Sunday, February 22, 2015

A New End Game?

The Obama administration is back to "Assad must go transition" thinking. Does this correct a failing about the fate of Assad in what I think is otherwise a basically sound plan to defeat ISIL?

The war militarized without our intervention, so what the heck:

President Barack Obama suggested Thursday that U.S. and international efforts to degrade and ultimately destroy Islamic State militant group may only be achieved after a political transition in Syria.

That transition from foe back to partner seems to have been halted for now.

Although that "transition" language comes from the proto-partner era, leaves plenty of room to keep Assad in a position of power even if he loses the front office.

This change of language may explain something else about the Syrian rebels we are training:

The U.S. revealed that it had so far screened 1,200 Syrian rebels to be sent to training at camps in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those selected are believed much less likely to be radicalized and the United States hopes to have 3,000 trained and in action by the end of 2015. Such screening is difficult but the Americans had help from Saudi Arabia, which has had more success in that respect. The American effort is criticized for being too slow and producing too few armed and trained fighters to make a difference. At the moment American government policy limits what U.S. counter-terrorism efforts can do. Under these conditions the Americans plan to use their reliable rebels to call in air strikes and provide accurate information of what is going on inside Syria. This decision is based on the success the U.S. has had with the Kurds. Thus the Americans are trying to find equally reliable Arab rebels in Syria to call in air strikes. Using contacts the Kurds have developed over the years the U.S. is seeking small teams of Arab rebels who can be taught how to call in airstrikes. These teams will be equipped with armed (with a machine-gun) pickup trucks and the special radios and sent them back to Syria.

One, we came to an agreement with Turkey which has insisted that rebels trained in Turkey be allowed to target Assad and not just ISIL. So perhaps this is a two-step now of weakening Assad to make sure going after ISIL in Syria doesn't strengthen Assad.

And we have an interesting Turkish ground operation inside Syria itself:

Turkish forces swept into Syria overnight to rescue about 40 soldiers who had been surrounded for months by Islamic State militants while guarding the tomb of a revered Turkish figure.

The operation rescued Turkish guards who were in Syria under a 1921 treaty to protect a tomb of Suleyman Shah, whose grandson founded the Ottoman Empire. The bones were moved to a safer location inside Syria.

The Turkish force moved through Kurdish rebel-held Kobani, with tank and aerial support.

Syria strongly protested. I assume we were informed so we wouldn't bomb the Turks, thinking they were an ISIL tank force on the move.

Could this be a test operation to see how Turkish troops would be treated inside Syria, how Turkey's public would react, and how their own troops would react to the mission?

Two, it could explain something that had puzzled me when I first read that Strategypage post I quoted above.

I was puzzled because I thought the plan for Syrian rebels was to create a small force that could operate inside Syria along the Iraq border in order to essentially isolate the Iraqi front from the Syria rear area (from the perspective of the Iraq front).

Critics said (and still say, as that post indicates) this was too small a force to really go after Assad, and they were right.

But this new description implies that the men we will train won't be an army so much as the heavy weapons component of an army. And the headquarters element, I assume.

That is, with a force that has the trained troops and communications gear for fire support and command and control, it could be the backbone that attracts other rebels who provide the basic foot soldiers of an army. This training effort could leverage a far larger force as I speculated in the fall:

10 battalions of trained troops with good weapons including heavier weapons to bolster and lead the strategically immobile rebels on attacks could be sent singly or in groups to different parts of the war to grab land from Assad and ISIL, ending these two groups' monopoly on mobile shock troops.

This kind of impact will raise the prestige of the non-jihadi rebels and encourage recruitment to their ranks.

Yet I assumed that these could be assault battalions that would themselves be shock troops. But if the rebel force is to be the headquarters and fire support element, they must have other rebels to be the trigger pullers and bullet stoppers. Which means it would be part of a much larger force that could have a major presence on he battlefield.

But again, it is difficult to judge whether new information I read indicates more detail of the plan all along or whether it represents a change.

And of course, there is the problem of seeing evidence that supports what I would do, although in my defense my new interpretation is at odds with my older thinking.

Yet with the Turks on board and with the Obama administration speaking of having to go through the Assad regime to get at ISIL, it does seem that for now Assad is not assumed to be the proto-partner that he seemed to be when Kerry signed that Syrian chemical weapons deal with Russia's Lavrov.

I wish the president believed Assad had to go because Assad is our enemy rather than being a hindrance to hurting ISIL enough to responsibly end that war as soon as possible. That leaves too much room for Assad to survive if we hurt ISIL enough this year.

But you go to war with the president you have and not the president you wish you had.