Doing Nothing Is Now out of the Question

Obama may finally have changed his calculus on Syria -- but is his plan for the U.S. to train rebels two years too late?

Mass atrocities do not intrinsically threaten world peace, much less Western interests. The genocide in Rwanda did not, nor did the mass murders in Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Darfur. The slaughter in the former Yugoslavia did, which is why the West intervened in Bosnia. Those of us who favor the doctrine known as "the responsibility to protect" wish it were otherwise, but with rare exceptions (Libya), it is not.

Syria has always been a special case. The collapse of a country in the middle of an explosive neighborhood automatically threatened American interests. But it wasn't clear, at least at the outset, whether openly siding with the rebels was more likely to stabilize or destabilize that neighborhood. As Hillary Clinton writes in her memoirs, "The risks of both action and inaction were high." It's probably fair to say that those who believed in the moral case for supporting the rebels found good reason to assert that inaction would harm American national interests rather than otherwise. Clinton and other senior officials made that case to President Barack Obama in 2012, and Obama turned them down. He thought inaction better served American interests.

Now, apparently, Obama has come around. Last week, he asked Congress to authorize $500 million to train and equip vetted rebel groups, as Clinton had wanted him to do in 2012.

What's changed? The definitive collapse in January of peace talks with Russia and Syria proved beyond any doubt that diplomacy, by itself, was not going to solve the problem. And the stunning spread of the apocalyptic jihadi group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) -- and in recent days as just the Islamic State -- has radically changed the balance of America's national interest in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad's war on his own people created a vacuum of authority that ISIS has filled, and ISIS now threatens the United States as Assad's barrel bombs never did. Perhaps Obama has reflected that the advisors who thought that the risks of inaction outweighed the risks of action were right.

But is it the right course now? If Syria matters because it has become the frontier of the war on terror, is helping the rebels wrestle Assad to the negotiating table the right way to fight that war?

There's a very serious argument that it's not. If the country is an impossibly fragmented state, as Syria scholar Joshua Landis has argued in Foreign Policy, then helping the rebels is a formula not for regional stabilization but for "civil war and radicalization." Rather than helping the rebels against Assad, perhaps, as Leslie Gelb recently proposed, the White House should work directly with Assad, along with Iran and Russia, to crush the extremists.

Leaving aside the moral issue of openly siding with the author of unspeakable atrocities, or his entourage, the fact that until now Assad has more or less seen ISIS as an ally in his fight against the rebels suggests that he would not make for much of a partner in the war on terror. The regime has rarely taken on ISIS directly, and the extremists in turn have focused their efforts on fighting the insurgents for territory in the north. They have had a working entente. It's the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who have gone toe-to-toe with the jihadists, driving them from Aleppo and parts of Idlib province. As Robert Ford, Obama's former ambassador to Syria, said to me, "If this administration wants to contain the Islamic State on the ground, they're going to help the FSA."

In other words, the national-interest question has shifted from whether actively helping the FSA will do more good than remaining on the sidelines, to whether it's the regime or the rebels who are most likely to blunt the advance of ISIS. Standing on the sidelines has ceased to be an option, just as allowing al Qaeda to flourish on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the aftermath of 9/11 was not an option. And even if you refuse to acknowledge the categorical moral difference between a regime waging war on its citizens and the rebels (who include terrible people who have done terrible things) fighting to bring that regime down, it's clear that the rebels view ISIS as their mortal enemy -- and the regime does not.

Having said that, it's hardly clear that the rebels have the capacity to do what the United States would like them to do. The moderate rebels, a vague phrase that may or may not encompass Salafist brigades that would fit many people's definition of "extremist," have barely sustained a stalemate against the combination of Assad's artillery and air attacks and ground forces led by Hezbollah and Iranian officers. And now, they are simultaneously locked in combat with the battle-hardened jihadists of ISIS, who have begun to stream back from Iraq armed with missiles and even American Humvees. The Iraqi army melted away before ISIS battalions, despite in many cases greatly outnumbering them.

The Syrian rebel command remains hopelessly fragmented, with the Supreme Military Council enduring a meltdown literally as Obama was announcing the new program last week. American military planners will thus have to work with individual commanders, as they have been doing on a very modest scale for the last few years. What's more, since the White House program envisions the Defense Department taking over the vetting and preparation of fighters from the CIA (though a covert effort is likely to continue, and perhaps even grow), producing freshly trained units is likely to take a year or more. Will Pentagon trainers pull entire units out of combat? Perhaps instead they'll train Syrian trainers. All this will make the process agonizingly slow, while Assad continues his murderous assaults.

Even the most ardent advocates I have spoken to acknowledged the magnitude of the obstacles. But they are not hopeless. As Robert Ford asserts, "If the administration is able to stand up in the coming months a program where elements of the Syrian opposition have steady access to cash, ammunition, food, medical supplies, and communications gear, we know just from the past month what the rebels are capable of doing."

The former ambassador may be far too optimistic; he too is guilty of believing in the moral imperative of action. But what's the alternative, given that doing nothing is now out of the question? Arming the rebels is only one element of what must be a much wider strategy involving pressing for political change in Iraq, regaining control over the Iraqi side of the border with Syria, sealing off the border between Turkey and Syria that jihadists have poured through -- and, yes, working with Iran and Russia, both of which fear Sunni extremism. In all likelihood, Obama will wind up authorizing limited airstrikes against ISIS forces in Iraq. At that point, logic would dictate that he do so in Syria as well. The president will find that he has to do far more today to stave off disaster in Syria than he would have needed to do in 2012.

Until now, Obama has shown that he fears the perils of action far more than those of inaction. It may be that the threat of ISIS has changed his calculus. He remains cautious: After the White House debated it for months, Obama is said to have planned to include the new training program in his West Point speech in late May, but then yanked it at the last minute for further tweaking.

Congress reconvenes next week, and the administration will begin its lobbying effort for the $500 million. Then, perhaps, the president will reveal just how much urgency he feels on the subject. It's very, very late for the Syrian people. But it's still better than never.

Win McNamee/Getty Images


O Say Can You Free Me?

Dozens of Americans are spending this July 4 as hostages in far-off lands. Washington should do more to get them back.

North Waziristan is not where you want to spend July 4. When you hear what sounds like fireworks, it's more likely coming from an unmanned drone than your neighbor's kids. Sadly, this is how some Americans are spending Independence Day this year.

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is certainly happy not to be one of them. He will celebrate his first July 4 outside captivity since 2008, presumably with his family if he is reunited with them soon. Whatever one's feelings about the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for a soldier who may or may not have deserted, it is hard to argue that after five years holed up in a cage in Waziristan at the hands of Taliban militants Bergdahl is not deserving of his newfound freedom. But there are dozens of other Americans who won't make it home for barbecues and fireworks this year -- and likely won't anytime soon. Around the world, American hostages, some kidnapped during government service, are caught in a hostage no man's land. And there are very few options to get them back.

Efforts to free hostages -- whether soldiers, diplomats, contractors, journalists, aid workers, or tourists -- raise questions about how the rules of warfare apply in an era when the lines of the battlefield are blurred, civilians are often on the wrong side, and the hostage-taker is often a nonstate actor. There are very real problems that come with cutting deals with hostage-takers, namely encouraging further kidnappings for ransom and legitimizing the practice. But the edict that the United States "doesn't negotiate with terrorists" has been at best followed loosely by U.S. administrations for decades. (See the Iran hostage crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the 2001 negotiations by George W. Bush's administration to free two American missionaries held by the militant group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.) This selective bending of the rules can often seem arbitrary, especially to the families and friends of those being held. Clearly, a more coherent strategy is overdue, especially given the risks civilians face in the complex conflicts of the 21st century.

Given that the United States designated the Taliban a terrorist group in 2003, there is an argument to be made -- one that has been made loudly by President Barack Obama's critics -- that the exchange for Bergdahl could be considered a deal with a terrorist group, with all the potential baggage that would entail. But because Bergdahl was picked up on the battlefield while acting as a combatant, this argument doesn't really have legs; in the context of the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban is more of an enemy state, making Bergdahl a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, the Bergdahl deal is a reminder that the distinctions that dictate such negotiations are often extremely vague and that in a war against amorphous adversaries living in states with little real governance, hard-and-fast rules rarely apply.

Among those on the blurrier side of that spectrum is Warren Weinstein, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor who served for decades as an employee of the development agency before moving to a private company. Weinstein celebrates his 73rd birthday July 3 in the same place he spent his 72nd and 71st: As al Qaeda's captive, reportedly in Pakistan's North Waziristan region. He was kidnapped from his home in Lahore in August 2011. Weinstein's case has received some press, particularly in the weeks since Bergdahl's release and in response to what appears to be his deteriorating health. But the options available to the Obama administration to negotiate his release remain shamefully few. As a U.S. government official told me, "The United States continues to work with Pakistani authorities to try to secure his release. We remain in contact with Weinstein's family in the United States and are providing all appropriate consular assistance." The truth, though, is that his case is most likely at a standstill.

There is little doubt that fulfilling Weinstein's captors' demands -- an end to all drone strikes and freedom for all prisoners in the Guantánamo Bay prison -- is a non-starter. So is the type of exchange brokered for Bergdahl. Weinstein is not a U.S. soldier, and the outcry that followed the Bergdahl trade would pale in comparison to what would happen if Guantánamo detainees were traded for a civilian, especially one who does not work directly for the U.S. government. But that does not mean all avenues are closed. The Pakistani military could attempt to rescue Weinstein and other hostages in North Waziristan, including several high-profile Pakistanis, perhaps even with U.S. assistance. There are also discussions that could be held by the United States or other actors in concert with or separate from the Pakistani government. If the United States can negotiate with the Taliban for a prisoner of war, it seems possible to at least talk to al Qaeda about the conditions for the release of a prisoner who was working to help prevent future wars through economic development.

Treating civilians as if they were soldiers is clearly a bridge too far, and not only because it's politically infeasible for Obama. Prisoners of war have long been considered a different type of hostage, both under U.S. and international law, and they should rightly be retrieved by their nation at almost any cost. But there is always much gray area to explore. Many in the media, including a number of veterans, have argued that the circumstances of Bergdahl's capture meant that any efforts to secure his release were more than he really deserved. And whether or not Bergdahl was a deserter, it is clear that he left his base willingly and had grave doubts about his mission in Afghanistan. Weinstein, on the other hand, had gone to Pakistan on his own volition to fulfill a development mission. As a contractor, Weinstein was separated by only one degree from the U.S. government, as are many who conduct U.S. foreign policy abroad today, especially in dangerous places where organizations like USAID would rather send contractors than their own personnel. Contractors shouldn't be treated like soldiers, but they are often sent quite far into harm's way.

It's unclear how much the intent of the hostage, his or her ties to a particular government, and notoriety and wealth affect the efforts to gain his or her release. History gives conflicting examples: Two journalists who wandered into North Korea were freed through the efforts of former U.S. President Bill Clinton; two hikers who wandered across the Iranian border spent over two years in jail before being released on bail, allegedly paid by the sultan of Oman (a third hiker had been released a year earlier); Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent captured in Iran and later alleged to have been working for the CIA, remains in an unknown location; and two aid workers kidnapped in Somalia, one American and the other Danish, were rescued by Navy SEALs in a daring airborne raid. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to who makes it out and how.

More important than any other factor are the larger circumstances of these hostages' kidnappings and captivities, specifically the relationship between the U.S. government and the country either holding the hostage or in which he or she is being held. In the case of the Somalia raid, for example, the lack of government control over the vast majority of the country made conducting an operation on Somali soil politically feasible. Pakistan, on the other hand, is so sensitive to foreign military action on its soil that even the raid against Osama bin Laden was met with resistance and outrage in that country's press. But outside these political realities, there still seem to be some significant disparities in how hostage situations pan out. In some cases, hostages' families may even be forced to beg and borrow from friends and benefactors to try to meet captors' demands.

Now that the integration of military and civilian missions has become the norm, especially with a counterinsurgency strategy based on economic development, civilians have often found themselves at as great a risk as many of their military counterparts, often without the same level of training or protection. A civilian hostage will likely never be treated the same as a captured soldier, even though in the most recent conflicts they are acting more like soldiers in the field. Particularly as the United States and its allies draw back from Afghanistan, it may be time to consider how the United States and other countries can better address the inherent challenges of civilian hostage situations, in addition to making sure we leave no soldier behind on the battlefield.

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