We skeptics of intervention in Syria have been proven right. As America and five of its Arab allies launch airstrikes against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and another extremist rebel group in Syria for the first time, it's worth remembering how we ended up in this position.
As bad as Bashar al-Assad is, many of the rebels fighting him are worse. A great many have now fully metastasized into ISIS, a ruthlessly violent extremist group wreaking havoc not only in Syria, but Iraq too, and threatening to become a base for training jihadists and launching terrorist attacks all over the world.
The ISIS threat is probably the worst thing to have happened to the Middle East (which is really saying something) since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Something has to be done. But what? Airstrikes alone won't get the job done.
The Obama administration has a long-term strategy, and it is a terrible one: to "vet" and "train" "moderate" Syrian rebels to fight ISIS. Congress supports this strategy. This strategy is nonetheless ridiculously stupid.
Providing U.S.-style training and weapons to a bunch of people does not make those people a capable fighting force, as was shown by the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, which collapsed against ISIS despite greater numbers and technology. And also, don't be fooled: Language like "vetting" and "moderates" is a joke. If one thing is for sure, it is that U.S. weapons and training will end up in the hands of jihadists. They always do.
So what should the U.S. do?
Well first, let's get real: If you're going to be a player in the Middle East, you're going to get your hands dirty. This is not a fight where one side is clearly made up of good guys. It is a fight with bad guys and worse guys.
And so the U.S. must pull its strategy from the Game of Thrones playbook, and be willing to do the ruthless and the unexpected. It's not going to look good, but it will get the job done.
That's why the U.S. should team up with Bashar al-Assad's regime — but not Assad himself.
America should contact the key players in Assad's regime and offer them U.S. support (meaning money, equipment, drone and air strikes against rebels, and perhaps mercenaries) in exchange for the following concessions.
*Syria must become a U.S. client state.
*They must get rid of Bashar al-Assad (how is their business).
*They must set up a unity government with Syrian rebels (if only token ones).
*They must guarantee religious freedom for minorities.
*They must give up their weapons of mass destruction.
*They must break all ties with Iran and sign a peace treaty with Israel.
That's a good deal for the U.S. It's a good deal for Syria's new military dictators. It's not idealistic or angelic — but what about the world is?
If we're honest with ourselves, we must admit that U.S.-trained "rebels" managed remotely from Washington will never be a useful or well-understood fighting force. The Syrian military, on the other hand, is well-trained, coherent, knows the field and the area, and has a reason to fight and an esprit de corps. With the right kind of support (especially air support and money) they can crush ISIS and Syria's rebels. The U.S. alone simply cannot destroy ISIS. Doing so would take is house-to-house fighting with soldiers on the ground, and there is no political appetite in America for that. But with the right battle-hardened ally on the ground — like Syria's military — the U.S. can do it.
Making a Faustian bargain with an Arab socialist military dictatorship is nothing new for the United States. It has done the same thing for decades in Egypt.
And what of Hizbollah? The Iran-backed Lebanese Shia militia has been fighting alongside Syria's government in the Syrian civil war, because Syria is an ally of Iran. If Syria is to join the U.S. orbit, Hizbollah will turn against the Syrian government. But thankfully, the Syrian military probably already knows a lot about Hizbollah positions and forces, at least within Syria. So the first thing the new Syrian-American alliance should do is destroy Hizbollah in Syria in a lightning strike, which would greatly weaken Iranian interests in the region and lead to stability.
There is one last condition the U.S. should demand for its support. The new Syrian government should commit to a program of long-term "Singaporeanization." The Arab Spring happened, fundamentally, because Arab governments have long been unable to provide broad-based economic opportunity to their populations. This happened because their governments have been generally corrupt and incompetent when it comes to economic policy. This in turns breeds resentment, and since so many Arab governments are secular dictatorships, this resentment is then fueled into Islamist movements. The U.S. shouldn't just create another puppet state. It should make sure this state becomes one that is worth living in.
The U.S. is obviously not done playing empire in the Middle East. It's time for the U.S. to start playing empire smartly.