Mohammed Alaa Ghanem:
'When President Trump ordered a Tomahawk missile barrage against Assad forces in retaliation for the Syrian nerve gas massacre of April 2017 – an act the White House threatened to repeat just last week based on intelligence of an imminent chemical attack – he not only caused massive damage to the Assad regime’s aerial fleet but also left in smoldering ruins years of Obama Administration talking points about action against Assad triggering “World War Three.”
In the last years of the Obama presidency, Administration officials waved off any and all of my suggestions to build Syrian opposition leverage and coerce Assad into negotiating. They warned that such suggestions – even humanitarian airdrops – could trigger World War Three with Russia, the most important backer of the Assad regime.
But since April, America has continued to hit pro-regime forces and their Iran-supported allies in Syria, targeting multiple Iran-backed columns and Iran-supplied drones that threatened a U.S. training base for Free Syrian Army rebel fighters. When the U.S. shot down a regime plane in air-to-air combat last week, it was the first event of its kind since the 1990s war in Kosovo.
With these moves, the U.S. has managed to deter regime chemical attacks on civilians – something President Obama failed to do through diplomacy – and repel Iranian aggressions against U.S. assets without triggering World War Three. Yet former Obama Administration officials are doubling down.
Colin Kahl, who advised Vice President Biden on national security, writes on Twitter that America is on the path to a “possible clash with Russia” and “war with Iran.” And a former Obama Administration Iran team member, Ilan Goldenberg, warned in an op-ed that more aggressive policies could lead the U.S. to “stumble into a devastating conflict” in Syria.
The irony is that Obama’s isolationist policies have already caused a devastating conflict. In January 2014, the Assad regime began fiercely bombarding Aleppo as rebels from the area pushed ISIS to the brink in the group’s capital. This weakened the rebel offensive, allowed ISIS to regroup, and led to ISIS storming into Mosul from Syria six months later and declaring a Caliphate.
Last week, with regime warplanes bombing Pentagon partners fighting ISIS near the group’s capital of Raqqah, Trump responded as Obama should have: by shooting down Assad’s planes.
Had Obama taken that same step in 2014, ISIS might have been defeated before declaring a Caliphate. Dozens of ISIS terror attacks in Manchester, Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, and elsewhere that were inspired by ISIS’s rise most likely would not have happened. We are already in a “devastating conflict” due to Obama’s inaction.
And before policymakers heed Kahl’s pleas to avoid a “possible clash with Russia,” they should reflect on how such a clash became possible. There was no risk of a clash with Russia in mid-2015, when Turkey presented former U.S. anti-ISIS tsar John Allen with a proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria and earned his support. Russian forces had not yet entered Syria then – and based on my own diplomatic sources, Russian diplomats were spooked by the discussions. But Russia was emboldened when the U.S. nixed the proposal in late July. One month later, Russia signed a secret pact with Assad to enter the war.
Military action against Assad is not a simple matter; it never was. But the record shows that failure to confront Assad has caused far more complications than action against him would have. This remains true today.
Debate is raging within the Trump Administration over how far to go in support of U.S. partners, particularly anti-ISIS Free Syrian Army rebels supported by a Pentagon training base near Jordan. Key National Security Council officials favor action against Iran-backed militias near the base, while multiple Pentagon officials favor a focus purely on ISIS.
The problem with an ISIS-only focus is that Iran is exploiting the ISIS fight to damage U.S. interests. Two weeks ago, regime forces evicted ISIS from a narrow strip of territory near the Pentagon’s training base – not to launch an offensive against ISIS, but to prevent U.S.-backed rebels from doing so. The regime has also attacked U.S.-backed groups directly, leading to the defensive airstrikes that so dismay former Obama officials.
Yet the U.S. cannot stand by in the face of such attacks, which have the goal of conquering eastern Syria “before the Americans get there” and opening an Iranian land corridor to the Mediterranean for the first time in millennia. That corridor would drastically increase Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah, open new Iranian trading with Europe, and thereby make it harder for the U.S. to corral European support even for future sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
Gains against ISIS by U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army forces are the main obstacle to this corridor. So the increased tempo of U.S. attacks on Assad and Iran is not only laudable; it is not enough. The U.S. must preempt Iran-backed advances by empowering FSA forces to enter major eastern Syrian population centers. Most FSA fighters at the base are from eastern Syria and would be welcomed by locals.
In the long run, Trump needs a coherent policy that leverages his newfound assertiveness to help pressure Assad, whom Trump has called an “animal,” to negotiate his exit from power. A new FSA offensive against ISIS in the east is only the first step – the first of many that Trump can take without triggering ‘World War Three’ in Syria.'