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No Easy Answers For ‘Syria Problem From Hell,’ Experts Warn

A chorus of voices debated what approach the new administration should take to defeat terrorism in Syria at a House hearing on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON (CN) – A chorus of voices debated what approach the new administration should take to defeat terrorism in Syria at a House hearing on Tuesday.

Now entering its sixth year, the Syrian conflict has killed hundreds of thousands and uprooted millions, fueling the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

"Syria today is a problem from hell," said Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Hof spoke to the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, along with several other experts, about a new way forward to defeat terrorism in Syria.

Simply stopping the military capabilities of the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham will not suffice, Hof said.

"Not if the desired end-state in Syria involves keeping both groups dead and rendering potentially more lethal successors stillborn," he said in written testimony.

Preservation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, backed by Russian intervention, has complicated that, according to Hof.

"Assad has been a poster child for ISIS and JFS recruitment, particularly foreign fighters," he said, abbreviating Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, a rebranding of al-Qaida linked Nusra Front.

The group wants to replace the Assad government with an Islamist state, according to the United States Institute for Peace.

From Hof's perspective, if the Assad government continues to wield power in any part of Syria, no permanent defeat of terrorism in the region is possible.

Hof pointed to the 2012 United Nations roadmap for Syrian political transition, known as the Geneva Communiqué, as the basis for moving forward. President Barack Obama had made Hof an ambassador in connection to his role as a special adviser for the Syria transition, according the Atlantic Council's website.

Hof noted that the prospect of returning to the Geneva Communiqué has been complicated by Russian and Iranian intervention in Syria, which has bolstered Assad and cemented his grip on power, at least for now.

Though a military defeat of the Islamic State and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham remains urgent, Hoff said there is no clear path to seal that victory "because a polarizing war criminal remains politically ensconced in Damascus."

"The best we can do near-term under the circumstances is to defeat militarily these AQI descendents – particularly ISIS – in a way that does not strengthen a regime whose behavior pumps oxygen into the lungs of ISIS and JFS," he added, abbreviating al-Qaida in Iraq.

He suggested the Trump administration should maintain and enhance relationships with armed Syrian nationalist opposition units, an Obama policy that was heavily criticized by Republican members of Congress during the last administration.

Still, they are preferable to relying on Iranian-led militias and a depleted Syrian army as a ground force to neutralize Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Hof said.

Another expert offered what he dubbed an optimistic outlook, suggesting that the United States has options available to it now in the fight against the Islamic State that did not exist several years ago.

When the Islamic State takes over territory, it eradicates other jihadist groups to disarm local populations, Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said.

An opportunity exists to rebuild an alternative to al-Qaida when areas are liberated from Islamic State control.

"So the expulsion of the Islamic State offers a rare opportunity to implement a strategy to build an alternative to jihadist organizations, more so than in 2014, when dozens of different armed groups operated in those areas," Hassan said in written testimony.

"The liberation of these areas by the U.S.-led coalition also creates a de facto American sphere of influence, which both Russia and the regime have accepted – at least for the time being," he said, referring to the Assad government.

The United States should capitalize on that influence, he added.

However, Hassan's suggestion would require liberated areas to be defended. The "de facto safe zones" would need to be protected by the United States and its allies, according to Hassan.

During the hearing, Hof offered some caution on safe zones.

"It requires decisive military power on the ground. This is what distinguishes a safe zone from a military zone," Hof said during questioning.

Trump has toyed with the idea of establishing safe zones in Syria to stem the flow of 5 million refugees, but has not yet moved to implement them as a policy.

Among the obstacles to forging a cohesive Syria policy is managing relations with Russia and Iran.

The United States needs to secure U.S. interests, manage tensions with Russia while contesting its global aggressions, and cooperate where feasible, according to the written testimony of Melissa Dalton, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The United States must also figure out "how to calibrate pressure on Iran's destabilizing activities without provoking blowback to U.S. forces operating in Syria and Iraq," she added.

That must be balanced with forging a political solution in Syria.

Another policy consideration for the new administration to weigh is managing "deeply fraught relations with NATO ally Turkey while leveraging the operationally capable YPG to fight ISIS in northern Syria," Dalton said, abbreviating the People's Protection Units, which are largely Kurdish forces operating in Syria.

Based on Dalton’s testimony, these policy interests do not have straight-forward methods for implementation, and it is likely that the new administration will have to pick and choose which objectives it pursues.

"Inherent in resolving the tensions among these interests will be determining the priority afforded to Syria as an issue to tackle within the Trump administration, and how they see its importance relative to other global interests," Dalton said.

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