Now to the substance of the comments on my Atlantic piece. I am grateful for Fred Hof’s contribution—in the long, ghastly story of the Syrian conflict, he is one of the few people who has consistently stayed focused on the horrors of the war for civilians and on the inadequacy of the Obama administration’s response. Hof offers a devastating summary in his comment: “The four-plus years the United States spent holding Syria at arm’s length, hoping its carnage could be contained while drawing erasable red lines and merely calling on Assad to step aside, have helped spawn horrific unanticipated consequences and narrowed policy options. Decisions America deferred in 2012 came home to roost in 2015. Everything is harder now …” Hof has been arguing for a stronger U.S. policy for the last three years, more clearly than anyone I know.
He makes several specific points that I agree with. First, he argues that protection of Syrian civilians is “the mandatory first step toward the negotiated political transition” that Kerry envisions. I share his view that such protection will be impossible without secure corridors free from Assad’s barrel bombing—let’s call them “safe zones.” One addendum I’d offer: Until Kerry’s Vienna talks collapse, they’re the right venue for discussion of this safe-zone process. If diplomacy fails, one consequence should be an immediate move by the U.S. and its allies to establish the safe zones.
Second, Hof argues that ISIS is an easier target in Syria (where it’s a transplant) than Iraq, and for this reason, Syria “should be the top battlefield priority.” It’s bizarre that after spending more than a trillion dollars in Iraq, and building a new Iraqi army from scratch, America has less leverage against ISIS there than it does with 25,000 Kurdish fighters in Syria. But that appears to be so. As this week’s news of the peshmerga offensive on Sinjar showed, America’s only reliable allies in Iraq, too, are Kurdish forces.
The new Obama rubric seems to be “Do what works,” rather than the old formula, “Don’t do stupid shit.” The logic of supporting the Syrian Kurds is that they actually fight and seize ground. The YPG is allied with a smaller Arab tribal force drawn from Raqqa and Hassaka. In theory, this Arab force will take the Islamic State’s capital. But the group is small (less than 5,000 fighters) and largely untested. What will Obama do if it turns out that this “clear and hold” force can’t actually clear anything?
For his part, Dominic Tierney rightly raises questions about how to create the Syrian “safe zones” that I advocated. As noted earlier, I think the safe-zone action shifts for now to a UN-led process that would be part of Kerry’s diplomacy, assuming that it makes any headway. But if the diplomacy collapses, civilian protection becomes even more important. I would argue for a declaratory zone, rather than a preemptive strike against the Syrian air force and air-defense system. That is, the United States and its allies should announce that they will protect civilians in a defined zone, and that any attack on them by Assad’s forces will trigger a devastating reprisal. A private warning should first go to Russia, to reduce the possibility of a U.S.-Russia confrontation.