One is naturally ill-disposed to find the Trump administration weighing military intervention in Syria given the current crisis in North Korea.

Though one suspects that the North Korean episode will involve the co-operation of both China and Pacific Rim partners in the peaceful removal of what has become a nuisance, Syria involves several players already engaged in the region.

To this point, Sean Davis over at The Federalist offers 14 questions for prospective neo-conservatives chomping at the bit for war.  D.J. McGuire in here at The Jeffersoniad has offered his own thoughtful response that offers a three-pronged response: (1) remove Assad’s ability to use WMD, (2) limit targets to the eastern part of Syria, and (3) impose a Western style representative government on the remains.

For my part, the solutions proposed by Mr. McGuire are direct, but suggest that we can cheaply bomb Syria and have the territory as a whole respond positively to such a campaign as liberators.   This is questionable, and unfortunately puts the United States in the condition of embroiling ourselves in another conflict without achievable policy aims and a clear timetable/expectation for success.

As I have written on this topic before, my solution presents war only as a last resort: an imposition of a Turkish-backed NATO peace with French civil service assets to impose not only a 1989 T’aif-style confessional democracy, but to back it up with a Levantine economic community that would lift Syria’s GDP rapidly over the course of the next five years.

Davis’ questions are in italics; my responses are in bold:

1) What national security interest, rather than pure humanitarian interest, is served by the use of American military power to depose Assad’s regime?

It doesn’t.  There are no “good guys” in Syria, and apart from our Turkish and Israeli allies, we have zero minus national interest in the country other than offering the best conditions for stability possible. 

2) How will deposing Assad make America safer?

As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, whether it is de-Baathification or de-Talebanization, it doesn’t work.  In the case of Iraq, al-Douri simply bided his time until he shifted to Syria to form ISIL; the Taleban remain an active force in Afghanistan and still threaten to overrun the country without the active presence of American soldiers.  Deposing the Alawite/Ba’athist regime in Syria only creates new problems… it does not solve existing ones on the ground.

3) What does final political victory in Syria look like (be specific), and how long will it take for that political victory to be achieved? Do you consider victory to be destabilization of Assad, the removal of Assad, the creation of a stable government that can protect itself and its people without additional assistance from the United States, etc.?

Final victory in Syria would be a creation of a multi-ethnic confessional state modeled after Lebanon, where President Bashar al-Assad remains in power as president, a Sunni retains the title of prime minister, and in this instance, a Kurd retains the title of Speaker of Parliament.  The ability of the Syrian government to project force would be eliminated entirely; NATO-backed Turkish troops would momentarily keep the peace while French-backed humanitarian aid would oversee infrastructure improvements.  The vital task will be to place arms “beyond use” — demilitarization is a dream, but removing the argument of force through economic incentives offers the possibility of creating wealth within Syria rather than merely bribing power brokers.

4) What military resources (e.g., ground troops), diplomatic resources, and financial resources will be required to achieve this political victory?

Much as NATO did in Serbia in 1998, air strikes will provide the knock out blow to any ability of the Syrian government (or FSA or ISIL) to project force in the region, should the Syrian government not wish to comply with a grand bargain for peace.  UN resolutions reinforcing a series of agreements based on the 1989 T’aif Accords tailored for Syria would set the framework, and a Turkish-backed peacekeeping force would maintain order until the new Syrian authorities were in a position to guarantee the safety of Western-Russian humanitarian and civil service aid workers.

5) How long will it take to achieve political victory?

More precisely put, what are the conditions that would detail defeat/withdrawal?  Such conditions would include but not necessarily be limited to:

  • A successful implementation of NATO security goals,
  • An unwillingness to acede to the UN resolutions detailing the framework for peace by any/all Syrian parties,
  • A resort to force projection by any/all of the Syrian parties,
  • An unwillingness/inability of NATO to back Turkish peacekeeping forces,
  • An unwillingness/inability of French civil service aid to operate in Syria,
  • The invitation of a new Syrian government to leave the theater,
  • The use of WMD under any conditions by any/all of Syrian parties,

Any of these preconditions being violated would resume an immediate, disproportionate, and co-ordinate response from NATO forces.

6) What costs, in terms of lives (both military and civilian), dollars, and forgone options elsewhere as a result of resource deployment in Syria, will be required to achieve political victory?

Before the Syrian Civil War, the country’s GDP was estimated to be $65 billion.  Today, it is hovering somewhere in the neighborhood of $12 billion.  A number between those two numbers is the appropriate amount of investment we should be expecting to rebuild Syria to a point where the Syrian economy itself can rebuild.

In terms of military investment, we are talking 3 months of hard airstrikes (if warranted) followed by an 18-36 month joint NATO/Russian presence, and the implementation of a new stable government over the course of a year.  In terms of an economic investment, the creation of a Levantine Economic Union that would find joint participation from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Northern Iraq would help assuage Kurdish national aspirations while denying its direct forms — providing the catalyst for investment as well as regional stability.  The option of involving Israeli capital should be explored initially, with future engagement on the terms of the Levantines themselves.

7) What other countries will join the United States in deposing Assad, in terms of military, monetary, or diplomatic resources?

NATO, but in a direct military fashion the Turks as well as the Russian Federation, given their long history with Syria and the condition of the warm water port in Tarsus.  French civil support on par with their role in former French colonies should be extended and supported by the European Union, as the French remain the only Western power that is trusted in the region.

8) Should explicit congressional authorization for the use of military force in Syria be required, or should the president take action without congressional approval?

As a matter of constitutional process, President Trump should take action only insofar as the War Powers Resolution permits, and beyond this should ask Congress to exercise its constitutional duty with a formal declaration of war.

However, should Turkey invoke Article 5 of the NATO treaty and invite the Russian government to work in coalition to restore order in Syria, war is a fiat accompli as we would be treaty bound to intervene.

Beyond this, if the Turks are not willing to invoke the Article 5, then very bluntly, there is no moving forward in Syria.

9) What is the risk of wider conflict with Russia, given that nation’s presence and stake in Syria, if the United States chooses to invade and depose Assad, a key Russian ally in the Middle East?

The Russians are integral to any peacekeeping mission in Syria, as well as any UN Resolution passed.  Without Russian support for a NATO-backed peace, there is no path forward.

This having been said, it would be wise for the Russian Federation to see in a Syrian peace the seeds for a revivification of the Donbass region and a settlement for the Ukraine.

 Partnership rather than brinkmanship has already been the express will of the Russian President Vladimir Putin on a number of fronts in his quest to have the Russian Federation be treated on par with the United States and European Union as co-equal partners in a grand Western alliance — the opportunity to demonstrate that partnership would be a historic chance to remedy the slip in relations over the last ten years.  

10) If U.S. intervention in Syria does spark a larger war with Russia, what does political victory in that scenario look like, and what costs will it entail?

The Russian Federation is not in a condition either militarily or politically to wage war against NATO for the sake of preserving the al-Assad regime.

11) Given that Assad has already demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, how should the United States respond if the Assad regime deploys chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against the United States?

The difficulty of using WMD in Syria demonstrate how Herculean such a task would be for a state actor to transport such a weapon into the United States, the Russian Federation or the European Union, given the intensity and rigor of anti-terrorism efforts in both spheres.

12) Assuming the Assad regime is successfully removed from power, what type of government structure will be used to replace Assad, who will select that government, and how will that government establish and maintain stability going forward?

Optimally a confessional democracy based on the Lebanese model, if al-Assad must be removed.  As witnessed in Iraq, nations such as Syria do not require “debaathification” in order to be operative democracies.  Further, it is a mistake to assume that Western style representative democracies are best for the Arab world.  Allowing a denuded role as president of the Syrian Arab Republic while removing the military option allows for the re-establishment of an equilibrium among the six players in Syria today.

13) Given that a change in political power in the United States radically altered the American position in Iraq in 2009, how will you mitigate or address the risk of a similar political dynamic upending your preferred strategy in Syria, either in 2018, 2020, or beyond?

The Syrians will be imposing the solutions, not NATO nor the UN nor the Russian Federation.  If any fragment breaks away (or if success is achieved), the agreement suspends and the Syrians are left to their own devices. 

What is critical for success is the moneybag that will be placed on the table as a paperweight to keep the varying factions from blowing off the desk.  Again, Syria’s GDP was $65 bn in 2011… today it is a mere fraction of that.  The imposition of a Syrian peace followed by the restructuring and advisement of French civil service personnel combined with not only a restoration of Syrian fortunes combined with the potential of a Levantine Economic Union creates an economic environment that all parties should benefit from and few would want to disrupt — both from fear of losing out on the boom and becoming the recipient of a very different sort of “boom” should it come to that.

14) What lessons did you learn from America’s failure to achieve and maintain political victory following the removal of governments in Iraq and Libya, and how will you apply those lessons to a potential war in Syria?

  • Western democracy cannot be “cookie cuttered” (to borrow the phrase from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) onto Arab nations.  
  • Decapitation works as a measure of last resort.  
  • Better an expensive peace than a cheap war.  
  • Solutions can only be found within Syria itself; Western nations can only provide the catalyst to peace.  
  • No peace can be achieved so long as any of the Syrian actors have the option to project force.  
  • The Russian government would love nothing more than to see a solution in Syria become a prototype for a solution in the Donbass region of the Ukraine.
  • There are solutions other than war in Syria, and they should be explored to the utmost.
  • The use of WMD is unacceptable in any condition, by any player, at any time.  Penalties for the use of WMD will be unilateral, severe, and direct.
  • NATO is the proper vehicle for the removal of Syrian force projection.
  • The Turks will require the formal backing of both NATO and the American government.
  • The French will require the formal backing of the European Union.
  • The Russians will require a mutual understanding and de-escalation of Western tensions as a precursor to a solution in the Ukraine.
  • A pan-Levantine economic community is the easiest means of providing economic resuscitation in Syria, Iraq, and post-war Lebanon — and should enjoy both Jordanian leadership and Israeli interest as a means of making peace valuable and war unprofitable.
  • These objectives can be achieved with willing parties within two years.

There are tripwires, of course.  Such a solution would require the co-operation of the Russian Federation (presumably as a precursor to any solution in the Ukraine).  Such a solution would also require the agreement of all parties in Syria — either de facto or a fortiori in the hopes all parties are exhausted.

This solution would also involve the removal of the ability for the Syrian government to project force in the region… something the al-Assad regime would require massive concessions on in order to relax their grip on power.  Yet if the Assad government is presented two options — demilitarize and accept peace, or face a Turkish-backed coalition of NATO and Russian forces — Assad can either be a part of the new Syria or it can be built on his grave… not a hard choice.

The one catch?  This requires a ton of skillful diplomatic maneuvering.  But the investment in such an operation of diplomacy must be far cheaper than the alternative of Western intervention in the long running Syrian conflict — where our national interest is limited and the human tragedy immense.

  • D.j. McGuire

    I have no wish to “impose a Western style representative government” on anyone. I am hoping the a democratic Eastern Syria can be a haven for Assad opponents, as well as both an example to the rest of the country and an alternative to Assad around which non-al-Q rebels can rally.

    This is why I wrote (as answer to question 4): “Given recent events (which are noted in further questions), I would recommend an approach I first presented in Bearing Drift in November 2015 – defeating and removing Daesh in Eastern Syria, building a smaller state in eastern Syria that is democratic and free of terror, and using eastern Syria as an example for the divided western part of the country, while helping non-al-Qaedist rebels defeat Assad in the west.”

  • Jabacon

    How about this option: Every time Assad uses chemical weapons, we give him a sharp punch in the nose. The goals: Discourage Assad from using chemical weapons, and make it clear to the world that there is a price to be paid for using them. No regime change. No fighting the Russkies.