- - Monday, September 28, 2015


A few years ago, I told a group at a counterterrorism conference that I thought the best possible outcome of the civil war in Syria was that President Bashar Assad’s regime would win and keep control of the country.

It wasn’t that I wanted him to win. Far from it. It was just that, given the fecklessness of U.S. policy in the region, I could see only three outcomes that were actually possible: battlefield stasis at high levels of violence that would continue to exact horrific costs on the civilian population, a victory for the brutal medievalism of the Islamic State, or Mr. Assad’s reimposition of autocratic Alawite rule on Syria’s Sunni majority. With those options, the choice was easy.

Of course, those weren’t the only options, at least in theory. But any other option demanded a substantial intervention by outside forces and, absent American leadership and involvement, that wasn’t going to happen. That, of course, would never have been an easy choice or task, and it got progressively more difficult with each day that it was deferred.

It has now been deferred for three years, and so here we are today witnessing the largest migration of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II as Syrians flee the chaos of their homeland. Hundreds, if not thousands, are dying en route.

The Russians have returned military forces to the Middle East for the first time since their expulsion from Egypt in 1973 — and they are welcomed. The move also has the potential to get Moscow out of the penalty box for its recent aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Iranian influence in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut is in the ascendance. No surprise there.

As the Iraqi ambassador to the United States noted last summer, the Iranians (unlike the Americans) are actually allowed by their government to go to the front lines when they are supporting Iraqi troops.

And, oh yes, ISIS — a terrorist state the size of Connecticut — continues to straddle and control the ancient trade routes of the Middle East.

Conceding all the difficulties that any level of intervention would have entailed, I still feel compelled to ask the Obama administration about the past three years: “What were you thinking? What possible step (no-fly zone, local safe havens, enforcing the chemical weapons red line, a train and equip program above single digits, and so on) would have made the situation worse than it is today? Really.”

Beyond the geopolitical nightmare, there is a moral dimension here as well. In the penitential rite at the beginning of Catholic Mass, we ask forgiveness in “what I have done and in what I have failed to do.” What is our moral responsibility for what we have failed to do?

I have been told that there has been no lack of meetings on Syria, ISIS and Iraq. What has been lacking is decision-making or, perhaps more accurately, will.

U.S. objectives have been clear. On multiple occasions, President Obama has said that “Assad must go,” and he has also repeatedly committed to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State. The two make sense. Actually, the former is a precondition for the latter as Mr. Assad’s continued rule serves as a jihadi magnet for Islamic State recruiting.

Unfortunately, we have not been successful on either track. We have forbidden any proxies we train to make war on Mr. Assad, and restrictive policies and rules of engagement have ensured that, although we may be able to punish the Islamic State, we cannot defeat it.

Now others are going to try. An informal coalition is re-energizing its efforts to buttress Mr. Assad and really go after ISIS. That would be a coalition of a revanchist former superpower (Russia), a wannabe regional hegemon (Iran), a rump Shia state (Iraq), a terrorist powerhouse (Hezbollah) and, of course, what is left of Mr. Assad’s Syria. Iraq has even announced an anti-ISIS intelligence fusion center, of sorts, with Iran, Syria and Russia.

Now the world’s only remaining superpower (that’s still us) will have to decide whether to oppose, ignore or join the evolving effort.

The results of three years of American “policy” have been so disastrous and reluctance to adopt a more activist course so strong that the White House has not reflexively rejected the Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah lifeline. Mr. Obama agreed to suspend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s isolation over Ukraine and meet with him at the United Nations in New York, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry has publicly conceded that, although Mr. Assad still has to go, he doesn’t have to go on “Day One, Month One or whatever.”

All to what end? As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, “whatever” could be a long time and, as stated earlier, prolonging the Assad regime strengthens the ISIS message and cause. We could well end up with considerably more death and destruction with little strategic progress to show for it, all the while strengthening and legitimating the roles of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in the region.

Still, the moral imperative to stop the bleeding might compel Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry to be accommodating and hope for the best.

I’ve often said that the ISIS-Syria-Iraq mess is about as bad as it could be.

And just as often, it then gets worse.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency. He can be reached at mhayden@washingtontimes.com.

• Mike Hayden can be reached at mhayden@example.com.

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