The following is an excerpt from The Case for a More Robust Intervention in Syria by Century Foundation fellow Thanassis Cambanis.
A more robust military campaign in Syria should build on both of the missions already underway: the CIA’s covert sponsorship of armed proxies and the Pentagon’s overt train-and-equip program for rebels. A U.S.-led military campaign should prioritize the following strategic aims:
- Weaken the Syrian government’s military forces.
- Reintroduce norms of warfare by punishing parties who commit war crimes.
- Protect civilians through siege relief and other means, in pursuit of a war strategy that makes civilian well-being a core interest.
- Promote a core political commitment to a pluralistic Syria where all groups and ethnicities, including the secular, share common rights.
- Preserve Syria’s state and institutions, including the military. Further wreckage to Syria’s institutions and infrastructure must be condemned, punished, and when possible, prevented.
- Equalize the stalemate so that negotiations become appealing to all sides. Achieving balance would be difficult, requiring military strikes or withholding of military aid to any party that aspires to outright victory rather than negotiated settlement.
Supporters of military intervention by the U.S. in Syria—including the intervention already under way—must be honest about the risks and limits. American allies in Syria are unreliable, with limited reach. Extremists and jihadists, like government forces, have some popularity and legitimate constituencies. Current U.S. policy has unintentionally strengthened the Syrian government, as well as Islamic State and Nusra; a more active military intervention would weaken those parties in some ways but probably strengthen them in others. An honest policy must acknowledge that there will be collateral benefits to parties that the United States does not want to strengthen, but can calibrate force so that benefits of the policy outweigh the costs.
A rejuvenated military campaign by the U.S. in Syria would be a work in progress, but initial tactical steps that would help achieve America’s strategic aims include:
- End regime starvation sieges, such as the ones currently underway in Deraya, Madaya, Moadhamiya, and Eastern Ghouta.
- For symbolic reasons, intervention should also end starvation sieges by Islamic State in Deir al-Zour and by the Free Syrian Army in Foua and Kafraya.
- Air power, special forces, and proxies should expand and defend safe access to rebel Aleppo.
- Short of full safe havens and no-fly zones, the United States can offer incremental protection to civilian areas in the south, center, and north of Syria. Already there are considerable in-gatherings of civilians, for instance, along the Jordanian and Turkish borders. The risks of a heavy civilian concentration already are present; U.S. protection—even if incomplete—could save many lives.
- The United States should pressure the Syrian Democratic Forces, its preferred proxy, to stop attacking vetted Free Syrian Army groups and to cooperate with them. The United States should withhold arms deliveries and air strikes for the Syrian Democratic Forces any time the Syrian Democratic Forces attack Free Syrian Army groups. It should also provide air strikes to Free Syrian Army groups with equal speed and intensity as it does for the YPG/SDF. Where it lacks the capacity to provide air cover to vetted Free Syrian Army units, it should quickly address technical obstacles. It should introduce into the warzone the capacity to shoot down planes, through whichever means the U.S. military finds most effective, whether special forces from the United States or allies like Jordan and United Emirates, or tightly controlled deliveries of anti-aircraft missiles to vetted proxies.
- The United States should make proportionate retaliatory air strikes for any indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian government or the Russian military on civilians and infrastructure, especially hospitals, clinics, and civil defense.
- The U.S. military and its vetted proxies should employ enough force to protect displaced camps and civilian neighborhoods.
- Islamic State and government forces should bear the brunt of U.S. action, but air strikes and special operations should continue to target anti-regime extremists such as Nusra when Nusra threatens U.S. allies. It is not necessary to engage in total war against all the extremist parties to the conflict—limited, occasional strikes will make it harder for all parties to commit war crimes and will inject uncertainty into the calculations of militias.
- Shoot down some Syrian government planes and helicopters. End the long and disingenuous debate about whether to give rebels surface-to-air missiles by addressing the umbrella concern: indiscriminate bombardment of civilians from the air. Even occasional U.S.-orchestrated strikes against regime air assets—always over areas where U.S. forces have given prior notification to Russia, to be sure there are no accidental strikes against Russian pilots—will force the Assad government to shelf its approach of massive bombardment of rebel-held civilian areas.
America stands to reap strategic dividends from greater involvement in the Syrian war. But there is a moral argument as well: being more involved is the right thing to do. America created the state collapse in Iraq, sparking a long war that has engulfed Iraq and Syria, and promises to last at least a generation (it has been flaring, full force, for thirteen years already). The United States has a responsibility to try to manage the results of this meltdown, and gains moral and political credibility by doing its best to protect civilians and promote state stability and good governance, even when those efforts only achieve partial results. A more robust intervention that achieves only one thing—fewer casualties from barrel bombs, airstrikes, and shelling, and less displacement—would still count as a success. In foreign policy, just as in politics, intent and commitment matter. Even when a superpower does not get the exact result it seeks, clear intentions and sustained commitment make it more likely to win political support from its allies.