Syria’s “Surrogates R Us”

Marc Ginsberg (Ambassador to Morocco, 1994-1998)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Ginsberg’s August 30, 2016 worldpost piece in the Huffington Post.

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Sur-ro-gate: a substitute or deputy for a person in a specific role.

The crumbling, decrepit remnants of the Syrian state are overrun by the pestilence of so many mini-conflicts it is impossible to know who is fighting what at any hour of any given day, or which devastated rubble of a city or town is under control of what Sunni Islamist of Shiite faction or proxy of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States. Syria is a veritable cauldron of killing field upon killing field. One day a surrogate force is on one side, the next day, on the other — depending on the highest bidder and the gravest threat to their proxy hosts.

Syria’s butcher-in-chief — Bashar al-Assad — courtesy of Russia’s Putin, Iran’s Khamenei, and the terrorist group known as Hezbollah, has clung to power by controlling a sliver of territory around the capital, Damascus, while his beleaguered forces barrel-bomb and deploy poison gas (yes, poison gas) to subdue a civilian population not under his regime’s direct control into starvation and submission. That is what is taking place in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.


It is bad enough that Assad has resorted again to chlorine bombs against Syrian civilians in contemptible violation of his own agreement to ban chemical weapons after his regime had been caught red-handed using sarin in a Damascus neighborhood a few years ago. But a special joint investigation of the United Nations also just determined that ISIS launched a poison gas attack last year using sulfur mustard, which, like chlorine, is banned as a weapon under international treaties. Both constitute war crimes. But what really is a war crime in Syria today? Who’s counting? Meanwhile, Assad survives – and there is no absence of those, perhaps with a modicum of logic, who argue Assad cannot exit stage left and leave a vacuum only to be filled by ISIS or its fellow jihadists.

The atrocities committed by Assad’s devilish jihadi opponents are no less contemptible. Whether it be the al-Nusra Front, Al Qaeda, ISIS, or whatever battlefield nom de guerre stirs the Prophet’s fancy, jihadi/criminal networks are as perverse in their ruthlessness as the regime itself. The law of the jungle prevails throughout the country. Even when the calamity seems it cannot descend into more of a fiasco, it does. For a world shamefully impervious to Syria’s plight, the daily death-watch of humanitarian horror defies comprehension — and there is no end in sight. No political settlement is on the horizon much less a cease fire that would last more than a week.

As valiant as the Secretary of State Kerry’s endless shuttle diplomacy is to arrange anything that stops the fighting anywhere, his desperation is matched time and again by rote Russian diplomatic trickery that reveals a contempt for American diplomatic efforts.

For the desperate civilians still under siege — no sustainable acts of mercy are on anyone’s radar. The international Syrian Support Group cannot even carry out any meaningful, promised airlifts of food and medicine because Assad will not guaranty safe passage. And where he does, the charade of humanitarian tokenism is breathtakingly diabolical — akin to the Nazis parading concentration camp inmates before the cameras to prove to the world they were a well-fed, well-cared for population. As one neighborhood of besieged Aleppo is open to a days’ relief supplies, Assad is bombing the rest of Syria’s largest city into smithereens.

American policy is in disarray, largely because U.S. military and diplomatic strategy are simply out of sync and shackled by a White House that can’t wait to turn this burning hot potato over to the next president. Is our objective to beat ISIS, beat Assad, or both? Don’t expect a coherent reply from the White House. Whoever wins in November, Syria is, as my friend Anthony Cordesman of CSIS accurately observed, little more than a poison chalice for the next president.

During her tenure as Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton was largely focused on defeating Assad since ISIS had not consolidated its gains in Syria. But as candidates, neither Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Trump have devoted substantive time on the campaign trail to redress the Syrian quagmire. Mr. Trump would cozy up to Putin and bomb his way to Mosul. That’s a “Cliff Notes” Syria policy (and that is being charitable). Mrs. Clinton has proposed several important tactical objectives: 1) a “no fly zone” that would prevent Assad from killing civilians; 2) create safe havens in northern and southern Syria for civilians; 3) “increase” support for the democratic forces opposing Assad; and 4) compelling Russia to cease its air support for Assad’s ground forces. Good propositions all, but they would be better served by an over-arching strategy to guide America’s core interests in the Middle East.

In fairness, to anyone compelled to come up with Syrian solutions Harry Houdini would be tongue-tied. The Syrian Gordian Knot is implacably impermeable to the most ingenious, persistent diplomat or magician.

For all his failures in Syria since the civil war commenced in 2011, Mr. Obama has pursued a singular strategy focused on recapturing the ISIS Syrian of capital of Raqqa without deploying American troops to do so — relying on surrogates instead — his 21st century version of colonial-era Hessians German mercenaries fighting alongside the British.

But Obama’s so-called “good” Syrian Arab rebel surrogate strategy has been an abject disaster. The much-heralded Coalition has poured billions of dollars into a failed effort to stand up a unified “moderate” Arab rebel force. The last U.S.-trained Syrian Arab outfit funded by the Pentagon to the tune of $500 million evaporated in its first battlefield confrontation with ISIS forces in eastern Syria. Most of the other so-called “good jihadists” supported by Washington have either joined forces with the “bad jihadists” or have actually jumped ship entirely and joined Al Qaeda’s own militia fighting the Assad regime AND ISIS. Oh, and just as a footnote, only 8 NATO members out of 27 have joined the U.S. to place battlefield assets into Syria to defeat ISIS. That Arab Syrian surrogate operation has proven to be a disaster.

However, the other part of the U.S. surrogate strategy began to show promise and yield battlefield results earlier this year when the Syrian Kurdish militia (the Kurdish “Peoples Protection Units” or the more familiar Kurdish acronym “YPG”) fighting under the coalition moniker SYRIAN DEMOCRATIC FORCE, proved its worth against ISIS forces dug in and towns along Syria’s northern border with Turkey east of the Euphrates River.

This promising news lasted until YPG forces decided to cross the west bank of the Euphrates River — at the behest of U.S. military commanders — and begin seizing Syrian villages along Turkey’s border. The Pentagon considered this an important Coalition military strategy — part of its overall surrogate strategy to lay the groundwork for an offensive and ultimate liberation of ISIS’s capital of Raqqa.

But the Turkish government considered this nothing more than a dangerous Kurdish military effort to link up a corridor between two Kurdish enclaves.

The Euphrates river crossing constituted a Turkish red line since Turkey believes the Kurdish land seizure is an overt effort to create a rump Syrian Kurdish independent state. Unlike American red lines in Syria, Turkey was not going to go color blind when it came to Kurdish nationalistic conspiracies – especially given the recent coup attempt and the escalating violence perpetrated by terrorist PKK Kurdish militants.

Turkey has vowed now to wipe out the Kurdish Democratic Union and its YPG military wing. Turkey massed several armored battalions on its Syrian border. Aided by its own allied Syrian (non-Kurdish) rebel forces and U.S. air support, pounced on the YPG forces deployed west of the Euphrates.

This, in short, is the “order of battle” on Syria’s northern frontier. American-backed surrogate Kurdish forces are now fighting Turkish-backed surrogate Syrian rebel forces supported by Turkish military contingents AND U.S. fighter jets — diverting attention away from the real military goal of recapturing Raqqa from ISIS.

The U.S. finds itself supporting two adversaries fighting each other on the ground: the Turks and the YPG Kurdish forces. Turkey’s main objective is to prevent Kurdish forces from creating a Kurdish Syrian enclave — not to fight ISIS. But without the YPG, the U.S. has no surrogate boots on the ground to fight ISIS.

So what did the U.S. do?

When Vice President Biden visited Ankara last week to calm U.S.- Turkish relations following the failed Turkish military coup, Biden embraced Ankara’s demands for YPG forces to redeploy east back across the Euphrates — who were then compelled to vacate the strategic Syrian towns and villages it had liberated from ISIS. Biden’s declaration was news to Brett McGurk — President Obama’s anti-ISIS czar, who had given his own green light, along with American Special Forces supporting the YPG, for YPG forces to cross the Euphrates westward.

Now the very best American-backed surrogate fighting force in Syria considers Washington’s about-face as a betrayal. The Pentagon is tongue-tied trying to explain the predicament it is in.

Four hundred and Seventy Thousand (470,000) Syrians are dead so far. Millions more displaced.

Between doing little to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and putting boots on the ground in Syria, Mr. Obama has tarnished his legacy by paying lip service to the plight of Syrians and shedding a lot of crocodile tears for their suffering.

It need not have turned out this way.

Mr. Obama could have laid the groundwork for his successor by being a humanitarian hero — an “angel from the air” if not a “commander on the ground” to stem the killing and the flow of displaced Syrians to Europe and the U.S. He could have accepted the advice of his former secretary of state and Pentagon generals to pursue a safe-haven policy as we successfully did in Iraq to protect the Kurds against Saddam in the 90’s. He could have done what the Israelis do when Assad begins feeling his oats: bomb one or three of Syria’s military runways used to prevent the barrage of barrel bombs. Instead, we have drift, indecision, uncertainty, and defiance from an exhausted, indifferent White House. And Messrs. Erdogan and Putin are calling all the shots.

Perhaps Mr. Obama should have marshaled the best possible surrogates under U.S. command instead of the surrogates he belatedly was compelled to support: a humanitarian army of relief organizations and workers, backed up by the U.S. military, to provide rescue and relief for Syrians beleaguered population — daring Assad or the Russian to interfere with U.S. air force jets protecting the relief effort blessed by the United Nations. That would have been a policy to be proud of, instead of the empty saucer he is bequeathing to his successor.

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