It seems like the United States is stuck in the fight against ISIS. There is no good alternative to the current American policy, as every other option has daunting consequences. The problem is that the fight against ISIS is fought on an unconventional battleground where the U.S. has to take account the interests of many different entities. In Syria, aside from ISIS’ ruthless conquest, there is a four-year long civil war between opposing sides, the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition forces. Outside of Syria, America must also consider the interests of neighboring countries like Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon, as well as its adversaries, Iran and Russia. All of these factors create the context for American policy in Syria. The policy proposals that follow suggest that regardless of which policy is chosen America is stuck between bad and worse.


An idea that has circulated the American press for years is to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian ”President,” a title that is simply a façade to cover fifteen years of dictatorship, has been bombing his own citizens for multiple years resulting in over 220,000 Syrians killed throughout the civil war. In addition, millions of Syrians have fled their homes to neighboring countries. In fact, Syrian refugees now account for about a third of Lebanon’s population. Assad’s catastrophic ruling has led to absolute chaos in Syria, which has allowed ISIS to spread its influence across the country. On June 3rd in the subcommittee hearing “U.S. Policy Towards ISIL After Terror Group Seizes Ramadi and Palmyra,” Dr. Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said of the Syrian President, “Assad makes Machiavelli look like Mother Teresa.” So why has the U.S. not opted for a regime change?


The United States has repeatedly said that Assad must go. Without Assad, the Syrian people would be able to work on rebuilding their government towards a more representative administration. Furthermore, the ousting of Assad would incentivize Turkey to join the fight against ISIS militarily, since Ankara has stated that they will not be involved in the fight until President Assad is out of office. However, if Assad were to be overthrown, there would be no central authority in Syria, which could create a power vacuum. Historically, similar power vacuums have resulted in the rise of extremist groups as seen in Iraq with ISIS, and in Libya with Operation Dawn. With ISIS already controlling fifty percent of the Syrian territory, ousting Assad would be a gift to the extremist group. American interests are also directly at stake. Iran, a country that America has been in close negotiations with over a nuclear deal, is determined to cement Assad’s position in Syria. If the U.S. were to support a regime change in Syria, its nuclear talks with Iran could be in jeopardy.


Another option is to enact a no-fly zone over Syrian territory to stop Assad’s aerial campaigns, which target the Syrian opposition. These bombings have been part of the ongoing civil war in Syria, but have had indirect consequences in the fight against ISIS. On May 30th, the Syrian government conducted barrel bombings in the northern province of Aleppo. Two days later, with the Syrian opposition weakened from the bombings, ISIS attacked the Aleppo province, establishing their ruling just thirty miles from Bab al-Salam, one of the major crossings where the Syrian opposition receives aid and weapons from the West. A no-fly zone would prevent Assad’s helicopters from raining down bombs, which would help the Syrian opposition’s fight against ISIS. The problem with a no-fly zone is that it is unlikely to be passed in the UN Security Council, considering the veto power of Russia, one of the Syrian government’s closest allies. Therefore, for the U.S. to actually be capable of creating a no-fly zone in Syria, it would be necessary to destroy Assad’s air force and bases, which would not only be expensive but would also be the first attack on Assad’s regime: basically a declaration of war.


A third alternative for the U.S. is to be more proactive in the fight against ISIS by conducting additional airstrikes against the terrorist organization. In the same subcommittee hearing described earlier, Congressmen Meadows from North Carolina and Issa from California criticized the current administration, saying that the U.S. has simply not done enough. Meadows went so far as to say that in one week there are more planes flying over Capitol Hill than in Syria and Iraq combined. Such criticism has come from the Syrians as well. After ISIS’ most recent takeover in the Aleppo province, the head of the Aleppo Military Council stated that local militias working with the U.S. military had given Washington the exact coordinates of ISIS’ location in Aleppo, but the Americans failed to pull the trigger. The indifference shown in Syria by the United States is not a revelation. On May 19th during a press briefing, White House Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, stated, “the President feels very strongly that the very significant problems that are faced by the people in Syria, for example, are not problems that the United States is going to come in and solve for them.” However, President Obama has also stated that ISIS is a direct threat to the American people, so therefore in this particular situation, it seems like Syria’s problem is an American problem. The interests of the U.S. are at stake as Syria borders an American ally and NATO member, Turkey, as well as Israel. With additional American airstrikes on ISIS, the terror group would be debilitated, preventing it from taking more Syrian territory or getting closer to other countries’ borders.


Finally, the U.S. could simply not do anything. To many, the U.S. has fallen into a sunk cost fallacy, where its policy in the Middle East consists on the amount of money, lives, and effort it has invested in the region. For example, the fall of Ramadi (the capital of Iraqi province Anbar) to ISIS has been a major setback to many Americans due to its sentimental significance. Hundreds of American lives were lost in Ramadi when the U.S. fought to drive back al-Qaeda after the Iraqi invasion in 2003. However, for the U.S. to invest more resources to try to recover Ramadi on behalf of actions in the past could be thought as irrational. As hard as it may be, accepting the costs from the past and completely reevaluating American policy in the Middle East based on present factors could be a viable option. The problem with such a policy is that watching from the sidelines would contradict against American values such as universal rights and democracy. Additionally, not taking a stance would oppose the responsibility to protect (R2P), an international norm created by the UN, which the U.S. often leads.


The U.S. faces a great dilemma in its policy against ISIS; there are many options, but they all have severe consequences. President Obama and the future President in 2016 will have to closely analyze the costs and benefits of each possible option. One thing is certain, however; the U.S. must create a solidified strategy quickly, before the issue gets any worse.


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