Posted by Eddie Bejarano on September 23, 2015 in Blog

“The central problem in Syria is that Sunni Arabs will not be willing partners against the Islamic State unless we commit to protect them and the broader Syrian population against all enemies, not just ISIS,” according to former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and military officer Gen. David Petreaus. Gen. Petreaus made this assertion, among others, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on U.S. policy in the Middle East on September 22, 2015. In his first public appearance on Capitol Hill since disclosing classified information during his tenure at the CIA, Gen. Petreaus offered several recommendations for how the U.S. can alter its current policy in the Middle East. The growing media coverage of Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe has resulted in a renewed focus on both U.S. policy towards the Syrian humanitarian crisis and broader U.S. policy in Syria.

As the chief architect of the widely popular “surge” strategy implemented in Iraq in 2007, both Democrats and Republicans warmly received Gen. Petreaus and the policy recommendations he offered. According to Gen. Petreaus, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attack on civilians has served as the primary driver of the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL)’s growth and the present-day refugee crisis. In Gen. Petreaus’ view, the U.S. can take two significant steps to fundamentally alter the current policy strategy that, in his view, is failing.

First, Gen. Petreaus recommended that the U.S. communicate to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that the use of barrel bombs against the Syrian people must stop immediately. In order to meet this goal, Gen. Petreaus suggested that the U.S could use its military presence in Syria to shoot down any Syrian government aircraft that uses barrel bombs against civilians. According to Gen. Petreaus, such a strategy would signal to the Syrian people that the U.S. will not allow them to stand alone against President Assad, and it would also constrain the Syrian Air Force’s ability to intimidate Syria’s civilian population. 

Second, Gen. Petreaus called on the U.S. to establish “enclaves” in Syria, which would be protected by coalition airpower. By creating these “enclaves”, Gen. Petreaus believes that two strategic goals can be accomplished. Firstly, the creation of these safe zones would provide the U.S. the logistical and physical flexibility to more effectively train moderate Sunni forces in Syria. Secondly, these enclaves would provide refuge for the more than 7.6 million internally displaced Syrians.

Gen. Petreaus’ recommendations come at a time when the Obama administration is facing increasing criticisms for its policy in Syria. Just last week, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee regarding the highly contentious train and equip program led by the Department of Defense. Gen. Austin disclosed that the U.S. would fail to reach its goal of training 5,000 Syrian fighters. Currently, he reported, only four to five Syrian fighters trained by the U.S. military remain engaged against ISIL. Furthermore, recent reports have accused officials within CENTCOM’s intelligence command of tampering with reports analyzing the current U.S. campaign against ISIL. 

In addition to growing critiques of the Obama administration’s foreign policy strategy in Syria, members of Congress, both in the House and Senate, have cited the President’s Syria strategy as the principal reason for the growing humanitarian crisis. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) asserted, “the inaction by the administration in 2013 has hugely multiplied the disaster that’s taking place … and so therefore certainly United States has some degree of responsibility here.” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) believes that President Obama’s reluctance to augment the number of military offensive attacks against ISIL is the main reason for the exodus of Syrians fleeing their country.

Gen. Petreaus’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee raised several important points concerning the shortcomings of U.S. foreign policy in Syria. How the U.S. will alter its foreign policy strategy towards Syria remains to be seen but there is no doubt that more must be done now to address the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Providing refuge to individuals fleeing violence, intimidation and persecution is not a policy plan that is up for debate. Rather, it is an action that accurately reflects the very values that the U.S. was founded on. The U.S. may need to rethink its Syria policy but what it must do to help Syrian refugees is crystal clear.