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Analysis: Syria Policy and Military Strategy

Wise Woman Tanya Domi, US Army veteran and Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, pinpoints the issues on Syria

In 2015 I convened a 20th anniversary Dayton Peace Accords conference at Columbia University and during it I presented a side by side analysis about the parallels between Bosnia and Syria. The similarities were sadly reminiscent of Bosnia. But worse.

The Bosnian war resulted in +110,000 dead and at the height of the war created +1.5 million refugees juxtaposed to Syria: +500,000 dead and +5 million refugees and counting according to UNHRC.

I have been a consistent critic of U.S. foreign policy on Syria.

The failure to act has led to the greatest migration of human beings since WWII.

And this migration has flooded into Europe resulting in its political destabilization from the Brexit vote last June to the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., while anti-immigrant sentiment has gone global fueling the rise of right wing parties across Europe in France as well as in The Netherlands and beyond.

This Syrian refugee crisis could potentially eliminate the strongest remaining democratic leader in the West — Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany.

Merkel bravely accepted more than 800,000 refugees, much to the chagrin of many of her fellow Germans, with a yet to be determined political outcome. We shall see if she survives her election in September. Her polling numbers are stable and she does not appear to be threatened at the moment.

The Syrian war has resulted in more than 5 million refugees resettling into 5 major countries in the Levant: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey.

Jordan, a U.S. ally, is being strongly buffeted by the centrifugal political forces as a consequence of the combination of refugees and ISIS. The King of Jordan asked for defensive military equipment such as air defense artillery from the US during the past few years. A colleague of mine in the Army (a woman) was sent to Jordan to train their Army on this equipment.

Turkey, a NATO member and once a strong ally of the U.S., facilitated the spread of ISIS into Syria while this refugee crisis has been in full swing.

This important relationship is quite frayed, not least due to Erdogan’s autocratic militancy. He has become increasingly unreliable. Ironically, his country is now rocked by spiking numbers of terroristic acts claimed by ISIS.

Two major adversaries of the U.S. — Iran and Russia are allied with Bashar Al-Assad, the president of Syria. Russia has situated itself in the Middle East over decades with clients and in this case, its Syrian alliance is a long standing one.

Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and has been a bad actor in this scenario. The extent of their role with respect to ISIS is a subject for a separate blog to itself, but this neighborhood is quite complex and dangerous. Iran has neither served as a constructive diplomatic partner, nor has it mitigated the refugee crisis.

Obama chose to not seek military engagement, after Britain’s parliament voted down airstrikes on Syria in 2013 and Congress failed to take up his proposed authorization on the use of force in 2015, but later engaged in the pursuit of ISIS in Syria, which is the current mission of the U.S. troops assigned in Syria. Russia has claimed it is pursuing ISIS in Syria, but is reportedly assisting Assad in carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity against the Syrian population that has opposed Assad.

The Sarin gassing of civilians by the Assad-Putin alliance violates humanitarian laws of war. On a scale of horrors, it really rests at the extremes margins of reprehensible.

It is an egregious violation of long standing international law and should shock the conscience of the world.

Any U.S. president should have responded to this gassing in a similar manner as was carried out last night by the US Navy.

And I understand Hillary Clinton called for strikes yesterday during her interview with Nick Kristof, which I do agree with.

As a long term strategy that is another matter.

Clinton tried to put together an alliance in 2012. She had the internal backing and support of Susan Rice and Samantha Power. It was late in her tenure. Among her policy proposals she put forward a “no fly zone,” which I supported as a way to shut down aerial warfare and protect civilians.

But she sustained a concussion in late 2012 grounding her until she left the administration. Obama said no, ultimately.

Back to the drawing board with a president who is amply ill-suited for this moment. However, the NSC adviser, H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are highly respected within the national security and foreign policy establishment.

This is the moment when the Secretary of State should be on the phone and in the air to rally global support to seek a diplomatic solution and stop this heinous wholesale slaughter in Syria.

For now, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is a marginal player in this Administration that has strategically decimated the State Department by sacking its entire senior executive leadership. There is no Under Secretary at the moment, rather, an acting deputy secretary.

A vigorous diplomatic undertaking is required in this moment. Overtures to Russia to engage as a constructive partner in making peace are in order, while making it clear that it is unacceptable for Syria’s Assad to continue to slaughter the innocents of his country.

Prospects for peace are grim. The world requires leadership and political will to help make peace in Syria and provide safe shelter for millions of Syrian refugees.


Wise Woman Tanya Domi is an Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and is an affiliate faculty member of the Harriman Institute. She teaches Human Rights and International Relations in the Western Balkans.

Professor Domi shares her views on Twitter here.

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