Those who believe that Tehran and Moscow consider themselves home free, gleefully celebrating the political survival of their Syrian client without a care in the world, underestimate the knowledge and sophistication of Iranian and Russian officials. Their problems are just beginning, and they know it. But how should the United States act, given the survival of a hideous regime: one whose crimes against humanity persuade some Syrians (and foreign fighters willing to support them) that Al Qaeda and ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) were, and perhaps still are, attractive alternatives?
Yes, Tehran and Moscow have reasons to be delighted. Iran has physically secured the Syrian strategic depth of its Lebanese franchise, Hezbollah; it has even added southwestern Syria to its Lebanon-based anti-Israel ‘resistance front.’ Moscow proclaims the salvation of a murderous Syrian kleptocracy as ‘proof’ of Russia’s return to superpower status; President Vladimir Putin’s only domestically credible political calling card.
But both parties know their client regime all too well: its incompetence, its corruption, its brutality. Neither can count on the Assad entourage to govern wisely or well. Both must worry about unending uprisings. Both must rely on the greed and stupidity of others for the financial wherewithal to create the impression of reconstruction under the symbolic aegis of an entourage that would indeed, to borrow from old American expression, “Steal a red-hot stove.”
Moscow and Tehran do not have a rose-strewn path in Syria. Yet the difficulties they face do not neutralize the dangers to the West of a thoroughly broken country.
Task one for the Trump administration—beginning with US President Donald Trump—is to decide how, if it all, the fate of Syria and its people matter to Americans and their national security. This is important, because any course of action adopted by the administration should be explained clearly to Americans and to their elected representatives in Congress, who should be thoroughly consulted in advance. If friends and allies will be asked to step up and contribute, they too should be consulted.
If the president and his team decide that it matters not at all—that Syria is nothing but “sand and death,” that even an unstable, impoverished Syria hosting terrorists and hemorrhaging people for decades to come is of no national security consequence to the United States—then their likely course is clear: withdraw American forces quickly from eastern Syria and leave the metastasizing mess to Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon to clean up, perhaps with help from Gulf States and a Europe fearful of migrating masses. Ideally, they would clean it up before elements of it cross the Atlantic.
If, however, the president and his team decide that Syria does indeed matter to Americans—that a Levantine death star will disgorge its inhabitants in all directions and produce security threats both from its Iranian occupiers and extremists of the Sunni variety inspired by them—major questions will still present themselves. What is the objective? What strategy can best achieve it? What resources can be brought to bear to implement the strategy? What is the strategy’s probability of success?
This writer has argued consistently (in and out of government) that Syria does indeed matter to American national security. The humanitarian catastrophe brought about mainly by the Assad regime’s civilian-centric, mass homicide survival strategy has spilled over onto neighbors and far beyond, engulfing allies and friends of the United States. The red-line chemical weapons fiasco destabilized the globe by convincing Moscow that Washington was leaderless. Iran’s parasitic presence threatens all of Syria’s neighbors. What happens in Syria never stays there.
In recent years, this writer’s argument that Syria matters has emphasized facilitating and protecting decent, representative Syrian governance (regional and local) in territories liberated from ISIS; governance that would keep ISIS dead and would, at long last, give Syrians their long-awaited alternative to rule by crime family.
Implementing this vision has been complicated by an American alliance with a Kurdish-dominated militia that now seeks to govern predominantly Arab liberated areas, by the failure of the Syrian opposition to step up to the governance task by making its people and its services available to the United States and other members of the anti-ISIS coalition, and by the refusal of the Obama and Trump administrations to make governance a priority.
Instead, the Syrian branch of the terrorist Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) has been used to chase ISIS around eastern Syria, thereby fueling bilateral tensions with Turkey and putting Kurds in a position of trying to govern Arabs in liberated areas. Tactical expedience against ISIS has trumped an eastern Syria end-game that would seal the victory over the self-proclaimed caliphate and impact positively in the rest of Syria.
That this recommendation and dozens preceding it (dating back to 2011) have been ignored or consciously rejected does not affect the task at hand. The Obama administration declined to deliberate and devise objectives and strategy in the Syria context; the president thought he could handle the matter as an exercise in strategic communications while focusing on his top priority: a nuclear agreement with Iran, the Assad regime’s main supporter. The Trump administration must do this vital homework, and the president must be involved.
Recent reporting suggests an American effort to defuse Turkish-Kurdish tensions in Syria’s northeast through the creation of a buffer zone—twenty miles deep into Syrian territory—to be secured by Western allies who Washington hopes to recruit to the mission. Put to the side Turkish and Kurdish objections and reservations. Might the recruiting drive be more effective if it were part of an objectives-driven strategy for all of Syria, one reflecting consultations with parties being asked to bear a heavy and dangerous burden? And if Washington is truly proposing that it will have no ‘skin in the game’ in terms of American armed forces on the ground, can it at least make a compelling case to allies that President Trump is truly and permanently on board?
The prediction here is that the resources issue would all-but-dictate the results of any serious effort to define objectives and devise an overall strategy. A strategy seeking to convert the military defeat of ISIS into a governance outcome sealing the victory over ISIS and providing an alternative to Assad would, for instance, require a heavy and sustained American diplomatic lift, even if no American taxpayer resources were devoted to rebuilding eastern Syria.
Can this administration organize and sustain an interagency team —one supplemented perhaps with private sector and non-governmental experts—able to deal successfully with over-reaching Kurds, embittered Turks, and an inert Syrian opposition, to say nothing of a murderous regime backed by Iran and Russia? Is the American government willing and able to rally Europeans and Gulf Arabs to go beyond buffer zone schemes to support civilized self-government in a part of Syria free of Islamist extremism, both Sunni and Shia? Will allies and adversaries alike see President Trump as fully committed to the exercise? Even if planners assess the chances of success at better than 50-50, will American leaders in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill have the patience to absorb inevitable setbacks and see it through?
Doing anything useful in Syria will mandate a heavy and sustained diplomatic lift. President Trump would have to be fully on-board. Otherwise we will likely see nothing more than a case study in foreign policy continuity: hand-wringing, line-drawing, and moon-walking, with the Iranian-Russian ‘victory’ producing dangerous consequences for Syrians, their neighbors, the West, and the United States for decades to come. There are no silver bullets or a clear pathway to civilized governance for all of Syria: only years of hard, frustrating work with no guarantee of success. But the frightening alternative for the security of Americans and their allies dictates that the effort be made.
Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Bard College’s Diplomat in Residence and a nonresident senior fellow of the Hariri Center.