Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to The Associated Press at...

Syrian President Bashar Assad speaks to The Associated Press at the presidential palace in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016. Credit: AP / Syrian Presidency

Can the United States defeat the Islamic State with the Assad regime still in power? Derek Chollet, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs from 2012 to 2015, a senior adviser at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and author of “ The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World,” gives his take:


With another cease-fire in tatters and the siege of Aleppo looking more like a modern-day Stalingrad, it may seem tempting to just go ahead and cut a deal with Assad, abandoning the larger goal of his departure from office in order to quell the violence and, perhaps, ease the suffering.

Yet it is a fantasy to think we can uproot the Islamic State in Syria with Assad in power; he remains the essential driver of the conflict. With its military might, the United States can - and has - disrupted and degraded the Islamic State, whether measured by territory lost, fighters killed or recruits turning away. But defeating the terrorist group requires bringing an end to the Syrian civil war. And that will not happen until Assad is gone.

Throughout the Syria conflict, the challenge for the United States has been less about the goal itself - Assad’s departure - than the policy tools it should use to achieve it. Although rarely advertised this way, the Obama administration’s approach toward Assad has been one of “managed transition” - it wants him to go, but rather than escalate our involvement in the conflict by decapitating the regime with military power (as the United States did in Iraq and helped to do in Libya), it has aimed to bring about a transition with government institutions intact and able to provide basic services and secure basic order.

So what military steps might the next president take to try to gain greater leverage and increase the likelihood that a “managed transition” occurs? One idea is an elaboration on the proposal to impose a “no-fly-zone” over parts of Syria. This is not a new concept (as a Pentagon official, I participated in talks with our Turkish allies about the idea four years ago), and since the bombing campaign started in Syria in 2014, the United States has had a de facto no-fly-zone wherever it has been operating. But we could broaden the scope of our current air strikes to hit Islamic State targets closer to where Assad forces are fighting the opposition. At the very least, this could help create ambiguity about what may come next, planting seeds of doubt in Assad’s mind. We are worried about “mission creep,” but so is Assad - and we could do more to exploit uncertainty so that he starts changing his calculus.

Another idea is to pursue a more discrete use of military force - disrupting Assad’s abilities to plan attacks or destroying things he values, like a helicopter fleet or prized residence. For example, it has been widely reported that the Israelis have been successful conducting military strikes against specific regime targets without risking escalation.

In addition to actions from the skies, the United States and its partners could increase their support to the Syrian opposition - both in terms of the kinds of weapons and training they are providing as well as the number of special operations forces assisting them on the ground. As the Syrian opposition continues to develop, it could begin targeting levers of Assad’s control in addition to the Islamic State.

None of these steps would be the kind of instant game-changers many clamor for, and they may be accused of being too incremental. But they are the kinds of realistic alternatives the next president should consider. While the risks of escalation with any of these steps must be taken seriously, I believe they are manageable. And to defeat the Islamic State, taking such risks will be necessary.


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