(Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the
author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the
Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People." His next book is
"Hooper's War: A Novel of WWII Japan." The opinions expressed
are his own.)
By Peter Van Buren
Oct 18 Hillary Clinton has a plan for defeating
Islamic State in Syria. Donald Trump has one, too. With the
conflict in Syria spreading beyond its borders, it's essential
to understand the new president's strategies - and how they may
need to be adjusted over the next four years.
Trump has advocated for a "safe zone" for Syrians to ride
out the conflict. Such a zone would be a swath of territory
inside the country, where today's refugees would reside instead
of fleeing to Europe and elsewhere.
Trump has offered no details on how such a zone would be
created, or by whom. American support for this initiative, Trump
has made clear, would be limited to some economic assistance,
with the bulk of the costs borne by the Gulf States. Though
Trump does not support a no-fly zone per se, it seems difficult
anyone could create and protect a safe zone without a
Clinton has also made the case for safe zones, as well as
consistently proposing a no-fly zone. The United States, under
Clinton's plan, would make a portion of Syrian national airspace
inaccessible to any but U.S. or allied planes. Russian strike
aircraft and Syrian government helicopters would risk being shot
Clinton's no-fly zone, and in practical terms, Trump's safe
zone, both open the same door to a greatly enlarged conflict.
General Martin Dempsey, the then-chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, explained in 2012 that imposing a no-fly zone
would require as many as 70,000 American personnel to dismantle
Syria's air defense system, in order to rule out the possibility
Assad might shoot down American aircraft. An attack on Assad of
that magnitude would almost certainly demand a response; how
would Russia come to the defense of its ally?
In addition, any no-fly zone (or safe zone for that matter)
must address the near-certainty it will be challenged by the
Russians; it almost has to be, given the struggle for dominance
in the region. Shooting down a Russian plane would enlarge the
conflict in Syria while at the same time risking a retaliatory
move that could take place anywhere in the world, perhaps even
The possible juice from a no-fly or safe zone just isn't
worth the squeeze of an enlarged conflict with nation-state
level, global implications. President Barack Obama has rejected
the idea of a no-fly/safe zone in Syria for years. Would
President Clinton, or Trump, really roll the dice on possible
direct military conflict with Russia when their predecessor did
Another Syrian strategy option, sending in American ground
forces, will also be on the table for the next president to
Trump appears to have split with running mate Mike Pence
over Syria; Pence says the United States should meet Russian
"provocations" with strength, backing the use of military force
to do so. Trump, when asked about that statement, claimed "He
and I disagree." Though the notion of a disagreement has been
walked back, the nature of a Trump administration policy towards
American forces deployed in Syria remains unclear.
Despite Clinton's assertions that her plan for Syria does
not include boots on the ground, and Trump's apparent interest
in not introducing troops, the new president will inherit an
evolving situation: the boots are not only already firmly on the
ground, their numbers are growing. Since April Obama has
overseen the largest expansion of ground forces in Syria since
its civil war began, bringing the number of Special Forces
deployed to about 1,500. A year ago the United States had only
50 soldiers in Syria.
Experience suggests mission creep in both scale and
headcount is likely. The current fight against Islamic State in
Iraq has seen American ground forces grow to some 6,000 on
regular deployment, with an additional, unknown, number of
Marines on "temporary duty" and not counted against the total.
The mission has also expanded, from advising to direct action,
including artillery and helicopter gunship ground attacks.
In Syria, the tactical picture is even tougher than in Iraq.
The United States faces not only Islamic State, but also
potentially troops from Russia and Syria, Iranian special
forces, and/or militias professionally armed and trained by
Russia, Syria and Iran. The American side of the equation sweeps
in an ad hoc collection of Syrian groups of questionable loyalty
and radical ideology, Kurds who oppose Turks, Turks who oppose
Kurds, and perhaps third party Arab fighters.
Any new strategy for Syria will unfold on a complex game
As long as Assad stays in power, even without Islamic State,
the bloody civil war will continue. If Assad goes, who could
replace him and not trigger a new round of civil war? Who will
pay for Syria to rebuild at some point?
Enlarging the picture, how will the Kurd-Turk struggle be
managed now that the genie of Kurdish independence is out of the
lamp? How will the next phase of the Sunni-Shi'ite relationship
in Iraq affect Syria? How will growing Iranian influence in
Iraq, a likely consequence of any defeat of Islamic State there,
factor in? The Russians are now on the ground again in the
Middle East. What effect will that have on the broader regional
and global strategic balance?
The task facing the next president is not just defeating
Islamic State inside Syria, but doing so even as the local
problems there have metastasized into broad issues with global
consequences. President Clinton or President Trump may find
their proposed plans will run into the same vexing realities the
Obama administration has struggled with for years. Their
proposals do not seem up to the task. The new administration
will have to quickly devise strategies that have otherwise
eluded America's best strategic thinkers since the earliest days
of the Syria civil war.
(Peter Van Buren)