Finally, after months of waiting, but without too much fanfare, America’s defense secretary put flesh on the bones of Donald Trump’s new Syria strategy. Speaking at Stanford University last month, Rex Tillerson outlined what the United States hopes to accomplish in Syria. What he didn’t explain was the how. Perhaps the reason for this reticence is that the options would all be unpalatable to President Trump and his supporters. And neither are they militarily feasible. As a strategy, this one is going nowhere fast.
Tillerson outlined some broad objectives. The United States would remain in Syria for the long-term, he said, targeting the remains of ISIS, a resurgence of Al Qaeda and, in particular, preventing Iranian influence in the country. The US would seek to stabilize the areas currently under rebel control. It would continue to push for UN-sponsored national elections at which, Tillerson said, perhaps hopefully, “the Syrian people and individuals within the regime [would] compel Assad to step down.”
But by the end of the speech, there was no clear explanation of how those goals would be accomplished. Thus far, Tillerson’s Syria strategy is all talk.
Immediately after, analysts began sounding the alarm: this did not sound like a Trumpian strategy. On the one hand, it ties in exactly with what Trump has attempted to do in other policy areas, which is to reverse Barack Obama’s policy legacies. Wading into the swamp that is the Syrian war today would represent a decisive break with the Obama White House.
And yet the policy appears to be one that Trump and his base cannot accept. If followed through on the ground, the Tillerson strategy would entail a long-term, open-ended military commitment, a focus on regime change and, in effect, the adoption of the aims of Syrian rebel groups as the aims of Washington itself, with all the opportunity for political entanglements and military operations that it would involve. It is difficult to see how Trump could sell that as “America first.”
This new policy will be difficult to sell politically to Americans. But, worse, it will be difficult to achieve militarily.
The central problem for the US in Syria remains the lack of a credible threat of force. All the objectives that Tillerson outlined – attacking ISIS and Al Qaeda, halting Iranian influence, pushing Assad to an election – require the ability to use force within Syria. But the force that the US appears willing to expend is only commensurate with the goals of containing ISIS and Al Qaeda. The others would require a major upgrade in the number of troops on the ground, not just the few thousand the US says it will keep.
The only alternative is that America, in seeking to maintain its interests in Syria with a small financial and military footprint, will have to do deals with Turkey and Moscow – and perhaps even with the Assad regime itself.
The US may, for example, decide to carve out some areas in the northern parts of Syria along the border with Turkey and have Kurdish forces police them. But this would require an indirect deal with the Assad regime not to seek to retake the area and to allow vital trade to pass through areas under its control. (The Turks, after all, would not allow the Kurdish militias such rights.)
Such a deal would be politically costly – if not to say downright grubby – and the revelation of anything of the sort would open Washington up to the accusation that it is dealing with a regime it is publicly aiming to bring down.
Not only is the Tillerson strategy unfeasible, but even the mere outlining of it has significant costs. If carried out as described, the policy is likely to push Turkey, Russia and Syria closer together. It has already done so, in fact.
For months, Russia and Turkey had disagreed over the YPG, the Kurdish militia inside Afrin. For Turkey, the Kurdish militia was as bad as its militant counterpart across the border. Moscow, however, was willing to work with them and even insisted they attend the Sochi peace conference in a couple of weeks.
But as soon as US officials suggested they might create a border force made up of primarily Kurdish fighters, Moscow realized the danger of a US-controlled force and gave Ankara the go-ahead for the Afrin operation. Within days of the suggestion, Tillerson had met the Turkish foreign minister and the next day “clarified” that there would be no force. But the damage was done. At a stroke, Turkey and Russia were pushed together, and the US, once Turkey began its operation against Afrin, also abandoned its Kurdish allies.
At the same time, the US also pushed Damascus closer to Turkey. Bashar Al Assad has no interest in seeing a separate Kurdish state on the border with Turkey. He may have tolerated the Syrian Kurdish militias while they refrained from attacking his troops. But to have enclaves bordering Syria controlled by the United States would be too much. So now, at least over Afrin, Damascus and Ankara have the same policy.
If Obama handled the Syrian crisis badly, on one calculation at least, he was correct. In the long-term, the US has few genuine interests in Syria. On the other hand, the other major players – Turkey, Russia and Iran – all do. Their willingness to expend political capital, financial resources and military assets to defend those interests will always be greater than that of the US. They can also afford to operate on a longer timeline. Any shift in US policy, therefore, must carefully balance what America wants to do with what it can feasibly accomplish.
Syria has become a battleground for competing interests. To compete successfully, the US will need a comprehensive, long-term strategy, and the political will and resources to see it through. It is unclear if the current White House has the appetite or the heart, especially for a conflict so far from home and in a region far from Trump’s heartland.
If Trump is serious about reversing Obama’s missteps in Syria, he will have to do what Obama would not and provide more money and manpower. The hands-off policy of the Obama administration will not be reversed by a single speech.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.
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