Missing a Syria Strategy?

The Trump administration stands accused by some commentators of having entered into an escalating military situation in eastern Syria without the benefit of an objectives-based strategy. The truth or falsity of the accusation can best be judged by President Trump, National Security Advisor McMaster, Secretary of Defense Mattis, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford. They are the ones most likely to know if Syrian regime aircraft and Iranian drones are being shot down in pursuit of a national security objective and consistent with a strategy aimed at achieving that objective. If a strategic context exists it should be shared with the Congress.

If it does not exist—if it is still a work in progress—it is hardly a hanging offense. It inherited, after all, nothing of use from its predecessor. The previous administration artificially and unsuccessfully divided Syria into two problem sets. In the West, there was the Assad regime and in the East, there was ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State).

In the West, Assad would be invited to step aside, red lines would be drawn and erased, and civilians would be left completely unprotected from regime mass homicide for fear of jeopardizing a nuclear deal with an Iran fully invested in a murderous client. The result was a humanitarian abomination for Syrians and a foreign policy catastrophe for the West.

In the East, ISIS would be slowly degraded by a combination of American-led air attacks and ground force dominated by Syrian Kurdish militiamen whose organizational affiliation thoroughly alienated NATO ally Turkey. The desultory nature of the anti-ISIS military campaign gave the organization time to mount bloody terror attacks in Turkey and Western Europe: assaults planned in Raqqa, the Syrian capital of ISIS.

Although it has not upended the Iranian nuclear deal, the Trump administration elected (at least in the case of a chemical attack) not to look the other way as Assad slaughtered his own people. The Obama administration knew that Assad was recruiting for extremists by applying collective punishment; it simply prioritized the nuclear deal with Iran and looked the other way. The Trump administration seems to have grasped the obvious: Tehran wanted the nuclear deal for its own interests, and would not have walked away from it had the United States pushed back against its client’s mass murder.

In eastern Syria, however, the Trump administration seeks to accelerate the Obama timetable while reacting episodically to regime and Iranian attempts to fill vacuums abandoned by ISIS. Publicly the US Central Command (CENTCOM) continues to insist that its military mission is simply and strictly one of helping “partner forces” defeat ISIS: that it has no desire to fight the Assad regime, or Iranian-organized militiamen, or any other external supporter of the regime. But those who CENTCOM does not wish to fight insist on targeting and threatening “partner forces” trying to beat ISIS.

In effect, the Assad regime, Iran, and even Russia are forcing the United States to do that which the Obama administration steadfastly rejected and the Trump administration may be debating: a national security objective and accompanying strategy addressing all of Syria; one recognizing that the regime, Iran, Russia, and ISIS are all part of the same problem set, wrecking the Syrian state and threatening Western interests. By targeting American-trained and supported “partner forces” who spearhead the anti-ISIS campaign on the ground, those parties force American officials to abandon all hope of cooperating with them against ISIS in Syria. The fact that Assad was instrumental in creating and sustaining ISIS suddenly acquires operational salience as anti-ISIS “partner forces” come under attack.

Even in a Trump administration not transfixed by Iranian “moderates” who seek to radiate pragmatism while supporting Hezbollah enthusiastically, the fact of Syria as a unitary problem set—something it has always been—is not welcomed by all. If one accepts that Assad, Iran, and Russia all promote—with deeds as opposed to words—extremism that threatens the West in many ways, then one is faced with a long-term heavy diplomatic lift plus a military component.

Since 2015, it has been argued here that the liberation of eastern Syria from ISIS would be too good a development to waste; that the United States and its regional and European partners should work with the Syrian opposition to establish a governing authority in eastern Syria that could liberate the United States from the ongoing outrage of recognizing a regime that has Bashar al-Assad as its president. Despite more than two years wasted, the opportunity still exists to help create the long-awaited alternative to the Assad regime; a governing entity recognized by the West and fully prepared to enter political transition talks with the Assad militia.

One doubts that the Trump administration has a fully formed Syria strategy. One fears that a major obstacle to its creation may be fear of the heavy, sustained lift required to implement something meaningful. It was this fear, along with a misplaced and inappropriate respect for Iranian interests in Syria, that paralyzed a scholarly but operationally illiterate Obama administration. Perhaps its successor will also be content with “no-can-do” instead of deciding what it wants and how to get it. Syria is an excellent test case.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

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Image: Photo: A Kurdish fighter from the People's Protection Units (YPG) fires a 120 mm mortar round in Raqqa, Syria, June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic