Small Wars Journal

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 12:24pm

Syria Options: U.S. Grand Strategy  by Mark Safranski, Divergent Options

Background: Aleppo has fallen and with it the last shreds of credibility of President Obama’s policy on Syria.  None of Obama’s policy goals for Syria since the Arab Spring revolt were achieved.  In Syria, the Assad regime has crushed western-backed opposition fighters with direct Russian and Iranian military ground support; the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) still controls swaths of Syrian territory[1] and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey has conspired with Iran and Russia to exclude the U.S. and UN[2] from Syrian settlement talks.

Significance: While Syria itself is of little strategic value to the U.S. beyond secondary implications for Israeli security, the utter failure of the Obama administration has brought U.S. diplomatic prestige to a nadir reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis or the fall of Saigon.  Worse, defeat in Syria occurred in a broader context of successful Russian aggression in Ukraine, uncontested Russian meddling in an U.S. presidential election, and perceptions of U.S. strategic concessions to Tehran in the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA[3]).  Should the next administration want to accomplish more than Obama, it is vital that they  1) address Syria within the context of increased Russian-U.S. competition and 2) seize the initiative in restoring the influence of U.S. leadership with substantive and symbolic policy changes in regard to Syria and Russia…

Continue on for three options and the risks and gains for each.


It is in the context of the New/Reverse Cold War (the U.S./the West now doing "expansion;" the Rest of the World now doing "containment" and "roll back) that, I suggest, we might best view and understand -- not only Syria -- by virtually everything of importance in the world that we have witnessed in recent decades.

Herein to suggest that, in recent decades, what we appear to have witnessed is:

a. The U.S./the West's utter inability to (a) gain greater power, influence and control throughout the world; this, by (b) successfully transforming the outlying states and societies of the world more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines.

(Herein, the U.S./the West disparaging/denigrating the different ways of life, the different ways of governance and the different values, attitudes and beliefs of the other states, societies and civilizations of the world.)

In stark contrast, one finds:

b. The Rest of the World -- led by such entities as Russia, China, Iran, AQ, ISIS, etc. -- having a great deal of success in (a) preventing, thwarting, containing and/or rolling back these such U.S./Western "expansionist" efforts and, thereby, in (b) gaining greater power, influence and control throughout the world themselves.

(These such Rest of the World entities -- in stark contrast to the U.S./the West above -- [a] calling out the U.S./the West for disparaging/denigrating traditional ways of life, traditional ways of governance and traditional values, attitudes and beliefs, etc. and [b] embracing, lauding and championing same as their strategic way forward.)

Thus, it is in this grand strategic context/light (see the New/Reverse Cold War above) that, I suggest, we might best view such things as:

a. "Our" failures re: Russia, China, Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring, the rise of the Islamic State, etc., etc., etc. And

b. "Their" successes.

(Note: With the populations of the U.S./the West now appearing to have joined the Rest of World in rejecting forward-looking/progressive/integrating "change" [related to such things as globalism/ globalization/the global economy] -- and in embracing, instead, backwards-looking/regressive/ disintegrating thinking [related more to such things as separatism and the many different/diverse/ incompatible "traditional" values, attitudes and beliefs contained both within, and outside of, the various states, societies and civilizations of the world] -- where exactly does this leave our "expansionist" grand strategy/our "world transformation and integration" grand strategic project today? In the toilet?)

Where to begin?

Safranski seems to think that the defeat of the rebellion in Syria is a defeat for the United States. Certainly, the Chinese, Russians and Iranians have regarded Obama as too timid, and yet at the same time, they have all relied upon Obama to not respond in-kind to their various provocations. Obama is no showman. But the leaders of China, Russia and Iran must be showmen in order to preserve their legitimacy in the eyes of their peoples, and therefore preserve their authoritarian regimes.

Safranski has bought into the idea that style is superior to substance. Looking at the latter, was Truman not defeated by Stalin in eight separate countries in East-Central Europe in the late 1940s, as well as in China by Stalin and Mao? Did Eisenhower not concede Hungary to Khrushchev and Cuba to Castro? Did Ford not concede South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Ethiopia? Did Carter not lose in Iran and Nicaragua? Yet Americans typically only remember Carter’s supposed defeats because of his style of governing.

As for Safranski’s “Option 1”, it speaks more to US-Russian relations than resolving the Syrian Civil War. The US and Russia can achieve a “new détente” irrespective of Syria for which Option 1 provides no end state.

“Option 2” would require Iranian concurrence, which is highly doubtful given Russian-Iranian disagreements on prosecuting the war.

Outlaw 09

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 1:27am

Core issue is the actions of Obama...Putin...Assad and Khamenei have in fact strengthened IS not weakened it in Syria...

Remember it was Putin and his FM who in front of the UNGA both publicly stated they are going into Syria to defeat "terrorists" and all thought IS..because occasionally Putin used the term IS.....BUT everyone failed to read the Russian definition of who is a "terrorist"...anyone who carries an AK 47 and fights against Assad....

AND since then Russia, Assad and Iran have been fighting EVERYONE other than IS.....leading the outgoing SecDef to state Russia has not contributed anything to fighting IS....

NOW Trump wants to work with Russia and Assad and strangely also with Iran which he always bashes in the Iran Deal.....

BUT WAIT...if Trump is to be believed then his interview released yesterday...he states he would have held to a red line on Assad CWs use...SO when Assad uses CWs again will Trump going to bomb him????.....Trump was for a NFZ so will he institute a NFZ?

Strange bedfellows for US Syrian FP these days....dictators and authoritarians....using ethnic cleansing, CWs and genocide against Sunni's....

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 01/16/2017 - 6:14pm

I'm not sure that Mr. Safranski is offering an "unbiased" and "dispassionate" perspective of the Syrian conflict and U.S. policy. Equating the current military situation in Syria with the loss of Iran in 1979 and the ensuing hostage crisis appears, with respect, to be an intemperate interpretation.

On the same topic, I would recommend the recent perspective of Professor Joshua Landis, Director: Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor, University of Oklahoma:…