A New Plan B for Syria

22 February 2016, 1238 EST


Syria’s civil-proxy war is on the cusp of turning into an all-out regional war, with negative repercussions for all involved in the conflict. The humanitarian disaster is at its most acute to date, with Russian forces systematically attacking the Syrian opposition and on the verge of a rout of Aleppo—and now Turkish ground forces engaging Kurdish forces across its border. With the U.S.-Russian ceasefire accord appearing unlikely to alter much on the ground, the time has come for the U.S., Europe, and the Saudi-led Gulf countries to make a decisive move to take the initiative back from Russia, contain Turkey, and stabilize the conflict.

Anti-ISIS efforts in northeastern Syria and Iraq aside, the pressure point at present is in northwestern Syria. Conventional wisdom suggests that there are no good options for the allies: 1) Attempting to implement the loophole-ridden ceasefire accord, 2) allowing Russia to continue bombing “terrorist groups” i.e. the opposition forces, or 3) taking more direct military action directly against the Syrian military, for which there is zero appetite in the U.S. and Europe. Nonetheless, putting a safe/no fly zone option back on the table would not only meet the joint interests of Western and Gulf allies, but also prove viable on the ground. Not only has Turkey called for this, but so have Germany and France–not to mention Hillary Clinton.

While Turkey will be critical for getting to an eventual endgame in Syria, at this crucial juncture this key western ally needs to be contained itself. Turkey has been shelling Kurdish YPG militia forces for the last week, and now that one of its operatives is being blamed for the successful attack in Ankara, Turkey is on the verge of a highly destabilizing escalation. Turkey legitimately needs the U.S. to press the YPG to back off, and Turkey itself has called for the establishment of a Safe Zone. The U.S. and its western allies need to act fast, also to ensure that the YPG does not “defect” and transfer its allegiance to Russia—which would be another coup for Russia.

Having ceded the initiative to Russia, not seizing it back would be an additional strategic error. Already the Russian action proves that conventional deterrence against it remains lost, even after announcement of a major U.S. effort to shore up western capabilities in Central Eastern Europe. Even before it could be enacted, it is falling short of one of its major objectives: the intended deterrent effect is stillborn. Russia has already wiped out the efforts of allied intelligence agencies on the ground in Syria. And at the Munich Security Conference it just took the mask off in claiming it is in “a new Cold War” with the West. To begin restoring deterrence, western allies need to act. It was a mistake to publicly declare that military options in Syria were off the table, indicating the diplomacy track is now the basket holding all the Administration’s eggs. The allies need to pursue a different option in order to regain their lost leverage.

The most viable option now is to install a No Fly / Safe Zone in northern Syria abutting the Turkish border, just north of Aleppo and just west of Kobani. Such an NFZ is not only still viable, but also necessary at this crucial juncture—with 300,000 Syrians being starved in Aleppo, Russia’s highly intensified bombing unlikely to end soon, and Syrian forces within 25 km of the Turkish border. The NFZ should be air policed by NATO, guarded by Turkish troops on the ground, and operated by the EU—with the UN coordinating and staying focused on organizing the opposition. The immediate effect would be to forestall Syria’s military operations, get Russia to back off, get Turkey to calm down, modulate the YPG, safeguard civilians, give the opposition space to regroup, and avoid a Saudi ground incursion that could cause all sides to escalate on a considerable scale.

Without taking this decisive step, Western and Gulf allies will miss a key opportunity to change the dynamics of this conflict at its most fraught stage. If Saudi Arabia were to send in ground troops—which it has pledged to do, along with UAE—this would not only cause Russia to up the ante further, but also lead Iran to go all in as well (recently it scaled down its involvement). The refugee crisis would get immediately worse by several orders of magnitude. Countries like Jordan—which is already at a boiling point—would be further destabilized. A full-scale regional conflagration would likely be the result, with Turkey not only destabilized further but also unable to prevent a fresh wave of refugees in Europe that could even destabilize the EU (which appears to be one of the principal goals of Russia’s unrelenting air campaign, to avenge EU sanctions).

Russia would back off because of NATO’s direct involvement, which needs to go beyond its current diplomatic support of Turkey (and maritime refugee-related operation). The only thing that Russia fears at present is NATO getting actively involved (as indicated by its mild response to Turkey shooting down its fighter). Thus, this would be an important step toward putting conventional deterrence vis-a-is Russia back in place. In addition, this option would allow Turkey to take a more decisive but stabilizing step, gaining the ability to stabilize its border while being protected from Russia, while ending its shelling of the YPG and preventing a deeper and uncontained Turkish army thrust into Syria.

Western and Gulf allies would all gain from Turkey’s ground-based military operations in protection of the NFZ. The EU has more experience than any global actor in post-conflict stability operations, its financial crisis aside. Not only is the EU more than capable of organizing and carrying out the ground component of installing a Safe Zone, but it would allow Europe to take a more forthright step in preventing a worsening of the refugee situation at home. The Gulf-based allies have been looking for their western counterparts to take a decisive step against the Syrian regime, thus they would likely join the air policing operation–after their minimal participation in air operations against ISIS—and likely fund the operation of the NFZ on the ground.

Upon initial success with the installation of the NFZ, momentum for the diplomacy track will pick up as a result. It only stalled because of the Russia-enabled Syrian forces progress on the ground, which has taken advantage of heavy Russia airstrikes on the Syrian opposition and touched off a sizable worsening of the humanitarian crisis. Progress with the NFZ will put pressure on Russia to lean on the Assad regime to participate, because it will persuade both Russia and the regime that the Western/Gulf-based allies are making a sustained play that will likely be a decisive step toward an endgame in Syria.

Turkey has called for this directly, but meanwhile it is openly shelling Kurdish forces that have taken a swath of new Syrian territory right on Turkey’s border—something the Turks won’t countenance. The effect of this is further destabilizing, including how it will likely cause Russia to double down. Whereas installing a Safe Zone will cause the YPG and its allies to back off, which will halt the Turkish artillery attacks. By being in the vanguard of this stability operation – with its own troops fully inside Syria –Turkey would be more likely to join diplomatic talks once they get going again, perhaps softening their opposition to PYD participation somewhat. Turkey has been lashing out at the U.S. and Europe, but this would sufficiently assuage the Turks at an acutely critical stage.

Despite how thoroughly fraught the crisis has become, there has been some progress. Iran and Saudi Arabia have not allowed their heightened rivalry to prevent the UN talks; the U.S. and Russia have coordinated on sponsoring the talks, starting with their UN Security Council resolution; the Syrian opposition has gotten more organized; Russia has indicated it is open to giving President Assad refuge; multiple small-scale ceasefires have already been helpful; Iran has moderated its assistance to Syrian forces; and the UN is fully engaged.

But major complications for the diplomacy track have arisen, with the Assad regime dragging its feet due to success on the battlefield—including retaking significant swathes of territory in the west with the help of Russian airstrikes and emboldened Shia militias. Yet, the most viable way for getting the talks restarted is to put the NFZ and the UN talks on separate tracks, and to proceed directly with installation of the former. As the NFZ gets up and running, it will pressure Russia and Assad to not only participate in the UN talks but at long last arrive ready to deal.

Western ground troops will not be needed if the NFZ is installed according to this formula. And Turkey would receive a major boost by receiving support from NATO in the air and the EU on the ground. It has perhaps the most vital role to play in providing ground-based military protection of the refugees and western civilians inside the Zone (but without this it might dangerously escalate the entire war). The Gulf allies would in all likelihood contribute not only financially, but also by contributing directly to the air policing thereby making the burden on NATO somewhat lighter (Saudi Arabia and UAE have pledged to offer special ops and air power anew against ISIS). Russia is already coordinating with U.S. air operations, and will under no circumstances challenge NATO air operations.

Moreover, on this occasion the international community will need to avoid the crucial Day After problem. In Libya the world powers failed to follow up the NATO air operation with a post-conflict stability operation, a problem that touched off the Mali crisis and gradually allowed Libya to fall back into disarray. As applied in Syria, the NFZ would allow the talks to get moving again and likely lead to a sturdier diplomatic resolution of some sort. The UN would then need to mount what would in all likelihood be the largest peacekeeping operation in history, which could conjoin with the EU stability operation and be modestly air policed by the Gulf allies and NATO. It is high time for Europe to share this burden, which NATO and EU action would accomplish.

Such a viable eventuality would allow the allies to then turn their attention in full to ISIS, as the coalition against it will suffer if action along these lines is not taken. It will require a concerted and high stakes effort to pull this off, but without a viable NFZ in place there are precious few viable options left to consider. Already numerous opportunities have been missed, most crucially early on when the Free Syrian Army could have been successful with a modicum of Western assistance—well before ISIS came into existence and filled the sizable security vacuum in eastern Syria and western Iraq. To seize the opportunity from Russia and the Syrian regime, contain and help Tukey, Western and Gulf allies need to make a decisive move to install a NFZ, which would allow for the UN talks to have a realistic opportunity to tack toward beginning to resolve this seemingly insoluble conflict.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey was a State Department official in the first Obama Administration. He is a national security consultant in Washington D.C., and author of “Integrating Europe” by Oxford University Press.