Paul R. Pillar
August 5, 2016
The National Interest
The complicated, multidimensional nature of the Syrian civil war continues to discourage clear thinking in debate about U.S. policy toward Syria. The involvement in the conflict of multiple protagonists who are each anathema to the American debaters but who are opposed to each other within Syria is a fundamental complication that too often gets ignored. Basic questions of what U.S. interests are in Syria too often get overlooked. A recent example is an op-ed by Dennis Ross and Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that argues for a bombing campaign against the Assad regime and expresses opposition to any cooperation with Russia in striking violent extremist groups such as ISIS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
In trying to square the circle of intervening forcefully in the war against the Assad regime without undermining efforts against anti-Western terrorist groups against which that regime is also fighting, Ross and Tabler contend that any U.S. or Russian action against those groups “would push terrorist groups and refugees into neighboring Turkey,” bringing terrorists, “and the threat of militant violence, closer to the West.” This is an inventive but odd reverse take on the old familiar “fight them over there or fight them at home” view of counterterrorism. That view was never valid in assuming a direct positive correlation between fighting overseas and homeland security, but neither is there the sort of direct negative correlation that Ross and Tabler are postulating. Experience has indicated that negative correlations have had more to do with resentment over U.S. military action fomenting additional radicalism and anti-Western sentiment, and Ross and Tabler are arguing for more such action in Syria. They make the same mistake as the “fight there or at home” outlook in assuming a fixed number of bad guys who move across international borders but never multiply. Moreover, as far as refugees are concerned, people can become refugees just as easily as a result of fighting against the Assad regime as they can from fighting against ISIS or Nusra. In the end, Ross and Tabler aren’t squaring any circle at all; they are just saying they want to go after Assad, and the counterterrorism part of U.S. policy on Syria ought not to have priority.
In criticizing the Obama administration’s approach of focusing on counterterrorism and in searching for common ground with the Russians in doing so, Ross and Tabler spin out scenarios as if they were consequences of what the administration is doing, even though they aren’t. They make an argument about how the Assad government lacks the manpower to hold rural Sunni areas, and thus must rely on Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to do so, and this will force Nusra et al. to Turkey with that greater proximity to the West. But what does any of this have to do with what the Obama administration is doing or talking to the Russians about? Damascus and Hezbollah have their own reasons for doing whatever they are doing in Sunni areas of Syria.