Teleconference: ISIS, Assad, and the Syrian Opposition: Challenges Confronting US Policy in Syria

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As the Obama Administration seeks to fashion a policy to counter ISIS, it confronts a complex situation on the ground, particularly in Syria. During this teleconference, three analysts and experts discussed the military/political landscape in Syria and the challenges it poses.

The Takeaways:
1. Bombs alone cannot defeat ISIS. As was the case during the 2007 Sunni Awakening in Iraq, the U.S. needs to win over local support if it hopes to dislodge the group from Iraq and Syria.
2. The U.S. led coalition risks doing more harm than good by acting in Syria without explicitly agreed upon objectives. 
3. The U.S. must be realistic in its desire to rebuild a nationalistic and secular Syria and should be open to the creation of a new, Sunni, state in Syria’s North.

As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has expanded its area of control into Iraq, and stepped up its targeting of ethnic minorities while also publicly beheading three Western captives, it has become increasingly clear that the group is not just a regional problem; it is now a global threat. In light of this realization, the U.S. has responded quickly and effectively to stop ISIS’ advance in Iraq. However, the question remains as to how the U.S. and its coalition of European and Arab partners should act with regards to the portions of Syria where ISIS and its affiliates are based. Although the U.S. Congress recently approved President Obama’s plan to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels, the country’s long-term objectives, as well as its near-term capabilities, have yet to be made clear.

Unfortunately, now armed with weapons and funds seized in Iraq, Mr. Shahbandar believes ISIS will be tough to eradicate, claiming that “ISIS does have the advantage” in Syria, as the Assad regime has allowed the group to grow and thrive in the lawless Northeast. In order to fight back against the jihadist militants, Mr. Shahbandar believes that the local population can be the U.S.’ most effective partner.

Up until now, the main opposition to ISIS has come from local tribes and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). By providing more sophisticated and high-quality weapons and through the sharing of strategic information, Mr. Shahbandar believes that the FSA and U.S. led coalition can strike back against an increasingly stretched ISIS while also establishing a force that is committed to the long-term protection of peace and stability in Syria.

However, while supporting the FSA and other moderate rebels in the fights against ISIS sounds nice, Dr. Landis fears that the strategy lacks a clear objective. If the goal is to take down the Assad regime and prop up the FSA as the new government in Syria, then the U.S. must be willing to spend “hundreds of billions of dollars” and commit years to rebuilding Syria. Such a commitment by Congress is, he believes, highly unlikely. Taking down Assad means resuming the war in Hama, Damascus, and other urban centers, which in turn would create millions of new refugees, and further destabilize the region. Dr. Lander believes that the U.S. needs to clearly communicate to the FSA that, right now, the primary focus is “taking on ISIS…not all of Syria.”

Having just returned from the region, Mr. Tabler described Syria as a “divided country.” With Assad retaining control in the South, the FSA holding on in the West, and the Kurds fighting for control in the East, it seems unlikely that local actors are capable of uniting Syria. In order to broker peace in Syria, Sunni leaders and regional actors, notably Iran, must come together and reach an agreement or understanding.

After years of fighting, the establishment of a regional coalition is an important step in building regional cooperation and dialogue. Now, objectives are needed to turn the region’s desire for peace, into action.

Speakers

  • Jane Harman

    Director, President, and CEO, Wilson Center
  • Andrew J. Tabler

    Senior Fellow Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of “In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria”
  • Joshua Landis

    Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies
  • Aaron David Miller

    Aaron David Miller

    Vice President for New Initiatives and Middle East Program Director
    Historian, analyst, negotiator, and former advisor to Republican and Democratic Secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations, 1978-2003; Global Affairs Analyst with CNN