A year ago I wrote about President Obama’s low energy lack of engagement with trying to save Iraq and defeat ISIS. I had offered some suggestions on how Obama could have butched up his war plans to actually be effective. Of course I didn’t really expect Obama to take any such advice, whether from me or the countless military advisors at the Pentagon. Ultimately, he just wasn’t that interested and prefers to wait out the clock until he’s out of office and then complain about whatever the new guy (or gal) decides to do. Of course in the past year, a couple of things have happened:
Everything has gotten worse. The Islamic State hasn’t been stopped, and it might be generous to say that they’ve been slowed down.
The Islamic State is now a real state. They are now acting in their territory just like any other government, settling disputes and providing government services. No one recognizes their government as a legitimate government, but it’s there anyway.
The amount of airpower we’ve been willing to put into the war effort has been kept at a low enough level to not make much difference.
The Obama Administration, CENTCOM, or someone in it (*cough* James Clapper* cough*) is politicizing intelligence to make sure only happy talk is allowed to be disseminated.
Obama’s plan to train a “moderate” Syrian rebel force is a complete failure. We spent $500 million to field 4 or 5 rebels in country.
In the meantime, a massive refugee crisis has broken out as a result of the war, consisting of as many as 9 million Syrians.
The Russians are moving in, setting up operations inside Syria to shore up their ally, President Assad.
So it’s pretty clear that Obama’s no-effort strategy is an abject failure. And it also means that anything I thought could have been done a year ago has washed away. The situation is far direr today than it was a year ago and will probably get worse before it gets better, which may not be in the foreseeable future.
So tossing my old plans in the garbage, it’s obvious that we need a new one, but what? The option I outlined last year included:
- Training the remaining semi friendly anti ISIS forces, primarily the Kurds but also some Iraqi regular army units.
- Fortify and blockade the Syrian-Iraqi border to keep ISIS from resupplying and reinforcing its holdings on the Iraq side, allowing the Iraqi’s to take back their own territory and force Assad to engage ISIS instead of him using them as a pawn to drag us into saving his bacon.
All of that is meaningless now. The reality is, whether we accept the existence of the Islamic State or not, is that there is a Sunni Arab state operating in majority Sunni Arab territories taken from both Iraq and Syria, and it’s likely to remain in some form or another.
But this is a good news / bad news situation. Given where we are now, I thought I had come up with an original, not yet discussed solution to the Syrian issue. Unfortunately, in researching this, I discovered that The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon had already beaten me to it:
“…[A] final option is partition or confederation. Partition is certainly easier said than done — whether the goal is to create new countries or autonomous zones held together through some weak central government. But if the parties do recognize that they need to work together and there is some natural way to divide up land that is seen as both fair and militarily enforceable, partition can work. Conflicts between Bosnia and Kosovo, between Eritrea and Ethiopia and between the two Sudans have all ended this way — though often only after a great deal of blood has been spilled, and often only with the help of international peacekeepers along the various lines of separation.”
Given the ethnic/religious map of Syria, it just makes sense that we should stop trying to fit square ethnic groups into the round holes of artificial states that would never have existed if not for the European map making that lead to the Sykes Picot Agreement, which divided up the Middle East by the British and French after World War I. O’Hanlon seems to envision some sort of federation or confederation, but I think mini states would work better. Let Assad keep the Alawites, and let the Christians, Druze and Kurds go their separate ways.
The Sunni Arab area needs to be let go. It mostly belongs to the IS anyway. The only part of that area that needs to be separated is a Sunni enclave separate from the IS for refugees; and of course a possible staging area for future operations against ISIS.
Of course there is more than one fly in that ointment. The first one is Putin. He’s moved into Syria in a big way and appears ready to take the military offensive against ISIS to save his client state. Before the Russians moved in to Syria, the US had the option of operating more or less without taking the Russians into consideration. But the US policy of keeping the Russians out of the Middle East, which had lasted for decades, has collapsed due to the Obama administration’s inattention. If anyone has taken Rahm Emmanuel’s advice of never letting a crisis go to waste, it’s been Putin. So anything having to do with Syria now has to go through the actual military power that is on the ground there: Russia.
The other fly in the ointment is of course the Obama administration. They are the architects of this catastrophe, due to their inexperience and purposeful ideological blindness. They wanted hands off the Middle Eastern disasters and this is what it looks like; hundreds of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
So for that reason I rate the possibility of actually accomplishing anything as quite low. Going big would require a major military commitment. But on the plus side the only areas you would want to take are those areas that truly want be liberated from ISIS, whether they’re Christian, Druze, or Kurds. Although I’m not sure I would even support that kind of military commitment, I recognize that if you really want to do something useful, you have to do it on that scale. But I don’t think the Obama administration has even the appetite for diplomatic action. Far more likely than going big is simply going home. At least Obama has given a good example of what happens when America Shrugs: chaos.
For those who think the idea of partitioning Syria is unrealistic, there is precedent. That was how the Yugoslavian civil war was eventually resolved, by; partitioning the area into several states. The Middle East is revolting against their old, artificially created borders anyway. That can either be guided to a more peaceful resolution or it can be ignored and resisted with all of the accompanying death and international chaos that goes with it. But one way or the other, it’s happening.
Update: Since I wrote the above, Putin has changed the game once again. At Monday’s speech at the UN he said that he wants to put together an international anti terrorist coalition to go after the Islamic State. Russia will introduce a UN resolution to that effect, and who can blame them? International politics and leadership abhors a vacuum, and if the United States is no longer providing leadership, apparently Russia will; on their terms.