A Strategy for Syria by Jon B. Alterman

Almost a year into the Trump administration, there still isn’t
much of a Syria strategy. Momentum has drifted away from
the Geneva-based negotiations on Syria’s political future,
which the United States has backed, and toward security-oriented
negotiations in which Russia has had the strongest
hand. When Secretary of State Tillerson quietly announced
he was giving a Syria talk at Stanford last week, hopes rose
that a strategy might be announced. The talk Tillerson
gave fell short of a strategy, in part because it seems the
Trump administration hasn’t yet agreed on one. A strategy
requires both actions and resources, and Tillerson didn’t have much to
say about either. As the conflict in Syria moves into a new phase, the
administration needs to be bolder in asserting its interests, and it must
increase its influence over how Syria’s conflict is resolved.

Tillerson’s talk certainly sketched out the reasons the U.S. government
should want to have a strategy in Syria. Not only has it been a locus for
terrorist groups, but it has also given Iran a deeper foothold in the Levant.

But that’s not all that the United States should care about. Tillerson
gave relatively short shrift to the security consequences of massive
displacement on Syria’s neighbors—most directly the overwhelmed,
small populations of Jordan and Lebanon, but also Turkey and an array of
U.S. allies in Europe. The flow of millions of people out of Syria creates
security challenges, imposes huge social service burdens on often
vulnerable countries, and fuels nativist political movements. Embattled
allies are as much a problem as emboldened foes.

The problem isn’t that the United States doesn’t have aims in Syria.
Tillerson laid out five reasonable desired end states: ensuring the country
is not a base for terrorist activity against the United States, supporting
its transition to post-Assad government, diminishing Iran’s influence,
returning refugees and internally displaced people, and preventing Syria
from again holding weapons of mass destruction.

But Tillerson was sent into battle unarmed. His speech preached
heightened diplomacy, but he had been given few tools to increase his
leverage. Money could make a potential difference, but Tillerson spoke as if his government was not behind him. He promised stabilization assistance in
areas liberated from the Islamic State group (ISG), but he did not give an amount
and stated clearly that “‘stabilization’ is not a synonym for open-ended nation building
or a synonym for reconstruction.” A few minutes later, he warned that
“The United States, the EU, and regional partners will not provide international
reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime.” The
latter seems to incentivize the Syrian people and the international community to
turn away from Assad, but when combined with the first statement, it reads almost
like a huge loophole. The Assad government is consolidating its power, and that
relieves the United States of any obligation to help. It reads more like an excuse than
a bargaining chip.

The military situation isn’t much better. Militarily, the United States has a presence
in northeastern Syria, a place that may have looked like paradise to the ISG but
which is desolate, isolated, and sparsely populated. Tillerson declared that the U.S.
military mission is open-ended, but he was less clear on exactly what those troops
should do or whom they should be fighting. Much of the action that will matter
most in Syria is further afield, in the northwestern part of Syria near Idlib that has
gathered most of the remaining jihadi fighters in the country, and the southwestern
part along the Jordanian border that is now a deconfliction zone.

What U.S. troops are doing now is furrowing their collective brow as Turkey assaults
the positions of Syrian Kurdish forces long aligned with the United States. Turkey is
a NATO ally, and it seems unthinkable that the United States would confront Turkish
troops. At the same time, Turkey seems to regard the Syrian Kurdish forces with
whom the United States is working as a greater priority than the ISG, al Qaeda, or
any other state actor engaged in the region.

What Turkey is doing, which the United States is not doing, is acting to increase its
leverage. The Syria conflict is entering a new phase, and positions are hardening.
Turks are not seeking compromises to allay allies’ fears or speaking vaguely of their
plans for the future. Turkey is acting as if it cares, because it does care.

It is hard to cover up this basic fact: The United States is less committed to shaping
an outcome in Syria than any of the major antagonists—the Assad government, the
Turks, the Russians, the Iranians, or any of the combatant groups on the ground. The
United States has sought to find a least-common-denominator for efforts in Syria to
build partnership. It should be seeking pathways in Syria that the other parties fear in
order to build leverage.

Two fundamental things were missing from Tillerson’s presentation, and they will
haunt the U.S. effort in Syria. The first is a clear statement intended to persuade the
American public that Syria really matters. After open-ended engagements in Iraq
and Afghanistan that yielded mixed results, Americans are skeptical of another U.S.
commitment in southwest Asia. But being a player in how Syria evolves will require
commitment, and the public must support the effort. It doesn’t now, and Tillerson
did not do much to move that ball forward.

The second thing is a genuine commitment that is not merely about money and troops,
but also governmental focus and effort. Where does Syria fit on the list of U.S. global
priorities? It is hard to say, but Tillerson’s speech implicitly suggested it wasn’t very high.
The fault cannot all be laid at Tillerson’s feet. Since the uprising against Assad
began seven years ago, Syria has mattered more than the U.S. government has
wanted to admit. Ignoring Syria’s importance does not make it less so. It only
makes the United States more impotent. 1/24/2018


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