Hillary Clinton has a plan for defeating Islamic State in Syria. Donald Trump has one, too. With the conflict in Syria spreading beyond its borders, it’s essential to understand the new president’s strategies – and how they may need to be adjusted over the next four years.
Trump has advocated for a “safe zone” for Syrians to ride out the conflict. Such a zone would be a swath of territory inside the country, where today’s refugees would reside instead of fleeing to Europe and elsewhere.
Trump has offered no details on how such a zone would be created, or by whom. American support for this initiative, Trump has made clear, would be limited to some economic assistance, with the bulk of the costs borne by the Gulf States. Though Trump does not support a no-fly zone per se, it seems difficult anyone could create and protect a safe zone without a no-fly-zone.
Clinton has also made the case for safe zones, as well as consistently proposing a no-fly zone. The United States, under Clinton’s plan, would make a portion of Syrian national airspace inaccessible to any but U.S. or allied planes. Russian strike aircraft and Syrian government helicopters would risk being shot down.
Clinton’s no-fly zone, and in practical terms, Trump’s safe zone, both open the same door to a greatly enlarged conflict.
General Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained in 2012 that imposing a no-fly zone would require as many as 70,000 American personnel to dismantle Syria’s air defense system, in order to rule out the possibility Assad might shoot down American aircraft. An attack on Assad of that magnitude would almost certainly demand a response; how would Russia come to the defense of its ally?
In addition, any no-fly zone (or safe zone for that matter) must address the near-certainty it will be challenged by the Russians; it almost has to be, given the struggle for dominance in the region. Shooting down a Russian plane would enlarge the conflict in Syria while at the same time risking a retaliatory move that could take place anywhere in the world, perhaps even in cyberspace.
The possible juice from a no-fly or safe zone just isn’t worth the squeeze of an enlarged conflict with nation-state level, global implications. President Barack Obama has rejected the idea of a no-fly/safe zone in Syria for years. Would President Clinton, or Trump, really roll the dice on possible direct military conflict with Russia when their predecessor did not?
Another Syrian strategy option, sending in American ground forces, will also be on the table for the next president to consider.
Trump appears to have split with running mate Mike Pence over Syria; Pence says the United States should meet Russian “provocations” with strength, backing the use of military force to do so. Trump, when asked about that statement, claimed “He and I disagree.” Though the notion of a disagreement has been walked back, the nature of a Trump administration policy towards American forces deployed in Syria remains unclear.
Despite Clinton’s assertions that her plan for Syria does not include boots on the ground, and Trump’s apparent interest in not introducing troops, the new president will inherit an evolving situation: the boots are not only already firmly on the ground, their numbers are growing. Since April Obama has overseen the largest expansion of ground forces in Syria since its civil war began, bringing the number of Special Forces deployed to about 1,500. A year ago the United States had only 50 soldiers in Syria.
Experience suggests mission creep in both scale and headcount is likely. The current fight against Islamic State in Iraq has seen American ground forces grow to some 6,000 on regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of Marines on “temporary duty” and not counted against the total. The mission has also expanded, from advising to direct action, including artillery and helicopter gunship ground attacks.
In Syria, the tactical picture is even tougher than in Iraq. The United States faces not only Islamic State, but also potentially troops from Russia and Syria, Iranian special forces, and/or militias professionally armed and trained by Russia, Syria and Iran. The American side of the equation sweeps in an ad hoc collection of Syrian groups of questionable loyalty and radical ideology, Kurds who oppose Turks, Turks who oppose Kurds, and perhaps third party Arab fighters.
Any new strategy for Syria will unfold on a complex game board.
As long as Assad stays in power, even without Islamic State, the bloody civil war will continue. If Assad goes, who could replace him and not trigger a new round of civil war? Who will pay for Syria to rebuild at some point?
Enlarging the picture, how will the Kurd-Turk struggle be managed now that the genie of Kurdish independence is out of the lamp? How will the next phase of the Sunni-Shi’ite relationship in Iraq affect Syria? How will growing Iranian influence in Iraq, a likely consequence of any defeat of Islamic State there, factor in? The Russians are now on the ground again in the Middle East. What effect will that have on the broader regional and global strategic balance?
The task facing the next president is not just defeating Islamic State inside Syria, but doing so even as the local problems there have metastasized into broad issues with global consequences. President Clinton or President Trump may find their proposed plans will run into the same vexing realities the Obama administration has struggled with for years. Their proposals do not seem up to the task. The new administration will have to quickly devise strategies that have otherwise eluded America’s best strategic thinkers since the earliest days of the Syria civil war.
Full disclosure: Following the publication — during Clinton’s time as secretary of state — of my book critical of the State Department’s role in the Iraq War, the department unsuccessfully carried out termination proceedings against me. Instead, I retired voluntarily.
(Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.” @WeMeantWell)