Kenneth M. Pollack’s proposal in the September/October 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs is intriguing and clear-eyed. He outlines a strategy to defeat Assad by raising a professional army composed of Syrian fighters. As opposed to arming moderate rebels, Pollack would have the United States make a fresh start at creating an armed actor ex nihilo that can take on both Assad and Islamist extremists, and ensure stability when the fighting is over.
These men and women could come from any part of the country or its diaspora, as long as they were Syrian and willing to fight in the new army. They would need to integrate themselves into a conventional military structure and adopt its doctrine and rules of conduct. They would also have to be willing to leave their existing militias and become reassigned to new units without regard for religion, ethnicity, or geographic origin. Loyalty to the new army and to the vision of a democratic postwar Syria for which it would stand must supersede all other competing identities.
The strategy’s most critical aspect would be its emphasis on long-term conventional training. The program would represent a major departure from the assistance Washington is currently providing the opposition, which involves a few weeks of coaching in weapons handling and small-unit tactics. The new regimen, by contrast, should last at least a year, beginning with such basic training and then progressing to logistics, medical support, and specialized military skills. Along the way, U.S. advisers would organize the soldiers into a standard army hierarchy. Individuals chosen for command positions would receive additional instruction in leadership, advanced tactics, combined-arms operations, and communications.
Needless to say, this strategy would take a few years’ time to bear fruit. The “fruit” in the best case scenario is the establishment of a modern democracy protected by an apolitical army. While we can’t rule out an outright rout of such a force, it is highly unlikely to be defeated by Assad or the Islamic State if it is backed by American air power. Another scenario that Pollack considers is the new army prevailing against Assad but failing to secure the country. “The new Syrian army would then continue to face a grueling and destabilizing battle with extremists and insurgents while struggling to establish law and order, a challenge that undermined postwar governments in both Afghanistan and Libya.” A good case can be made that this is the most likely scenario.
The problem, which Pollack seems entirely unaware of, is that an army forged by the United States and embedded with American advisors to boot, would be necessarily seen as illegitimate by, if not the majority of Syrians, then at least a significant minority. In this region of the world, Western meddling smacks of colonial practices. An armed actor backed by Washington will be seen as America’s lackey. This would directly play into the hands of Islamist propaganda. No matter how well-intentioned the American intervention, the Islamists’ message of resistance to the West would resonate with increasing force. In particular, many more would join the Islamic State to fight the “good fight” against the infidel enemy. The Iraqi army forged ex nihilo by the Americans that Pollack cites as an exemplary case, also suffers precisely from this association; exacerbated, in this case, by the sectarianism of the regime in Baghdad.
The new Syrian army would have to be forged in either Jordan or Turkey. If based in Jordan, it could destabilize the small state quite quickly. The Islamic State already has plans to expand into Jordan. A large-scale American operation of this magnitude would immediately create a fertile ground for the expansion of the Islamic State’s influence; particularly among disenfranchised Palestinians, who constitute a majority of Jordan’s populace. Jordan has so far narrowly avoided the instability engulfing its neighbors. An American operation of this magnitude in Jordan would not be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, it would be a brick.
If based in Turkey, the United States would have to constantly be wary of Turkish influence. Washington and Turkey have very different interests in Syria. In fact, Washington is furious with Ankara over the latter’s blind support for Islamist insurgents in Syria. Turkey has reportedly allowed the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qa‘ida affiliate, among other odorous groups, to establish supply lines and training camps in its territory. There is some evidence to suggest that it has directly armed and funded Islamist extremists. Seymour Hersh reported in the London Review of Books that the chemical attack allegedly carried out by Assad that almost prompted American cruise missile strikes, was a false-flag operation orchestrated by Turkey to prompt an American assault on Assad’s forces. It would be extremely difficult for America to both convince Turkey to host such a force and contain Turkish influence. It would also put the sustainability of the process under question. Turkey could, for instance, eject the half-trained force if Washington failed to accommodate its interests. At the very least, such an operation would increase the Turks’ leverage against Washington.
Pursuing the strategy advocated by Pollack thus runs the risk of increasing regional instability and drawing the United States into a prolonged stability operation. It comes with a hundred billion dollar price tag and clear diplomatic costs. Washington could certainly have good reason to bear these costs and run these risks if there was a significant American interest at stake. The United States has one overriding interest in Syria: to defeat the Islamic State and, more generally, contain the Salafist-Jihadist menace. In contrast, getting rid of Assad is a minor gain that comes with its own risks since the United States cannot be sure that a post-Assad Syria would be conducive to American interests. Moreover, no matter how odorous Assad is on humanitarian grounds, he is not a direct threat to the United States or its key allies. The only security gain from replacing Assad by a more compliant regime is that it would undercut Hezbollah’s supply lines. While this would go some way towards furthering Israeli security, it would hardly be a major transformation since Israel can already deter and punish Hezbollah at will, and the latter would survive Assad’s ouster because it has deep roots in Lebanon. In other words, the security gains to Israel from Assad’s ouster are marginal.
In terms of securing the United States’ principal interest of defeating the Salafist-Jihadist threat, it is not clear at all that Pollack’s high-risk strategy is the best course of action, especially given that there is a straightforward alternative that comes with fewer risks. This alternative, of course, is backing Assad. The central government’s army still constitutes the dominant military force in the Syrian conflict. Assad has a clear interest in bringing northern Syria back under his rule. American airstrikes are insufficient to defeat the Islamic State. To secure the defeat of the Islamic State, Washington should coordinate with Damascus, Erbil, and Tehran. The Islamic State will not be able to survive a concerted attack on three fronts. Needless to say, this requires significant coordination with Tehran; a process that is already well-advanced. Stratfor reported on August 20, 2014, that “Washington and Tehran agreed on the limited force the Quds Force has deployed in Iraq’s Diyala province to fight alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces against the Islamic State.” The Obama administration seems finally to have moved to the right strategy.
It is clear that Assad has refrained from attacking the Islamic State to undermine Western opposition to his rule: “this is what you will get if I am kicked out.” This doesn’t mean that Washington should continue to seek his ouster anyway. There is no shame is admitting that Assad’s poison pill is an effective deterrent. Washington should not let its humanitarian rhetoric get in the way of pursuing the right strategy to ensure its primacy security interests. Assad may be a butcher, but he is the best man for the job. Pollack’s strategy to oust Assad can work. But it serves no discernible American interest and comes with significant risks and costs. Instead of launching such an ambitious project, the US should hold its nose and work with Assad to defeat the Islamic State.