In about one month, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian opposition groups are set to meet for peace talks in Geneva. But already, there is a sense that the talks, advocated by the United States, are doomed to fail.
One major problem, according to current and former intelligence and military officials, is that U.S. policy has simply not adjusted to the complex realities on the ground.
“I haven’t seen any indication that the U.S. has a coherent plan for dealing with failed states,” former CIA Director James Woolsey told VOA. “I don’t think the Obama administration has developed one.”
Woolsey and others point to a growing list of so-called failed states in the Middle East and elsewhere, where critical institutions have collapsed and the power vacuum is being filled by various groups with different agendas.
“There is no Syria or Iraq,” said Kurdistan Regional Government Intelligence Director Lahur Talabani, who argued in an interview with VOA that the emergence of the Islamic State terror group, or IS, delivered the decisive blow to both nations. “With the arrival of ISIS in the region, they removed the borders that were put in place,” he said, using another acronym for IS.
Like Talabani, others see the collapse of Syria and Iraq as a done deal.
“The Middle East we have known is over. I doubt that it will come back,” French intelligence director Bernard Bajolet told a CIA-sponsored panel discussion in October.
Still, critics say U.S. policy has focused largely on treating — or at least trying to preserve — Syria and Iraq as whole and viable states.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest has talked about U.S. efforts to help “solve the political chaos inside of Syria.”
In describing the next steps in that process, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke this month about the eventual creation of a “unity entity, this transitional body, that is going to have full executive authority.”
Some current and former officials question how successful that can be when fighting on the ground has already effectively partitioned Syria, with the Assad regime, the Kurds and various Sunni groups all controlling or trying to control their own core areas.
These officials argue that even the considerable help being offered to the central governments of Syria and Iraq is unlikely to help.
“The national armies have failed,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation, a global policy research institution.
“To the extent that the external forces assist the government in Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shia, or the government in Damascus, whose forces on the ground are primarily Alawite, or Saudi Arabia and others assisting rebels who are primarily Sunni, or the United States increasing the effectiveness of Kurdish fighters, this has the cumulative effect of digging those divisions deeper,” he said.
Other former officials and analysts agree there are few good options and say many of them will be costly, in terms of time, money and possibly U.S. lives.
“We either need to stay committed to that original premise that we’re going to fix the nation-state system and rebuild those nation-states into friendly democracies or we have to come up with a new strategy that reflects the reality that the nation-state system in Syria is broken," said Christopher Harmer, a former U.S. Navy commander who is now a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.
"In Iraq it’s more or less broken, and we don’t see any way that that’s going to be rebuilt anytime soon,” he said.
For now, the administration of President Barack Obama seems to be caught in the middle.
The United States has about 3,500 troops in Iraq, with most supporting the Iraqi military's effort to roll back Islamic State in what has been described as an “advise and assist” mission.
Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced it would be sending a “specialized expeditionary targeting force" — approximately 100 special forces personnel — to strike at key IS leadership and command-and-control elements in both Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. has also been leading the air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, carrying out nearly 80 percent of the more than 8,900 airstrikes.
The administration, however, has pushed back against calls for a more active role for U.S. ground forces, insisting the only way to deal Islamic State militants a lasting defeat is with local ground forces and political solutions that grant all of the region’s ethnic and sectarian groups a voice.
“We really haven’t war-gamed out how are we going to protect our interests, how are we going to project a positive image or positive results on the ground in the absence of a nation state system,” said Harmer.
Seeking a strategy
The administration's limited approach has not sat well with some U.S. lawmakers, like Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, who has said the administration’s approach looks less like a strategy and “more like a hope.”
Yet even some of those who criticize the Obama administration’s strategy caution that finding the right approach is not going to be easy.
“The situation is very complex, and does not render itself to a simplistic solution,” said retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, who helped lead previous air campaigns over Iraq and Afghanistan. “It must be addressed in a comprehensive manner involving all the elements of power — not only military.”
It also is easy for things to go wrong.
“We need to be cautious at creating failed states, such as what we did in Libya, and then seeing it turn into something even worse than a failed state from our point of view, such as ISIS,” said former CIA Director Woolsey.
“Once a state collapses, such as Libya has, for example, it's hard to put things back together in any coherent sort of way,” he said.