By Henry Cauffman
The Syrian conflict has burned on for over five years seemingly with no end in sight. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, over 430,000 have died and 11 million have been displaced since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. At this point it is almost impossible to overstate the degree of human misery perpetrated on the people Syria.
The Current Situation
The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad now seems poised to take control of the military situation and put itself in a much stronger bargaining position. The city of Aleppo, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, is within the regime’s grasp. Syria’s most populous city before the war, it has been fiercely contested between rebel and pro-government forces since 2012. Control of Aleppo is pivotal in the conflict, and media coverage commonly refers to it as “Syria’s Stalingrad” because of its brutal house-to-house combat. Its fall would be devastating for rebel groups’ morale and decisive for Russia and Syria in future negotiations.
The city holds tremendous strategic value on both sides of the conflict. “Victory would be a game changer” for Syrian rebel groups. According to Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East program at the British think tank Chatham House, that is because of both the city’s geographical location and its symbolic importance. If the rebels manage to take control of the city it would allow “a clear supply route from Turkey and increase the likelihood of [rebel groups] squeezing the regime into the coastal areas of Latakia, Tartus and Damascus.”
A loss would be equally devastating. Losing Aleppo would mean the Assad regime could “prevent the rebels from transporting supplies and enable the regime to advance toward Idlib.” Both sides view Aleppo as a military endgame, each side seeing victory as imperative.
Assad is well aware of these stakes and is taking no chances in securing Aleppo. Since September, the Assad regime has blocked all humanitarian aid to Aleppo in an attempt to starve rebel fighters. Denying humanitarian aid is part of a deliberate strategy. During negotiations, Assad adamantly refused to allow any humanitarian aid into the city and ordered the bombing of UN aid convoys. The Assad regime’s tactics have been extremely effective and the city is running dangerously low on food and medical supplies.
Assad’s siege has been assisted by a Russian air campaign. The Russian air force has ruthlessly bombarded the city since last September. It has targeted hospitals, aid workers and aid convoys as part of the same attrition strategy pursued by Assad. The UN special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, warns that if Russia continues to bomb rebel-held East Aleppo, the city could be completely destroyed by Christmas.
The Current US Role
Aleppo may decide the outcome of Syria’s civil war and the US could have a decisive role. So far US President Barack Obama has shown little interest in escalating US intervention in Syria. The $500 million Pentagon program designed to train a moderate rebel army was canceled last year after it produced only five rebel fighters. The CIA program to arm rebel groups, though more successful, is vastly outweighed by Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support for the Assad regime. Current US policy has frustrated those in favor of a US role in removing Assad from power, as well as those against such an interventionist US role. The situation on the ground has worsened and negotiations have gone nowhere.
The collapse of a ceasefire agreement and the resulting carpet-bombing of Aleppo demonstrate how US policy in Syria has failed. Obama’s piecemeal support for moderate anti-Assad rebels has not provided the leverage necessary for negotiating a transition of power. As it stands, Assad will not accept any agreement short of an outright victory. Foreign policy advisors, including those inside the Obama administration, see a change in strategy as essential to preserving American interests in the country.
US Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump share the belief that the Obama Administration has failed in Syria. The similarities between the candidates end there, diverging sharply on how they would approach the ongoing crisis.
The Future of Policy Under Donald Trump
Trump opposes direct US intervention against the Assad regime because he considers it “nation building.” Such efforts should not be a priority of the United States because “We [the United States] have to straighten out our own house. We cannot go around to every country that we are not exactly happy with and say we are going to recreate [them].” Trump sees interventionist efforts as costly, counterproductive and strengthening the influence of terrorist organizations. Trump regularly cites the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Libya following US intervention as proof that a similar operation in Syria is doomed to fail. Trump maintains that keeping dictators in power is preferable to the risk of anarchy. He has claimed that Iraq and Libya would be better off if dictators Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi were still in power. Trump appears to think the Assad regime has a similar stabilizing effect in Syria. While asserting that his view of Assad is “bad,” Trump insists that Assad remains the best option for a stable Syria. Furthermore, the US should not support Syrian rebel groups because “we do not know who they are,” says Trump, alluding to possible jihadist connection among Syria’s disparate rebel organizations.
Syria, however, is not just a nation-building project. The situation in Syria is a humanitarian crisis. For many, especially the rebels inside Syria, allowing Assad to remain in power is simply unacceptable. Assad has been one of the world’s most brutal dictators, ruling with an iron fist and violently suppressing dissent. A Trump presidency would make Assad’s hold on power increasingly certain, which could subject the war-torn country to further oppression and violence. A Trump administration entails US allowance of Russian bombing in Aleppo. During the October 9th Presidential debate, Trump asserted that Aleppo “has fallen. Okay, it basically has fallen.” Still, this is not true and Trump denying it demonstrates the moral compromise implicit in not intervening in Syria; whether it is the right decision or not.
The Future of Policy Under Hillary Clinton
Clinton advocates taking a harder line with Assad than has the Obama Administration. She has been a proponent of direct US military intervention in Syria since the outbreak of war in March 2011. During her tenure as Secretary of State, Clinton urged the Obama Administration to directly arm Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. Though the Administration was wary of direct intervention, Clinton has remained hawkish.
Clinton now advocates for “a no-fly zone and safe zones” she sees helping the US “go to the negotiations table with more leverage.” Establishing a no-fly zone would relieve Aleppo and the rebel groups currently operating in the city and put US-backed forces in a much stronger position. Clinton insists she would not deploy US troops, opting instead to provide more support for Arab and Kurdish rebels.
Though it could save lives, increased intervention in Syria is very dangerous and it is not guaranteed to work. Trump last week criticized her policy saying that it “could lead to World War 3.” This may not be an overstatement. A nuclear showdown with Russia is very possible, since implementing a no-fly zone would mean violating Russian airspace, making a military confrontation likely. It is difficult to see how the US could accomplish this without dangerous brinkmanship. While Clinton has proposed a “negotiated” no-fly zone, Russia is unlikely to concede airspace voluntarily. Even if Clinton could carry out her strategy, there is still the possibility that it will not be decisive and only prolong the fighting. Assad will fight for as long as it takes to remain in power, which would only entangle the US further in the region.
A Decision to be Made
Tomorrow it is likely that either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton will be elected president and will be given the authority to decide the extent of US involvement in Syria. If elected, Trump will likely defer to Russian interests in Syria by allowing the Russian military to bomb the Syrian rebels into submission. Hillary Clinton will implement measures to assist rebels, while likely risking a standoff with another nuclear power. There are no sure solutions for the civil war in Syria. The plans put forward by the candidates will not stop the violence and it is difficult to say which will best mitigate the rising human costs. Forming a coherent US policy in Syria involves making a choice many of us would rather avoid making. That is precisely why we elect politicians to make such decisions on our behalf. So one thing is certain: whoever you are, vote for the candidate you think will best serve the interests of both our country and human decency when forming US policy on the conflict in Syria.