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Pure Onsense

Risks of Strategic Patience

Scott Zuke

(3/2015) In April or May a joint force of 25,000 Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), militia fighters, and Kurdish peshmerga plan to launch an assault to retake the Iraqi town of Tikrit from the Islamic State (ISIS). This is intended to clear the way for a later, and much larger, operation to retake Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and the de facto capital of the Islamic State. Achieving the battlefield victory will be challenging in itself. Previous attempts have failed, and the memory of the ISIS's complete routing of the U.S.-trained Iraqi military is still fresh. Even if ISIS forces choose to withdraw before being encircled, they could leave boobytraps behind, and there would be risk of sectarian conflict breaking out between the Sunni civilians and their Shi'i militia "liberators."

As uncertain as the outcome of the coming Iraqi campaign is, it is in some ways enviable when compared to the situation next door in Syria. Iraq at least has a cooperative central government and militia forces that, despite their sectarian divisions, are staunchly opposed to Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. This makes it significantly easier for the United States to be more hands on in providing military assistance (aside from reservations back home about putting "boots on the ground").

The many-sided conflict in Syria, however, and especially the deranged and bloody leadership of President Bashar Al-Assad, has stymied U.S. efforts to define a coherent strategy for figting ISIS or bringing an end to the country's civil war. That conflict, now entering its fifth year, has been enormously costly in terms of lives lost and people displaced across the region. In providing a space for ISIS to operate, it has also created the next great threat to international security, inspiring dangerous spinoff groups in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula and lone wolf terrorists who carried out numerous attacks throughout Europe.

As such, Syria has become one of the most poignant indictments against the Obama administration's foreign policy. Last month the president delivered his new National Security Strategy, a 29-page document providing a broad outline of America's strategic approach to issues ranging from cybersecurity to violent extremism. While the paper is overall a pretty standard exercise in stating "universal values" and America's strength and resolve in defending them, it also codified a term that has stirred up the cynics criticizing Obama for his hesitation to respond to international crises:

"On all these fronts, America leads from a position of strength. But, this does not mean we can or should attempt to dictate the trajectory of all unfolding events around the world...The challenges we face require strategic patience and persistence" (emphasis added).

However pragmatic this approach may be when applied properly, it's hard not to read it as an attempt to justify past indecisiveness.

Particularly in Syria, the administration was forced to reveal on multiple occasions that it was not willing to back up its tough rhetoric with meaningful actions, undermining its credibility in the region. In hindsight, though, the cost of inaction was likely worse than a knock on America's reputation. According to at least one former U.S. official, the administration was aware of the growing threat of extremism in Syria in 2012 and 2013, and had means at its disposal that could have--if not eliminated it--perhaps prevented it from spiraling out of control and becoming a beacon for the world's aspirinig jihadis.

The policy debate was whether to send arms and other support to the supposedly moderate Syrian rebels--the groups that were at war with President Assad's forces, but who rejected jihadism and refused to align themselves with the Al Qaeda-inspired Nusra Front and later the Islamic State who were also fighting Assad. These moderate groups have shown grit and resolve throughout the war, maintaining control of key territory and taking a toll on Assad's forces, but the administration held back its support for them out of fear that any arms it sent into the country could fall into the wrong hands.

According to Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria (and, full disclosure, a colleague of mine at The Middle East Institute), the moderate rebels, "have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs, because they donít have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaida groups in Syria do." As a result, many have been forced to cooperate with Nusra and other jihadists at some point or another over the years, despite being opposed to their worldview, and for that reason they can be blacklisted from receiving Western support.

Where there once may have been opportunity to cultivate these moderate groups, the situation today has grown more complicated and dangerous. In February, the United States and Turkey signed an agreement to begin arming and training some moderate groups in Syria. But the reaction from those who have long backed arming these groups has been muted, basically calling it too little, too late.

There is also little hope for a recently announced UN-brokered ceasefire around the Syrian city of Aleppo, the stronghold for anti-Assad forces. As beneficial as negotiated ceasefires may sound for humanitarian reasons, in practice they serve to bolster Assad's claim to legitimate rule over territories he couldn't retake by force. There's no reason for the rebels to agree to such terms. On the other side, the Syrian president is "so unyielding and deeply deceptive ó or delusional ó that itís impossible to imagine him ever negotiating an equitable end to Syriaís civil war," says Jonathan Tepperman, the first American allowed to interview Assad since 2013.

None of this sounds hopeful. Windows of opportunity have closed, and the threats that have evolved and spread beyond Syria and Iraq could end up drawing attention away from their original source. While there may be wisdom in recognizing America's finite resources and choosing how to apportion them across competing priorities, it's becoming clear that "strategic patience" can have very costly consequences that are difficult to reverse once we realize we didn't buy a seat at the table from the beginning.

Read other article by Scott Zuke