Securing Eastern Syria

American airstrikes on a pro-Assad regime, Iranian-backed militia on May 18th and a Department of Defense press briefing on the following day provided clues of how the campaign to liberate eastern Syria—especially the Euphrates River Valley (which includes the cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor)—from ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State) is shaping up. A key take-away from the strikes and the briefing may be summed up by Special Envoy Brett McGurk’s assurance to reporters that, post-ISIS, “nobody wants the Syrian regime to come back . . . no return of the regime.”

President Trump has come a long way from candidate Trump in this regard. As a candidate, he alluded to the possibility of working with Russia and the Assad regime against ISIS. As president, he discovered not only that Iran would complete an unlikely and unholy trio of actors with whom to collaborate, but that Assad and his external supporters were leaving ISIS alone and targeting civilian residents of rebel-held areas instead. The regime chemical attack of April 4, 2017 and Russia’s advance knowledge of it drove home the point: Assad’s addiction to terrorizing civilians paves the way for other murdering extremists to take root. Indeed, the addiction is the essence of the regime’s survival strategy.

The US airstrikes interdicted a pro-regime militia moving in the direction of American-trained Syrian forces at al-Tanf, a Syrian outpost near the tri-border area with Jordan and Iraq. Although al-Tanf is well-removed from the Euphrates River Valley, a point was made: regime forces and their auxiliaries would not be welcomed to eastern Syria. Per Secretary of Defense James Mattis, the airstrikes were prompted by “offensive movement . . . inside an established and agreed-upon deconfliction zone” by an “Iranian-directed” force. Mattis added an observation that provoked no follow-on curiosity from the press: “We believe they moved into that zone against the advice of the Russians . . . it looks like the Russians tried to dissuade them.”

This writer suggested months ago that the litmus test for cooperation with Russia in Syria would be Moscow’s attitude toward the restoration of the Assad regime in territories liberated from ISIS. Were Russia to insist on such a restoration, the prospects for cooperation would be nil. Moscow is, in this regard, on the horns of a policy dilemma.

On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad is President Vladimir Putin’s poster child for the tale of Russia defeating an American regime change scheme, thereby saving a state from destruction and restoring Russia as a great power. This has been a huge political asset for Putin domestically.

On the other hand, Russians who know Syria well understand that Assad—now completely in the service of Iran—is pure poison for Syrian unity, reconstruction, and statehood itself. How to square this circle—marginalize a corrosively incompetent regime while not appearing to promote regime change—is the riddle facing Moscow’s Syria hands. Keeping he who created the vacuum filled by ISIS in the first place out of liberated areas would be a key indicator of Putin’s intent.

Taking from ISIS its Syrian “capital”—Raqqa—remains the near-term priority of the American-led anti-ISIS coalition and its Kurdish YPG-dominated ground force: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford alluded to the likely next target—Deir Ezzor—“as a specific area that requires deconfliction” with the Russians. This is because a unit of Assad’s army is in the vicinity. Ideally that unit would stand-down when an assault on Deir Ezzor commences. Once officers loyal to the regime are returned to regime-controlled areas, Syrian Army personnel in the unit might perform some stabilization functions in conjunction with the SDF.

No questions were posed about the status of SDF training and capabilities for combat in urban areas. This is an important matter, particularly if ISIS operatives elect to defend vigorously, take hostages and use civilians as shields. Here the dilemma falls on the United States.

On the one hand, using militiamen to execute some of the most complex operations in land warfare can produce, albeit with the best of intentions, frightening numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. On the other hand, restricting Americans to advisory roles can hold down American casualties.

The fear here is that Syrian civilians may be again on the verge of paying yet another prohibitive price for Obama administration decisions, in this case the refusal to build a professional ground force coalition-of-the-willing to liberate eastern Syria from ISIS as early as possible in 2016. Regrettably the Trump administration inherited this perilous legacy without complaint. Now it relies on good fortune to spare Syrian civilians and uphold the reputation of the United States.

Some of the press briefing addressed post-combat stabilization and a potential role for Turkey in it. Close coordination with Ankara was promised by Mr. McGurk: particularly “in the post-Raqqa phase . . .” There was no allusion at all to employing the mainstream Syrian opposition as a middle way between Turkey and a Syrian ground force dominated by Kurds regarded by Ankara as the Syrian affiliate of the PKK.

In December 2012, the United States and its “friends of the Syrian people” partners recognized the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Why not work with the SNC, the High Negotiations Committee (HNC), and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) to establish a free Syrian administration based in liberated Deir Ezzor? Why not recognize this administration as the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic? Surely the Obama administration’s stubborn insistence on recognizing the mass murdering Bashar al-Assad as the President of Syria—a sop to Iran to keep it on board with nuclear negotiations and an agreement—need not be perpetuated.

American policy in eastern Syria seems to be moving in the right direction. Ideally the protection of civilians and the recognition of an alternative to Assad will not be missing pieces. If they are, a complex puzzle will remain unsolved and the defeat of ISIS will prove to be something far less than a clear cut victory.

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

Image: Photo: People that fled from areas surrounding Euphrates River dam, east of Raqqa city, ride motorcycles towards Syrian Democratic Forces(SDF) controlled areas, Syria March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Rodi Said