Mission Creep in Syria

This week, the United States and Turkey agreed on a deal to expand cooperation in the fight against ISIS, in part through the creation of an ‘ISIS-free zone’ in Northern Syria. The scope of the agreement is unclear, not least because Turkish officials are hailing it as a ‘safe zone’ and a possible area for refugees, while U.S. officials deny most of these claims. U.S. officials are also explicit that the agreement will not include a no-fly zone, long a demand of U.S. allies in the region.

But what’s not in doubt is that the United States and Turkey plan to use airstrikes to clear ISIS fighters from a 68-mile zone near the Turkish border. The zone would then be run by moderate Syrian rebels, although exactly who this would include remains undefined.

Over at the Guardian today, I have a piece talking about the many problems with this plan, in particular the fact that it substantially increases the likelihood of escalation and mission creep in Syria:

“The ambiguity around the ‘Isis-free zone’ creates a clear risk of escalation. It’s unclear, for example, whether groups engaged in fighting the regime directly will be allowed to enter the zone and train there, or only those US-trained and equipped rebels focused on Isis. US officials have been keen to note that Assad’s forces have thus far yielded to American airstrikes elsewhere in Syria – choosing not to use their air defense system and avoiding areas the US is targeting - but that is no guarantee that they would refrain from attacking opposition groups sheltering inside a safe zone.”

The plan is just another step in the current U.S. approach to Syria, which has been haphazard and ill-thought out. The United States is engaged in fighting ISIS while most fighters on the ground want to fight the Assad regime, a key reason for the abysmal recruitment record of the U.S. military’s new train-and-equip programs in Syria. Increased U.S. involvement in Syria risks our involvement in another costly, open-ended civil war.

Renewed diplomatic efforts to find a settlement are the only way to effectively address the Syrian crisis. A negotiated settlement which sees Assad removed from power - while allowing some of his followers to participate in a unified Syrian government - would allow fighters inside the country to focus on fighting ISIS, while ensuring that Syria’s minorities are not entirely disenfranchised.

A successful diplomatic settlement will be difficult to achieve. Negotiations would by necessity involve other unpleasant states, including Assad’s Iranian and Russian patrons. But there have been recent indications that Moscow may be more willing to talk, and the ties forged during the U.S.-Iranian nuclear talks could prove valuable. The United Nations is once again trying to restart talks, an initiative the United States should support wholeheartedly. Nonetheless, diplomacy is infinitely better than the slippery slope to military intervention offered by this week’s agreement with Turkey.

You can find the whole article at the Guardian here. For more thoughts on how a U.S. diplomatic strategy for Syria might work, check out this podcast.