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Obama’s anti-ISIS envoy on why Trump desperately needs a Syria strategy

Gen. John Allen warns that “military force should not be an afterthought.”

Former US Marine General John Allen
Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Using military force without a broader strategy is a pretty empty gesture. It's actually quite dangerous.”

That’s the blunt assessment of retired Gen. John Allen, who led the Obama administration’s efforts to coordinate an international effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. His 12 months in the job left him with a unique perspective on Syria’s grinding civil war — and on the impact of President Trump’s decision to strike Syria last week after a brutal chemical weapons attack there.

Allen campaigned for Hillary Clinton and spent more than a year working for President Obama, but he’s clear-eyed about the ramifications of his former boss’s failure to hit Bashar al-Assad after the Syrian dictator used poison gas to kill more than 1,400 people in 2013. Obama had warned that using chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and spur US military retaliation, only to back down at the last minute. That, Allen thinks, was a historic mistake that paved the way for Assad’s latest atrocity.

Allen — a Marine who spent several years in Iraq and was the No. 2 at the Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees its wars in the Middle East — was struck by how quickly Trump decided to act. That was a sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s methodical, months-long internal debates about Syria, many of which ended without clear decisions.

But Allen worries about the fact that Trump has yet to answer key questions about his Syria policy — including whether the president actually has a Syria policy. Was the missile strike a one-time thing, or is Trump prepared to do it again and again if Assad mounts new chemical weapons attacks? Can Trump find a way of working with Moscow on a lasting ceasefire that paves the way for a political solution to the years-long civil war? And most fundamentally, should the US be pursuing regime change, and if so, what kind of government should replace Assad’s?

Those are the types of question, Allen believes, that the Trump administration needs to work through before wading more deeply into the Syrian quagmire. (As my colleague Zeeshan Aleem notes, top White House officials are for the moment offering muddled and in some cases directly contradictory answers.)

My conversation with Allen, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Yochi Dreazen

This strike seems like it was meant more as a signal than a serious attempt to change the course of the war. Is it too little, too late? Is it too risky given how many Russians are on the ground?

John Allen

It's hard to say right now, to be honest with you, because we don't have any insight into Trump’s strategy as a whole and how this fits in. Using military force without a broader strategy is a pretty empty gesture. It's actually quite dangerous.

If this is about revenge for the chemical weapons attack, it may have relatively limited value because we’ve already missed so many opportunities. We could have struck in 2013, and we chose not to, and I think the result of that was that many of our policy options in the region have become extremely limited. The conclusion many people came to was that we were ineffectual. Of course, that was a concern for a lot of us in the administration as we watched this unfold.

Ultimately it comes down to this: At the end of the day, I don't know what the president's policy is. I don't know whether there's a follow-on strike planned. I don't know whether there was a tacit understanding with the Russians to let this first strike come in, and then the US and the Russians would begin to cooperate more on a political level. I think there's just a lot that we don't know about the reasoning and the rationale by the administration that prompted this strike.

Yochi Dreazen

How big of a mistake was it for the Obama administration not to act in 2013, after the first time Assad used chemical weapons?

John Allen

It was huge. If you establish a red line, you’ve got to be very clear about what the line is, and you’ve got to very clear about what you'll do if someone crosses it.

The problem is that we never provided the kind of policy clarity with respect to the red line, and it didn't deter Bashar al-Assad. He gassed thousands of people; more than a thousand died. We had promised we would act if it occurred, and we didn't act. In fact, many of our partners didn't know that we weren't going to act until they saw the president's speech.

So we lost a lot of ground then, lost a lot of credibility. I think the Russians concluded that even after a red line, America was not prepared to act, and that may in fact have prompted Russian decision-making about their own action in places. So I think we lost a lot.

Let’s come at this differently. If we had acted, Bashar al-Assad would have been hit with a massive American military strike. It would've taken out a big chunk of his military capacity. The Russians, I think, would have been thoroughly deterred about coming into the area and might have been deterred about Ukraine. The moderate Syrians would probably have been encouraged that the United States was now in the game in a very big way. I think there would've been a different outcome. Our regional partners would have had a different view on US assertiveness, and I think it would have been a different outcome.

Yochi Dreazen

Trump, even during the campaign, openly said that it was useful to be unpredictable, and that it was useful for hostile governments not to know what he might do. Is this strike an element of him trying to become, in a strange way, more predictable? In other words, to say that "If you do this, I will strike," and then to go ahead and strike?

John Allen

I'd be speculating. But I’d go to a couple of points. Military force should not be an afterthought. It should support the overall grand strategy. With [Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis and [National Security Adviser] H.R. McMaster and the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joe Dunford, we've got some great minds who can bring what the president needs to create coherent policy and coherent strategy.

But I’m waiting to learn what that strategy is. I don't know whether it's a single strike and we'll never do anything again. I don't know whether it's an initial strike and there will be more. We're all just waiting to see what the actual strategy is.

Yochi Dreazen

Has the level of Russian involvement gotten to a point, and have they intervened so decisively, that whatever chance there may have once been for a military solution for ousting Assad is now long gone?

John Allen

Well, we've never believed there was a military solution to this. What we believed is that military action might set the conditions for the kinds of talks necessary to end this at a political level, and then the military process would follow. But I think what the Russians concluded ultimately was that the US wasn’t seriously prepared to take any form of decisive military action and they saw their chance, recognized that their own ally was about to collapse. That’s when they decided to intervene to protect their only overseas ally.

I don't think they have done that much ultimately to end the war militarily. I don't think they can. What will end this war will be the departure of Bashar al-Assad. How that occurs and the speed with which that occurs is going to drive how much longer this conflict is going to go on.

Yochi Dreazen

The change in the rhetoric of the Trump administration on Assad has been really interesting to me, because it didn't take very long for it to shift from [Secretary of State] Rex Tillerson and [UN Ambassador] Nikki Haley both basically saying, "It's not for us to choose. It's okay if he stays," to now saying, "He has to go, and there's steps underway to make sure he goes."

John Allen

Yeah, that was actually quite interesting. It was kind of a foot shuffle. One day we're saying Assad’s future is in the hands of the Syrian people and the next day we're hammering him with 50 cruise missiles and saying he’s got to go. Once again, this is a bit of a concern about whether there's a coherent policy in the background here. But I don't know.

Yochi Dreazen

When you have Vladimir Putin’s spokesman saying, "Our support for Assad is not unconditional," and then after the strike basically saying, "That US strike was illegal, so we're going to give Syria even more aid than we have before," how do you read that?

John Allen

You know, my sense has been with the Russians that it's not about Bashar al-Assad. He could go when the Russians decide it's time for him to go. It's much more about their supporting an overseas ally; it's much more about them having access to that part of the Middle East, in many respects at our expense. I just don't think that in the end the Russians are going to try to pin their reputation and their interests in the Middle East on the decisions of a genocidal dictator.

As difficult as it is to understand what Putin's trying to do at any given moment, my guess is that President Putin in the end doesn't have the kind of love or support that many people believe he has for Bashar al-Assad. I think now, the second time, it's very clear that he used nerve agents against his own people.

By the way, supposedly the Russians had leaned on the Syrians and Bashar al-Assad to give up all those nerve agents, and suddenly they're out there again. This is a blow against the Russians, and the interesting question for me is whether Bashar al-Assad had informed the Russians that he was going to use this ordnance before he did. If he did and the Russians didn't restrain him, then they are complicit in this crime. But if he used them without telling Russia, that was a direct slap in the face. The Russians have for all intents and purposes stipulated and certified that Bashar al-Assad had surrendered his most dangerous chemical weapons. Now we know he hasn’t. I think he's got a real problem with Russia.

Yochi Dreazen

That's fascinating because it suggests Russia’s credibility is on the line here. They’re the ones who said they could bring Assad to the table and make sure he gave up his chemical weapons. Now it’s obvious he didn’t. That’s on them, no?

John Allen

It absolutely is, absolutely is. We can be pointing to that. We should be asking for the Russians to explain how the hell is it that after theoretically they offered to the United States that they would be the brokers for the removal of chemical weapons to relieve the United States of the burden of having to strike, we suddenly find this guy with the worst kind of chemical weapons still in his possession. Not only does he have them in his possession, he's using [them] on his unarmed civilians. So Russia's got to answer that question.

Yochi Dreazen

Is there a scenario where Russia would agree to Assad leaving, provided that there's an Assad-like government that remains in power afterward?

John Allen

We've agreed with the Russians on this issue, and we've always said that this was not about regime collapse; in fact, we want to prevent regime collapse, and ultimately coming to an agreement on who should succeed Bashar al-Assad is the challenge. Because I think the challenge we have is we may well agree with the Russians about a particular figure or a particular small group of figures that replaces Assad. But even if we do, it’s doubtful the Iranians would similarly agree.

This is why that matters. Syria is Iran's only external ally, and the Iranians relied on the Assad regime as the throughput to Hezbollah for the weapons that provide the strategic threat to Israel. That's got to be part of our thinking as well if we're going to replace Bashar al-Assad. We're going to be part of that process, so we’ll need to decide if we can accept a replacement for Assad in the aftermath of this political process who would continue to be the conduit for Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, to continue to be the strategic threat to Israel. You’ve got to weigh all of that.

Yochi Dreazen

I know it's hard to put yourself in the head of a dictator, a genocidal dictator, but would you anticipate Assad trying to test Trump? Like trying to use chemical weapons again to see if Trump was willing to bomb again?

John Allen

I think so. New administrations should be prepared to be tested by many of these dictators and tyrants. So we should expect that in some form or another, the Iranians are going to be testing us.

We should expect, and we're seeing it now, that Kim Jong Un is testing us. It has to make their power, their patrons, the Russians and the Chinese, really nervous. The Russians and the Chinese have to be worried about the fact that they're pushing and pushing the needle into the skin here, and what's going to be the reaction when it finally hits a nerve?

Well, I think Bashar al-Assad now has got a sense that he hit a nerve and that nerve was the killing of innocent civilians with sarin gas. So he tested us and he's now gotten the response of the new administration. And a lot of people are going to be watching that really closely.

I'm sure that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran, the supreme leader, has not missed the fact that the United States has finally decided to use military force to back up calls for action. There are a number of audiences to this act. There's one clear recipient, and that's Bashar al-Assad. But what’s taken place here, for good and bad, is not lost on many other people. And it shouldn't be.