Speaking before the Council on Foreign Relations last week, Hillary Clinton established the objective that is commonly held among all presidential aspirants: ISIS must not be contained, it must be destroyed.
Yet beyond that statement, despite all the fury generated on the campaign trail by the ISIS attacks and the failures of American strategy to date, there is little that any of the candidates have suggested that differs much from what we have been doing so far. Aerial bombardment, special ops and arming the Kurds, plus other stuff at the margin. With 75 percent of Americans opposed to putting American forces on the ground, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll this week, only Lindsay Graham has remained outside of the arc of consensus that spans the left and the right and insisted that we must put armed forces on the ground in Syria.
Our engagement in Syria has a certain Alice in Wonderland quality to it. By all accounts, we are opposed to almost every side of that country's civil war. Our attempts to "train up" our own moderate fighting force has been an expensive failure. The notion that we were going to train moderate Syrian Sunnis to return to Syria to fight ISIS, who were themselves weened on Saudi-Wahhabi theology and funded by gulf money, was from the beginning steeped in irony. Our ability to engage our Sunni allies in the region to spearhead the anti-ISIS fight has had limited success.
The Saudis, who funneled money into anti-Assad rebels from early in the uprising briefly participated in the anti-ISIS air war, but their interests remain primarily sectarian and their focus has shifted to their proxy war with Iran in Yemen. The Turks, who could steamroll ISIS should they choose to, are essentially in business with the caliphate, providing an outlet for its oil sales and a transit corridor for its recruits, and view growing Kurdish political and military strength in the wake of the Iraq war as the more immediate threat to Turkish interests. Only Jordan, led by Oxonian King Abdullah, has remained a stalwart ally, consistently embracing U.S. interests as his own.
The formula that Hillary set forth this week suggests that ending the Syrian civil war is a necessary first step toward defeating ISIS. The strategy envisions enlisting Syrian Sunni rebel groups that are now focused on fighting Assad -- of which there may be as many as 1,000 -- as a fighting force against ISIS. Turning those groups against ISIS requires first getting rid of Assad and creating a more benign Syrian government. This new government would have to retain the loyalty of Assad's senior military staff -- lest they defect to ISIS as Saddam's Baathist generals did -- as well as be acceptable to the Sunni population. This would allow for an end to the civil war. Once that political concord is achieved, those forces now targeting Assad would be turned against ISIS, providing the fighting force we need on the ground in lieu of sending our own.
If this generalized description of governmental reform and reconciliation as a prerequisite to military success on the ground sounds familiar, it should: It mirrors what we have been working toward for the past decade in Iraq. The battle against ISIS in Iraq has foundered on the continuing alienation of the Sunni population from the Shi'a dominated central government, which has not been resolved as promised since Nouri al Maliki was removed as Iraq Prime Minister. Trust, it appears, can be neither imposed from outside nor built quickly. In Syria, Hillary's strategy is predicated on two assumptions that seem to be tenuous at best. First, that there is a feasible replacement regime that would be embraced in short order by the warring parties. Second, that the range of powerful actors who thus far have been ignored in the strategy formulation process--notably Jabhat al Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated militia that is arguably the strongest military force in the country--do not have their own end game in mind.
In her talk last week, Hillary largely ignored Russia's recent entry into the Syrian civil war in defense of the Assad regime. Syria has been a Russian ally for decades and Russia's naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast in one of only two Russian naval facilities on foreign soil. This week's downing of a Russian attack aircraft by at Turkish F-16, and the ensuing emergency meeting of NATO -- the Turkish action was the first downing of a Russian aircraft since the end of the Cold War -- will add some larger perspective to the Syria conflict, and force us to recognize that for all of the attention to Bashar al-Assad, and even to ISIS, how we manage our relationship with Russia is far more important than either of those issues.
If Russia is committed to the survival of its ally in Syria, that is a factor that cannot be ignored. Over the past few days, the notion of putting American forces on the ground in Syria seemed to be gaining support domestically. But to do so absent an alliance with Russia that goes beyond current "deconfliction" efforts to avoid unintended incidents between our aircraft and theirs in our respective air wars over Syrian territory would be enormously risky, as the downing of the Russian jet suggests. If we have troops on the ground while Russia is independently engaged in an air war over the country, it is inevitable that at some point American soldiers would be killed by Russian bombs, leading to terrible potential escalation possibilities.
Hillary's silence with respect to Russia was notable. It was over four years ago that Barack Obama declared that Bashar al-Assad must go, yet as America ramped up its verbal war on Assad, no consideration was given to whether Russia might come to the defense of its ally. Since that declaration by President Obama, however, Russia has seized the Crimea and sponsored a war in eastern Ukraine. That is to say, in the intervening years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared to the world -- and to the United States in particular -- that Russia is back from the dead, and can no longer be disregarded as a force in the world.
Putin's domestic approval ratings are now near 90%, in large measure because of his reassertion of Russian interests on the global stage and his willingness to stand up to the United States. One has to imagine that Putin's entry into the Syrian conflict is a calculated step to reassert Russia's strategic interests beyond its immediate borders, and that he would not have engaged in the fight without first determining that he was prepared to stick it through to the end.
The Obama administration's determination to overthrow Assad has grown in intensity as the civil war has worn on, as civilian deaths mounted, and as our embarrassment at Assad's defiance of our demand that he step down has grown deeper. But the Assad regime has never been a strategic concern to American interests or to our allies. Israel cautioned early on against American efforts to force Assad to step down, believing that what might come in their wake would very likely be worse.
On the other hand, our relationship with Russia is one of critical national interest. For almost a quarter of a century, U.S. foreign policy has reflected a "unipolar" status wherein our military might allow us to do what we wanted, when we wanted, wherever we wanted in the world. Russia's entry into the Syria conflict signals a change in the world. Their military may not be a match for ours, but as one Russian general noted recently, they are the only nation on earth with capability of turning the United States into dust with a nuclear strike and their strategic interests will have to be taken into account.
Hillary's strategy to defeat ISIS had an eerily familiar ring to it. Nation building in a land torn by tribal and religious conflict. Notions of democracy in a country lacking core institutions. But its biggest gap was not taking into account Russia's determination to protect its ally and its interests. That may be a negative factor or it may be one that offers real opportunities, but one thing is for sure, it cannot be ignored.