US must act decisively to weaken Russia and Iran as guarantors of Assad’s survival

US must act decisively to weaken Russia and Iran as guarantors of Assad’s survival
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On April 13, the United States, United Kingdom and France launched successful strikes on three targets in Syria in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons. Shielding Assad from regime-decapitating strikes and delaying chemical weapons inspections for two weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin nevertheless won a strategic victory.

Putin, who called the collapse of the Soviet Union a major geopolitical disaster of the 20th century, has sought to regain the Kremlin’s status in the Middle East with aggressive military, diplomatic and intelligence operations in Syria and enhanced collaboration with Iran and Turkey. Russia and Iran have been critical to Assad’s survival following the onset of populist uprisings in spring of 2011 and President Obama’s infamous “red line” and “the time has come for Assad to step aside” statements.  

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For Putin, the Middle East is a proxy battleground where Russia vies for influence with its “main enemy,” the United States. Putin wants to drive a wedge between the United States and our allies, especially NATO member Turkey.  

 

Ever since Russia’s military intervention began in 2015 with strikes against Syrian opposition forces, Putin’s objective has been not his declared intent of countering ISIS but rather ensuring that Assad remained in power. Syria has been the linchpin for Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East, from which Mikhail Gorbachev retreated in the late 1980s. Russia has deployed military advisers and special operations forces to Syria and reportedly is planning to provide Assad with an advanced S-300 air defense system. Russia operates a naval base in Tartus and an airbase near Latakia.  

The Kremlin has blocked United Nations inquiries into Syria’s repeated use of chemical weapons, which Assad reportedly has used even after Syria signed international agreements calling for the elimination of its chemical weapons stockpiles by June 30, 2014.

It may appear counterintuitive to those who believed Putin should have ensured his proxy Assad would not use chemical weapons against an increasingly weakened opposition while risking a military response from the West. However, Putin would have welcomed and approved of Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons in Douma for two reasons.  

First, Assad used the chemical weapons to defeat one of the last remaining rebel strongholds as ruthlessly as his father, Hafez al-Assad, who in 1982 killed an estimated 10,000 to 25,000 Syrians, mostly civilians in Hama, in response to what he assessed was an existential threat from Islamic extremists.  

Second, Assad’s use of chemical weapons was an opportunity for Russia to flaunt its weight in defense of the Assad regime. Douma was a crime scene with evidence that, unlike fine wine, would not improve with age. Chlorine and sarin dissipate over time and victims and caregivers can be removed from the scene. Putin conspired with Assad to compromise the inspectors’ work.  

Putin made it clear the United States, United Kingdom and France should exercise restraint in their precision strikes. One of the unwritten rules of Cold War engagement was the use of proxy, rather than direct, attacks on each other’s military forces. Russia’s advisers were human shields, whom the United States purposely avoided targeting. Putin was the defender of Assad’s besieged fortress.

Wary of the lessons learned from failed post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq and Libya after their dictators were overthrown, the Trump administration justifiably has little appetite for committing the resources necessary to remove Assad. Russia and Iran are deeply entrenched as guarantors of Assad’s survival. As long as Assad remains in power, there will be no solution to the underlying causes of the populist uprising that began seven years ago.

The United States should consider three steps to protect our national security interests:

First, the United States should continue to provide material and intelligence support to our key ally in the fight against Islamic extremists, the Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who recently captured high-value terrorist target Mohammad Haydar Zammar. We should rally our regional allies, including Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, in common cause and continue diplomatic pressure for a long-term political solution.

Second, we should retain a contingent of Special Operations military to carry on the valuable tactical collaboration with SDF, track the potential resurgence of ISIS, and mount the necessary operations in defense of our national security. The combination of a modest number of U.S. forces constitutes valuable skin in the game, which enables some influence on the ground.

Third, we should hold Russia and Iran accountable for their complicity in the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and migration crisis resulting from Syria’s civil war.  

Following up on President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial Vulnerable Democrats tout legislative wins, not impeachment Trump appears to set personal record for tweets in a day MORE’s post-strike speech, in which he called out Russia and Iran for assisting war criminal Assad, the West should continue loudly to condemn Moscow and Tehran’s Syrian policy, which serves their own and not Syria’s interests.   There should also be targeted sanctions against Iran and, in Russia’s case, avoiding only those oligarchs who do not support Putin’s aggressive anti-Western politics including in Syria.

Syria has been transformed into a virtual petri dish for growing Sunni and Shi’a extremism, Iran’s increasing exploitation of Syria as a military front against Israel, and a humanitarian catastrophe, which has shaken the region and beyond. ISIS may have lost its geographic space, but we should expect it to revert to an insurgency. The long war in Syria is far from over and, with it, the need for continued U.S. engagement and commitment of resources.   

Daniel Hoffman is a former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA.