President Obama made the right decision to review the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State. Two months ago, he laid out a comprehensive strategy for degrading and ultimately defeating the brutal terrorist organization. His administration has started to implement that strategy, making progress through airstrikes, support for local groups ready to combat Islamic State fighters, diplomacy and sanctions enforcement.
However, I am concerned that our strategy lacks two important elements: a recognition that the Assad regime in Syria also must go and a strategy to address the underlying issues that created the space for the Islamic State to emerge and metastasize. As the administration reassesses, I urge the president to incorporate these elements into the strategy.
The Islamic State must be our top focus in the region; it presents the clearest and most pressing threat to our national security interests and those of our partners. However, I am concerned that the administration has turned its attention away from our previous goal: bringing about the end of the oppressive, violent rule of Bashar Assad. Now is the time for the administration to take a hard look at where this conflict started: in deep-seated grievances against oppressive national governments in Damascus and Baghdad.
More than three years ago, after the Damascus regime’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Hama, I called for Assad to step down. Others, including the president, soon followed. Since then, the scale and viciousness of the regime’s attacks against the Syrian people have only multiplied. As the world has focused on the Islamic State, the Syrian regime has continued to rain “barrel bombs” on civilian enclaves and schools — in direct violation of a U.N. Security Council prohibition of such attacks — to torture and brutalize suspected dissenters, to use chlorine gas in attacks and to starve innocent civilians into submission. The regime has survived, in part, because of strong backing in the United Nations from Russia, which has continued its own aggressive action in its back yard, and weapons and financing from the Iranian regime and its Hezbollah proxies. In all, more than 191,000 Syrian civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations.
In light of this, I disagree with the State Department’s decision to rescind funding for a program designed to collect evidence of war crimes in Syria. I hope there will be a day when Assad and his henchmen are held accountable for their crimes. To abandon this goal would be to break faith with our international commitments and undermine U.S. credibility in the region.
As we have heard administration officials and others say recently: There is no purely military solution to the conflict in Syria. I agree. What good is it to defend a community if the people trapped inside can’t access basic services — food, shelter, medical care, police services? The administration’s reassessment also offers an opportunity to revisit the non-military components of its strategy. Now is the time to double down on our efforts to support the moderate, civilian opposition in Syria.
A targeted, strategic investment in helping Syria’s farmers, doctors and bureaucrats to administer the basic services expected of a functioning government could help undermine Islamic State control and set the foundation for a stable Syria. For example, helping moderate civilian leaders bypass the terrorist group to secure and deliver fuel to besieged communities before winter arrives would be a significant first step. A serious effort to bolster the civilian leadership in Iraq — especially in the Kurdish region — could have a similar effect.
It is appropriate and prudent for administration and congressional leaders to debate and reassess our strategy to combat the Islamic State and help stabilize the region. This is a prime opportunity to ensure that our strategy addresses the root causes of this conflict, especially the brutality of the Assad regime.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., a Democrat, represents Pennsylvania in the Senate.
Special to The Washington Post