U.S. policy on how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains unchanged, despite the recent uproar over Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments about how to negotiate a political transition. In brief, this policy can be summed up as the former deputy head of the CIA, Mike Morell, put it in an interview with John Miller of CBS News in September 2013:
MORELL: The best outcome is a negotiated settlement between the opposition and between the regime that allows for a political transition that keeps the institutions of the state intact.
MILLER: How realistic is that?
MORELL: The reason that is important, John, is because it's going to take the institution of the Syrian military and the institutions of the Syrian security services to defeat al-Qaeda when this is done. And every day that goes by, every day that goes by, those institutions are eroded.
MILLER: So how do you more effectively influence that?
MORELL: Right now, Assad feels he's winning, so he has absolutely no incentive. So, enough support has to be provided to the opposition—to put enough pressure on Assad—to bring him to the negotiating table, but not enough support provided to the opposition so that they feel that they don't need to go to the negotiating table. It's a very difficult balance to strike.
A year and a half later, that is still the policy constantly stated and restated by the U.S. government whenever it is asked. It is in this context that one should view the U.S. attempts to force Assad and his opponents into a dialogue based on the so-called Geneva Communiqué of 2012, which prescribes a unity government taking away Assad’s executive powers as the best way forward.
But much has changed since 2012, when the Geneva Communiqué was adopted, and 2013, when Morell spoke to CBS News. Even though the White House stays on message and is careful not to give Assad any free concessions, political thinking has apparently evolved in subtle ways. Changes on the battlefield in Syria and its neighboring countries continue to impress U.S. policymakers, and the rise of the extremist group known as the Islamic State in mid-2014 has had a major impact as well.
So, beyond the official White House rhetoric, what does the U.S. security establishment think about Syria today?
DNI and DIA: Assad Is Gaining, Slowly
On February 26, 2015, Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper delivered an assessment of worldwide threats based on input from the entire U.S. intelligence community. On Assad’s situation, the assessment said:
The Syrian regime made consistent gains in 2014 in parts of western Syria that it considers key, retaking ground in eastern Damascus, Homs, and Latakia; it is close to surrounding Aleppo city. The regime will require years to reassert significant control over the country.
And about the Syrian rebels:
The bulk of the opposition in the north is fighting on three fronts—against the regime, the al-Qa‘ida-affiliated Nusrah Front, and ISIL. The opposition in the south has made steady gains in areas that the regime has not made a priority and where ISIL has only a limited presence.
Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), delivered his agency’s assessment the same day. On Syria, the DIA had this to say:
We assess the conflict in Syria is trending in the Assad regime’s favor, which holds the military advantage in Aleppo—Syria’s largest city. In 2015, we anticipate the regime’s strategy will be to encircle Aleppo, cut opposition supply lines, and besiege the opposition. Hizballah and Iran, Damascus’ key allies in its fight against the opposition, continue to provide training, advice, and extensive logistical support to the Syrian government and its supporters. Despite the regime’s military advantage—particularly in firepower and air superiority—it will continue to struggle and be unable to decisively defeat the opposition in 2015.
CIA: For the Moment, Assad Should Stay
And what does the CIA think? Speaking with journalist Charlie Rose at the Council on Foreign Relations, CIA Director John Brennan recently gave a frank assessment of the role of Assad. While Assad needs to be edged out eventually to make room for a more inclusive system that can restabilize Syria, the CIA chief said, that is for another day:
BRENNAN: In Syria, though, we have a government that is problematic. And one of the reasons why there has been this great attraction to the region are these foreign fighters. And it's the policy of this administration that Assad is really not part of Syria's future as we see it.
ROSE: But do we need now for Assad to be in power temporarily unless there's a negotiated settlement because we need them as an opposition to ISIL as well?
BRENNAN: Yes. The crisis in Syria, which it is both from a humanitarian standpoint and just from a countrywide standpoint, is not going to be resolved on the battlefield, in my mind. I think we need to be able to continue to support those elements within Syria that are dedicated to moving Assad and his ilk out. But there has to be some type of political pathway to the future.
ROSE: And do you think Russia wants to be a part of that?
BRENNAN: I think Russia is looking at the problems that have been created by the situation in Syria. There are a lot of Russian nationals that have traveled down from Chechnya, Dagestan, and other areas. And the Russians are concerned about the flow of foreign fighters both to theater as well as back. And so I think they realized that Assad is problematic. None of us, Russia, the United States, coalition, and regional states, wants to see a collapse of the government and political institutions in Damascus. What we do want is for there to be a future of Damascus that is going to bring into power a representative government that is going to try to address the grievances that exist throughout the country. It is a multi-confessional country that really deserves a government that is going to try to represent the people that are there.
ROSE: You fear from a collapse of an Assad government those two might replace them?
BRENNAN: I think that's a legitimate concern from the standpoint of what we don't want to do is to allow those extremist elements that in some parts of Syria are ascendant right now. We have ISIL. We have Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda element within Syria...
BRENNAN: And the last thing we want to do is to allow them to march into Damascus. That's why it's important to bolster those forces within the Syrian opposition that are not extremists.
La Grande Muette
Except for input like Stewart’s DIA assessment, the U.S. military is not supposed to influence politics. The secretary of defense, as a political appointee, will also tend to stay on message. When U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently answered questions from the Senate as part of his confirmation process, he only had a little to say about U.S. policy toward Assad:
As the president has said, Assad has lost legitimacy and cannot be a part of the long-term future of Syria. However, the most immediate threat to U.S. national interests is ISIL—and there is no sustainable solution in Syria without addressing the threat of ISIL.
In January 2015, however, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing with three retired top-ranking officers who were able to give their personal views.
Two of these officers—Admiral William Fallon and General James Mattis—have in recent years led the military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for the Middle East. The third, General John Keane, was the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff between 1999 and 2003 and now chairs the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based security affairs think tank that is associated with interventionist Middle Eastern policies.
Asked whether they supported using the U.S. Air Force to enforce a no-fly zone or a buffer zone in northern Syria, Keane answered in the affirmative, but Mattis and Fallon did not. “Not until we figure out what we want the end state to look like,” said Mattis, who led CENTCOM from 2010 to 2013. Fallon, who led the command from 2007 to 2008, rejected the idea more categorically: “No, I've been a part of a ten-year effort in Iraq that ended up being, basically, wasted.”
Keane demanded much more intense U.S. efforts to train rebels and argued that this would be helpful in rallying Sunni Arab support against the Islamic State, from nations like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Mattis, on the other hand, suggested that the window of opportunity for working with the rebels had already closed, with U.S.-friendly forces having been “ground down” by Assad on the one side and the Islamic State on the other. He also argued that the United States must first decide on what it wants Syria to look like after a U.S. intervention before wading deeper into the war:
Is Assad still there, or not? There are some who say we can't put Syria back together if Assad's part of it. There's others who say he's the best of the worst options. We've got to get this straight in our heads first, and then we can give you a lot of answers, sir, about how best to accomplish it.
And that might be the best way to sum up how the U.S. security establishment currently feels about Syria: undecided.