A Syria-first strategy for defeating ISIS

Fred Hof writes: The four-plus years the United States spent holding Syria at arm’s length, hoping its carnage could be contained while drawing erasable red lines and merely calling on Assad to step aside, have helped to spawn horrific unanticipated consequences and narrowed policy options. Decisions America deferred in 2012 came home to roost in 2015. Everything is harder now, and policy choices run along a spectrum of bad to worse, with “inaction” firmly situated at the “worse” end. And yet hard decisions, if avoided in 2015, can haunt Obama’s successors for decades to come. What should be done right now to defeat ISIS?

In western Syria, the United States and its partners should make civilian protection the near-term centerpiece of their anti-ISIS strategy, before even beginning to seek the political solution [David] Ignatius [in a recent essay] rightly calls the best hope for Syria’s survival. The objective should be twofold: terminate the ability of the Assad regime to kill large numbers of civilians, whether with barrel bombs, artillery shelling, high-performance aircraft bombing and strafing, or missile attacks; and oblige the regime to lift sieges that deny food and medical care to up to 600,000 Syrians. Blunting Assad’s policy of collective punishment ought to be a humanitarian imperative. But it will be good enough if the Obama administration sees civilian protection as an essential anti-ISIS war measure, which it most assuredly is.

How to do it? First, lean hard diplomatically on Russia and Iran. The recent meeting in Vienna among diplomats from world and regional powers means nothing and goes nowhere unless Syrian civilians receive protection from the depredations of their own so-called government. Leaders in Tehran and Moscow have it in their power to compel their client to stop bombing civilians and to lift starvation and disease sieges in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2139. After all, without Russia and Iran, Assad is finished. The United States should present them with a straightforward proposition: Get your client to stop committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, or we will take steps to protect Syrians. Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, announced the day after the Vienna meeting that the Assad regime had stopped barrel bombing—a positive development if true, and an interesting one given Assad’s repeated denials of having used those weapons at all. [Continue reading…]

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