Summary of the presentation on….
Syria and the War Within Islam
What Should the U.S. and Its Allies Do Next?
Brigadier General Joe Shaefer, Foreign Service Officer Ted Morse,
Colonel Dick Hobbs and Steve Metcalf
The Forum was very fortunate to have four experts with extensive experience in the Middle East to discuss the ongoing war in Syria as well as the internecine conflict within Islam. General Joe Shaefer provided an extensive overview of the regional conflicts (his comprehensive PowerPoint and those of other speakers are attached), with Ted Morse, Steve Metcalf and Dick Hobbs providing additional insights into the regional social, religious and political challenges.
In retaliation for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, President Trump launched a retaliatory attack using Tomahawk cruise missiles to inflict heavy damage on the airfield the Syrian bombers departed from. Our experts addressed the larger questions of what further actions President Trump should take and what the U.S. role should be in a country that has engaged in six years of religious, political and ethnic conflicts and a resulting massive refugee exodus.
Shaefer kicked off the program by describing the complexity of the conflicts in Syria. He suggested the involvement of foreign powers was undertaken without extensive analysis and consideration of the influence outside powers might have. Foreign policy decisions flow from perceived national interest, but intentions should be tempered by capabilities. He used a “Bad Bar” foreign policy analogy, one in which a nation wanders in “poorly prepared and culturally blind”. This is the kind of thinking that gets the U.S. in trouble. Typically, according to Shaefer, when addressing what to do about regional conflicts, the Joint Chiefs of Staff lay out what is needed to resolve the situation. Invariably, however, that request is reduced by the civilian leadership and the U.S. winds up going in with too few people and weapons. In most instances the U.S. also does not have an exit strategy.
Shaefer noted there are many domestic groups involved in conflicts in Syria and numerous outside powers, as well. With respect to the latter, only the U.S. has the capability to influence the outcome of events. While Russia has some capabilities, it can, at best, be an irritant by extending the conflict; however, it cannot drive outcomes, despite its close relationship with Assad and Iran. The conflicts in Syria are of low intensity and permit President Putin to show strength. However, given the financial cost to Russia and the difficult economic times at home, Moscow’s involvement may well backfire with the Russian population. Shaefer felt that the involvement of Russia in Syria will prove a serious strategic mistake. Likewise, Iran can intervene on behalf of Assad (whose Alawite regime is Shia) but cannot decisively defeat the Sunni opposition groups. 73% of Syria is Sunni and only 13% is Shia.
Shaefer did not feel Syria was an existential issue to the U.S. America’s concerns would be better served dealing with humanitarian issues than seeking to gain political influence. Given that the U.S. has no vital national interest in the conflicts, that the people can begin rebuilding today as long as their lives are safe from retaliation and that Russia invited the U.S. to cooperate, it would be wise for Moscow and Washington to desist from aiding by any of the combatants, to provide humanitarian assistance and to create safe havens to which noncombatants can escape. In addition, Shaefer would like to see more involvement, both military and economic, by impacted Sunni regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.
Ted Morse asked, “How does one stop a six-year war in Syria? You don’t, using more war” he said. “So what comes next?” Morse said the first step should be the creation of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) to identify what carrots or sticks could be useful and how that might influence the course of the conflict and diplomacy. Second point: Morse felt strongly that America has only one over-riding VITAL national security interest in Syria: the US should lead the destruction of the ISIS leadership and headquarters, because it is a violent threat to America and our allies. Morse believed this would not defeat ISIS worldwide, which will require a different strategy long term.
As Shaefer said, there are over 200 different groups involved in the Syrian conflicts, which are constantly changing. “Someone is always angry.” Morse said there are at most 10 important factions currently fighting in Syria. The one common point of agreement is that ISIS must be destroyed. This will require assistance by the Sunni nations in the region.
Morse felt that this war would be very costly to all the outside nations involved. It was interesting to note that all three Army participants – Shaefer, Hobbs and Metcalf – were less in favor of increased military action, even against ISIS, than was the diplomat here! Morse’s third and only other point was as follows: the war in Syria will not be won on the battlefield. Therefore, “the US should re-engage the other proxy supporter, Russia, and jointly return to the Geneva diplomatic peace process”.
Colonel Dick Hobbs could not attend the meeting, but his position was presented by Steve Metcalf. Hobbs underlined that President Trump strongly feels that the Mideast is of marginal interest to the United States in that fracking and the shift to alternative energy globally has resulted in reduced demand for Mideast gas and oil. That has contributed to economic instability in a region already backward in science, technology, agriculture, education, and medicine. In this atmosphere of declining economies, the support of the people for their governments has diminished, which has made them more willing to look in other directions like Muslim extremist groups.
Hobbs, even more than Shaefer, said that the U.S. simply cannot afford to fight these protracted wars of no end, particularly with no real Muslim allies in the region. Therefore, he would be very cautious in committing further U.S. military forces and economic assistance.
Following his presentation of the Hobbs position, Steve Metcalf offered his “Restraint” proposal – one that is U.S. military-light and diplomatic-heavy. He acknowledged that the U.S. and its Western allies have a significant national interest in stemming the refugee flow due to the economic, social and political burden on Europe, a major economic market. He stated the number of U.S. military personnel in the region, currently 6,000, is growing, but that they should instead be replaced by the forces of regional states so Muslims would be dealing with Muslims. Furthermore, he felt Stinger missiles should be provided to two to four well vetted Syrian rebel teams on a highly controlled basis to demonstrate the vulnerability of Syrian air power. That would force Assad to the negotiating table for a cease fire, at which an agreement could be reached to hold elections, co-managed by the UN, in three years. A three year window would provide time for healing, for the strengthening of government institutions and for the growth of political parties. It would also permit a joint force of the Syrian military and Syrian rebel militias, supported by select regional air and ground forces from the Gulf States, Jordan and Egypt, to clean out ISIS and other violent jihadist groups. Not having implemented the Stinger strategy in early 2016 has permitted the deaths of nearly 150,000 Syrian noncombatants.
Metcalf stated the U.S. is pursuing a “whack-a-mole” strategy against violent jihadist groups instead of addressing the roots of the problem: economic instability in regional states and the need for an Islamic reformation. Shortly after 9-11 Osama Bin Laden predicted that violent jihad would “bleed America by a thousand cuts,” which is precisely what has been happening. The violent verbiage in the Koran, written over a century after Mohammed’s death, gives legitimacy to one wanna-be leader after another as they use the supposed words of Allah to whip up dissatisfied populations to join jihadist movements. Given that Western nations are perceived by the people of the Mideast to be primarily Christian, the participation of Western ground military forces strengthens jihadist recruiting efforts by fueling propaganda to fight the Crusades circa 21st Century. Hot links to a 7Oct15 paper on Metcalf’s proposal and the summary of a 10Dec15 presentation are included in the last of his attached slides.
The moderator asked FSO Morse if his recommendation that we focus on destroying ISIS would only be “doing the dirty work for the Shia”. Morse replied that diminishing ISIS would assist the Shia, but stressed that destroying radical Sunni groups was a high priority for everyone in the world.. He felt that, while there have been at least 25 failed UN peace meetings to solve the civil war, the situation was so serious it required American leadership. Metcalf had reservations, particularly given so few allies in the region were willing to assist. The Syrian rebels were fighting Assad; Assad, the Russians and the Iranians were fighting the Syrian rebels; the Turks were fighting the Kurds; and the U.S. and some Kurds were fighting ISIS. He felt an adequate regional ground force to fight ISIS simply would not exist until the Assad regime and the rebels reached a cease fire and formed a joint force to clean out ISIS and other violent jihadist groups in Syria.
Various opinions were expressed by members of the audience as well as the panelists. One area of disagreement was the role of the moderate Sunni states. Some expressed feelings that Saudi Arabia, as the seat of Wahhabism and Salafism, was certainly no friend. Other participants drew attention to the growing danger Moscow would realize by involving itself in an area of religious conflict at a time the Muslim population in Russia was growing rapidly. One participant, Tamara Zuniga-Brown, has spent much of the past year in the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq. She stressed that our efforts need to be less focused on military involvement and more on improving education; especially empowering women. She found that by being “on the ground” in these conflict areas she was able to create relationships that fostered greater affection for the U.S. than did our military actions.
It was a comprehensive session and we encourage everyone to review the presentation slides of the participants in the links above.