the disputes between allies, including between the Kurds and Turkey, and among different segments of the armed opposition, some of whom we want to ally with and some of whom we do not.

The answer has to flow from a larger idea: What is our goal in Syria? Is it just to fight the Islamic State or is it also to stop the Assad regime, which many people see as integral to the existence of IS and certainly to its rise? What is our cohesive strategy?

Q: How do you understand the United States’ goals in Syria? Before we talk strategy, let’s answer this: What are our national interests in Syria?

Syria is very complex, more and more by the day given the web of competing interests. If you pull the wrong way on one thread, there are unforeseen consequences, and I think that our current president has been very conservative in his approach for that reason. I’m not sure that’s been the best strategy. It’s allowed a lot of actors with interests that are different from ours to take the lead.

I’ve noticed the inconsistencies in what Donald Trump has said on Syria. What I’ve taken away from that is that he does not yet have a clear understanding of what’s actually happening in Syria.

The most important thing to understand is the real role of Russia. I would aim for a strategy that not only tackles the Islamic State but also tries to reclaim a little bit of US credibility. I think that our words and actions on Syria have not always been consistent. We’ve lost a lot of credibility among our allies for not standing up for the things that we say we value. This is dangerous because it has empowered people to continue to do things like use chemical weapons, things that we say are non-negotiable.

Q: On the note of credibility, Syria Direct discussed the outcome of the US election with a number of Syrians. Perhaps surprisingly, the prevailing sentiment was that regardless of what some called Mr. Trump’s “insane racism,” almost all of the people with whom we spoke said that he was the best option for the future of the Middle East. They say he ends a legacy of American diplomatic double-speak in the region. Does this play a factor in how you understand restoring lost American credibility?

[Restoring credibility] is a little different when you’re talking about our regional allies versus people on the ground. But if you try to put yourself in [a Syrian’s] position and live through some of the things that have happened with them in the past year, it’s actually very easy to see where they’re coming from. Syrians don’t really care what politicians say, especially if our president stands up and says Assad must go but then takes no action to make that happen. Meanwhile, they are being hit by bombs and losing limbs, family members and, in some cases, their own lives.

One’s word is completely empty if we say we’ve succeeded in removing Syria’s declared chemical stockpile but then take no action to prevent the continued use of different types of chemical weapons. Syrians are on the receiving end. They feel left behind and caught in that gap between what we say we care about and what’s actually happening. They feel they have been repeatedly forgotten and let down by our policies. It’s a whole lot of talking and a whole little action for people who are actually in the most perilous situations.

Q: While it’s not likely that the Obama administration will make any significant change in course with regard to Syria over the last two months of the presidency, what is the Syria Institute trying to accomplish during this period of time?

We’re a little over a year old, and we have been planning for the switch to a US administration in 2017 that is more open to hearing from outside analysis and expertise of the type that we provide. The Obama administration—like their policy on Syria or not—has been impervious to outside input. I don’t see that changing.

It’s possible that their internal calculus will change with how President Trump will address Syria. Russia is the million-pound elephant in the room. They have become quite a big aggressor in the war and not, for the most part, against the Islamic State. They are doing some really unacceptable things in term of international law and norms. Our biggest concern is a potential relationship between Donald Trump and Russia.

I see a scenario where the Obama administration takes a harder stance in the final months of his term to draw a line against Russia rather than just hand over this big nebulous situation to the Trump administration. That could just be wishful thinking on my part.

Q: What would “drawing a line” look like?

It’s clear that today Russia respects action and force, and we’ve done a lot of talking. We could work with Turkey, which has just supported a bunch of Syrian opposition groups in clearing the Islamic State from a large swath on the Turkish border. We could support this with airstrikes and create a no-fly zone. This is an indirect challenge to Russia, which now has priority over a lot of airspace in Syria.

On the most extreme end, you can do what many have called on the administration to do since the 2013 chemical weapons massacre in the Damascus area: We could strike an Assad facility that is targeting civilians, which would send a very strong message to Russia.

On the softer end, you can push for greater sanctions, which the administration has been nervous to do because of our attempts to negotiate a way out of the crisis with Russia. The administration asked Congress to table the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, a bill that calls for greater sanctions for people supporting the regime. This would include a lot of Russian entities. Sanctions would send a much stronger message to Russia that we’re not just talking but rather we’re actually willing to take action to enforce the things that we feel are right.

Q: Donald Trump has talked about creating a safe zone in Syria. Could you discuss the feasibility of creating and maintaining one?

The biggest challenge, once again, is Russia and Donald Trump’s view of Russia in this conflict. A safe zone is very feasible. Our armed forces have had plans for it for quite a while because it’s been on the slate of policy options, especially now that Turkey has cleared a ground zone, which they would like to see as an initial safe zone.

It’s practical, and it’s feasible, but it will require a degree of risk. The worst-case scenario is if somebody [tries to create a safe zone] with a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics on the ground. Realistically, I could see this happening if, for example, we work with Russia to jointly patrol a safe zone. That would completely miss the fact that the Syrians who need safety the most need safety from Russia’s aerial bombardment. You don’t see people fleeing from these so-called humanitarian corridors because you’re asking Syrians to put themselves in the hands of the people who are attacking them.

The biggest challenge towards creating a safe zone is that you don’t want it to become a safe harbor for jihadi militants, and that requires a ground force. I’m not necessarily saying US ground force, but it requires patrolling of the borders. There’ve been a lot of proposals out there that create a no-bombing zone. A version where we just put in surface-to-air defensive capabilities is perhaps more feasible.

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