“For the last two, probably three years, the deal we have been willing to settle for has grown significantly less good”
Andrew Peek was a strategic advisor to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan and foreign affairs advisor to two U.S. Senators. He is currently a professor and director of Claremont-McKenna College’s Washington Program. TQT spoke to him about the US’ strategy for Syria – and its regional implications.
By Adam Bang
TQT: Could you give a quick overview of the broader lines of the Obama administration’s current strategy in Syria
Andrew Peek: The Obama administration’s strategy is essentially a dual-track strategy: It’s an attempt in both Iraq and Syria to build up moderate forces – belatedly in Syria – to participate in a final political settlement, and also to use airstrikes to attack critical control nodes of ISIS in both areas. So far, obviously, the U.S. has not gone after the Assad-regime, even though it’s a declared goal that it wants Assad removed. But if a sufficient and sustainable Syrian rebel group pushes ISIS out of the eastern part of Syria, then a final political settlement involving the removal of Assad will be more likely to happen. So I would say [the strategy consists of]: the training and equipping of the moderate forces, and the use of pinpoint airstrikes to attack ISIS’ command and control facilities. You know, command and control operations coupled with a political process.
TQT: When you say that in the end they [the U.S. government, edit] want a political solution without Assad, does that mean only Assad, part of his regime, or his whole regime currently?
Andrew Peek: I think for more or less the last two, probably three years, the deal we have been willing to settle for has grown significantly less good. Originally, yes, I would think you’d say the administration was hoping for Assad, the senior members, the regime [to be gone], such that the Alawite regime – the Assad government – is no longer in functional or de facto control of the country. Since then, I suspect what they would hope to settle on is Assad himself gone as well as those commanders that have particularly and personally been involved in the most significant atrocities and chemical weapons use. However, the catch here is of course that in the west of Syria you have these ethnically Alawite areas, so there is always going to be a remnant Alawite state with significant Alawite support around Latakia and other places. So there’s never [going to be] a comprehensive moderate Sunni solution to Syria. I would say that right now, we would settle just for Assad personally, as a symbol.
TQT: How about the new Iran-deal: How does that affect the power balance and thereby U.S. policy?
Andrew Peek: The administration has made a great deal of effort to stress that this sort of emerging détente between the U.S. and Iran only applies to the nuclear deal – that the nuclear deal just has to do with the nuclear deal, and there is no spillover effects into other aspects of U.S-Iran relations. This was done for a variety of reasons: to reassure congressional critics and other skeptics that this wasn’t the beginning of a U.S.-Iran détente on the region – on things that affect Saudi-Arabia, the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council or Gulf countries, ed.], Israel etc. You saw this when Obama in his press conference after the deal was announced was very specific in saying, when asked about the three or four imprisoned Americans in Iran, that if he opened up discussions to peripheral, non-nuclear issues, then the Iranians could do the same with ones that they were interested in and that we didn’t want to give them room for in the nuclear deal.
Reportedly, Assad has made efforts to focus on fighting the non-radical Sunni elements, thus leaving the U.S. with a choice of supporting ISIS or supporting Assad
Now, there have been a number of reports that the administration does see this as a pathway to greater cooperation with Iran. Certainly in Iraq, the Iranian and U.S. interests are very similar; both want the Baghdad government to regain control of Mosul, the Al Anbar province, and the Sunni areas that are under ISIS’ control. In Syria, it is much less clear that the administration and Iran have similar goals. As you know, Iran has put a significant amount of money into the Assad-regime; something like reportedly six billion dollars. Hezbollah has been engaged in the region in the fight for at least the last two years and has really provided necessary battle trained forces for Assad on the battlefield. And reportedly, Assad has made efforts to focus on fighting the non-radical Sunni elements, thus leaving the U.S. with a choice of supporting ISIS or supporting Assad. So how will the Iran deal affect U.S. strategy in Syria? I think not enormously, other than the strategic factor that Iran now has something like north of a 100 billion dollars coming into it in unfrozen assets and oil revenues. When it has only been giving, say Hezbollah, a reportedly 150-200 million dollars and Assad six billion dollars, that will have a strategic effect, the 100 billion dollars. Even if you take five percent of that and sink it into the Syrian conflict, it will help Assad tremendously.
TQT: Do you think the Obama administration has any plan for avoiding that such money goes into the Syrian conflict?
Andrew Peek: No. Once you give the Iranians the money, it’s their money. They’re going to be able to do whatever they want with it.
Once you give the Iranians the money, it’s their money. They’re going to be able to do whatever they want with it
TQT: Is this a matter of concern for the administration?
Andrew Peek: I think it is a significant level of concern for critics of the Iran deal. I think it is a concern for the administration [also], but they would say ‘okay, we are making the grown-up decision about foreign policy priorities, and our foreign policy priority is preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. We are willing to sacrifice other goals to achieve our number one priority’. It is a major concern for critics who say that not only does the deal not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, it has significantly negative carryover effects in other strategic areas – like getting Assad and Hezbollah significantly more capital and presumably weapons to play with.
TQT: If Iran becomes stronger, and thereby also Assad, how does that play into the radical Islamic movements – Islamic State – and their support in Syria?
Andrew Peek: That’s a complicated question. Clearly, both Assad and the Iranian-friendly forces and regime in Iraq, I think it’s fair to say, fear and loathe the Islamic State. The Iranians are fortunate that the main Sunni force currently in the field against them [ISIS, ed.] has gone to such great lengths to be unpalatable to the general world and the Sunni community. I think in the same community in the region, they view ISIS as a sort of internal Sunni problem; the radicals who kind of got out of hand and whom they will deal with themselves at some point.
I think the Sunni states – Saudi-Arabia, GCC – see Iran as a real existential threat. They [the Sunnis states, ed.] have been in the dominant religious position for 1400 years, and all of a sudden – for the first time, really – in the last decade that has started to be threatened. So the Iranians are fortunate that ISIS is so radical that it even gives pause to that fundamental fear [of Iran]. However, as the fear of Iran rises, I suspect you will see Sunni states hedge a little bit on the fight against ISIS. This would only be my conjecture. But, you know, it took Turkey a very long time to get into the ISIS-fight as it says it has done now, because it thought the U.S. was not serious about removing Assad, and it viewed Assad and Iran as greater threats than ISIS. Over the last few days, obviously, the Turks have granted use of their airbases and committed to our campaign against ISIS without ground troops. We will see if that decision is reflected among the Sunni community at large.
The Iranians are fortunate that ISIS is so radical that it even gives pause to that fundamental fear [of Iran]
TQT: Talking about the Turkish aggressions, which are against both Kurdish and Islamic groups: How will that affect the U.S. strategy in Syria?
Andrew Peek: The Turkish strategic decision to help the U.S. campaign against ISIS is the most positive development that has happened since [the conflict] began. It is a strategic shift that we have been hoping for for years. As I said, up until now the Turks have hedged, largely because of the fear or Kurdish irredentism. If the Kurdish armed groups in Syria and elsewhere got too powerful, their [the Turks’] own Kurdish areas would be threatened – that’s a long held Turkish fear. But also because the Turks were adamant that Assad had to go – Turks, and maybe the Qataris, have taken the hardest line against Assad. So it has been a major strategic blessing.
Now, the hook to that is this action against the Kurdish groups, which is sort of the ‘x factor’. It is almost impossible to game out, without knowing the intensity of Turkish operations against both ISIS and Kurds, who this will hurt more and who will relatively benefit. This may relatively benefit the radical Syrian rebel groups who are not ISIS, like the al-Nusra Front and several others. It may help our guys, the more moderate Syrian rebels. It may wind up helping Assad, although I would be very surprised if Turkish actions wound up assisting Assad in a significant way. Again, this is conjecture, but given Turkish strategic interests it will be very interesting to see how much of their effort is concentrated against the Kurds and how much is against ISIS: If ISIS is kind of a veneer of cooperation with the U.S. for this ‘real effort’ against the Syrian Kurds or not.
I think it is realistic that there is going to have to be payment to the Turks on the Assad account at some point. They’re not going to just drop that strategic interest
TQT: Turkey has gone in and wants Assad gone more than anyone else outside of Syria, you say. Could it be that a condition for Turkish participation is a harder line against Assad from the U.S.?
Andrew Peek: Yes, that is what they have always held out as the implicit price for their cooperation; a serious U.S. effort to get rid of Assad. I don’t know if that is linked to the U.S. declaration that they would protect moderate Sunni rebels not just from ISIS, but also from Assad – but yes, that has traditionally been the Turkish position. Because I am not in government, I don’t know if there was a discussion and if U.S. has made this commitment to ensure Assad’s removal secretly, but I would be surprised. But I think it is realistic that there is going to have to be payment to the Turks on the Assad account at some point. They’re not going to just drop that strategic interest.
TQT: Why would you be surprised if there was a secret agreement?
Andrew Peek: Just because I’m skeptical of secret agreements. We have already committed to get rid of Assad diplomatically. If we told the Turks secretly that we were committed to getting rid of him militarily, that would be a bombshell. I would be very surprised if the U.S. had done that. It would get out eventually.
TQT: Let’s jump to another aspect: American boots on the ground. Has that over the last year become a more or a less plausible scenario?
Andrew Peek: I think it [the probability] still remains at near to zero. I really cannot imagine a scenario where there is significant American boots on the ground. The only scenario you could sketch out is if the moderate Syrian rebels we are training built out a safe-zone in southern Syria, sufficient so that it has its own mini-state and continues its operations against ISIS and Assad. Then you might be able to say that there is a scenario where U.S. trainers are there advising and assisting in training. But in terms of U.S. forces on the ground calling in airstrikes, I think that it is very unlikely. The Obama administration is not, in its last year and a half, going to make that strategic decision. It depends on who the next administration is – that would be up to them.
TQT. What is the current U.S. strategy for supporting moderate forces?
Andrew Peek: There are a few elements to that. The bulk of the training effort is obviously in Iraq, where we have several training centers, and there is an actual Iraqi army that we’re helping to train up. In Syria, it is much more rudimentary for two reasons: One, the national army is on the other side, so to speak. But also because the U.S. hasn’t been engaged in this conflict really, in terms of intensive training, over the past 3 years. So we are very much still starting from zero 3 years later, incredibly, and it’s going to be very difficult to spin that up. They [the moderate forces] will be trained, reportedly, in the south. They will try to push up against ISIS, and the U.S. is likely to protect them with airstrikes as they do so.
We are very much still starting from zero 3 years later, incredibly – about the US’ training of Syrien rebels
TQT: Obama said recently that no amount of military force will stop ISIS if it is not matched by efforts in the economic political sphere. How does he envision to carry out these efforts? What is his plan?
Andrew Peek: What I think he is referring to is the diplomatic effort to align a coalition against ISIS and also to remove Assad, as well as some rebuilding funds for Iraq and Syria. That is a kind of fashionable thing to say when we talk about things like counterinsurgency, and it is applicable to counterinsurgency, but in this fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq I think the economic aspect is very much absent. There are a lot of folks who align with ISIS and commit terrorist attacks. What you have there, I think, is a focus within the administration on making sure those communities from which ISIS recruits has access to employments opportunities, that they can get jobs – that there is some life that offers promise other than the ‘jihadi life’ and the ‘glory’ that ISIS can provide them. One other aspect to the political side is that in Iraq, the effort is to reconcile the Sunni community with the Shi’ite Baghdad government. That [the lack of reconcilement] is how the first Iraq insurgency really broke out, in 2004, and it is where ISIS sprang from; the second round [of insurgency]. And the community’s distrust – perhaps rightfully so – of elements of the Shi’ite government is really one of the major driving forces here. So a political reconciliation here between the two is obviously a major effort.
TQT: In September 2014, Kerry said the Assad regime could rest assured it would be held accountable for using chemical weapons on civilians. In the last few months we have seen Kerry accuse Assad of using chemical weapons again. How do you expect that the U.S. will react; which consequences will they carry out in regards to this?
Andrew Peek: At the highest levels, there is really no more condemnation that can be made. Assad and the top officials of his regime have already used chemical weapons. They have already committed acts of brutality that will presumably and hopefully prevent their reintegration into the world community of leaders. So I am not sure that the additional use of chlorine gas is going to be the backbreaker, even though they are in potential violation with the deal we agreed on with him two years ago. What we might see is a focus on and identification of lower ranking officials and military commanders who are involved in chemical weapons use such that, as in former Yugoslavia, you start to try to provide a deterrent of some accountability down the road for this action. I would suspect that we will start to implement this if the chemical use goes on. I would like to see this more robustly already, frankly. However, the regime is in a battle for its survival – it’s very clear. In the Middle East, and in Syria specifically, battles for survival go on to the bitter end, just like in 81-82 [the Hama massacre].
TQT: If you were to give your verdict, which parts of the U.S. strategy – especially for the last year – would you say have proven successful, and which have proven less successful?
Andrew Peek: I recognize that there are serious strategic constraints on U.S. actions in Syria this late in the day. It is a complicated situation and there are a lot of actors and interests. We have missed several decision points about intervention or about airstrike and whatever. We are past those. So four years into the conflict, the degree to which we can change direction or change policy is much more limited [as it] affects the outcome. I think you have to say our security approach to the conflict has really been a debacle. We have not prevented or punished the use of chemical weapons; and we have not helped to protect nor provide a moderate alternative to either Assad or the radical Sunni Islamists. There is really no element of the fight that seems to be going well. The fact that al-Qaeda is now a slightly more moderate Sunni force in this conflict tells you something about where we’ve gotten to. I think the only security aspect that you could feel positive about is that the Syrian Kurds have had some reasonable battlefield successes. However, we will see with the Turkish intervention what happens with them. Politically, Assad’s support has been seen to get stronger over the last couple of years, so the political element is not a success here. It is difficult for me to pinpoint something that is going well. It would be very difficult. I think the success of the Kurdish forces fighting is something that is perhaps the most encouraging.
Four years into the conflict, the degree to which we can change direction or change policy is much more limited
TQT: Do you reckon that the U.S. will try to support this development in the Kurdish regions now that Turkey has gotten into the fight?
Andrew Peek: There is no doubt that in the Kurds’ minds, the ideal outcome of this would be an empowered if not independent Kurdistan in Syria, certainly in Iraq etc. The Kurds are a delicate issue for the U.S.; they are one of our few real allies in that region. I think we will be protective of the Kurdish areas as the fighting goes forward. Certainly, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area in Syria is a distinct possibility due to their battlefield successes. As a U.S. policy – which it was not before – I think it is certainly possible that we would be willing to accept it [an autonomous Kurdish area in Syria, edit] diplomatically and protect it in certain respects from the air. Without question.
TQT: What is the U.S. reaction then to the fact that Turkey wants to diminish Kurdish autonomy?
Andrew Peek: That is the question of the hour. My instinct is to say that certainly I would be negative about it. The idea of sacrificing the Syrian Kurds’ autonomy for Turkish participation in the ISIS-war would be repellent to me personally. I can’t speak for how the administration sees this. I think the Syrian Kurds have earned a certain autonomous status, and since the Turkish decision has just come in the last couple of days, and by an interim government, it is not that clear how robust or sustainable the Turkish campaign will be. We will just have to see. I think the U.S. would be opposed to any Turkish efforts to hit the Syrian Kurds really hard, I think that is true.
TQT: To sum up: Looking at the U.S. strategy in Syria for the past 12 months, what would you highlight as the most notable changes and developments?
Andrew Peek: The Turkish decision to allow U.S. strikes in Syria from Turkey, and its own decision to engage ISIS. And the Iran deal, however that’s encompassed. We don’t yet quite know the diplomatic spillover effects [from the Iran deal] in terms of the struggle against ISIS in Iraq, but the money that Iran gets, of which at least part of it will help support Hezbollah and Assad, is a major strategic change – as is the Turkish intervention. So those would be the two big changes in the last 12 months, I think. One for the worse, one potentially for the better.