Setting Priorities: Getting the Cart and Horse in Order on US-Syria Policy

By mid-November, the United States and allied forces kicked out the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) from Raqqa and the Assad regime retook the ISIS stronghold of Abu Kamal, signaling the decline and shift away from ISIS and back to the ongoing civil war. However, the involvement of the United States in Syria, whose “fight [has been] with ISIS” since 2014, is still limited in the form of military operations focused on defeating ISIS and defending and demining liberated areas. While the United States helped create a de-escalation zone with Jordan and Russia in southwest Syria, and pledged to restore water and power in Raqqa, it has largely procrastinated in creating a clear post-ISIS policy that goes beyond basic stabilization to address Syria’s evolving conflict.

To draft a policy, the United States must determine its primary interests—a complicated task that is ultimately is in the hands of the Trump administration. Other state actors have already begun promoting their interests: Russia, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and even the Kurds. If the United States has any interest in playing a role in Syria’s future, it must quickly outline a concrete post-ISIS policy before other parties crowd out American influence.

The United States has a number of interests that could keep it involved in Syria, but those have to be evaluated against the cost of achieving them in the current environment.

Removing Assad
Under Obama, removing Assad was talked about as though it were an interest, but it is in fact a means to an end: stopping the war and stabilizing Syria. Although Secretary Rex Tillerson has indicated that “the reign of [Assad] is coming to an end,” whether having Assad step down is feasible in the current environment, and whether it would be in the United States’ interests, is not clear. If the United States tried to do away with Assad, it would need to plan for how to stabilize the country in the face of resistance from Assad’s allies and the risk of further war.

The reason for resistance is that Assad has regained significant control, although reports vary on what percent of the country the regime controls: 48 and 85 percent. Even if the United States and opposition managed to remove Assad there is no guarantee of a successful outcome. Without a plan to stabilize Syria, the resulting power gap could lead to continued jockeying between belligerents and the chance for violent insurgencies like Hezbollah and al-Qaeda to grow, both now with a strong presence in Syria.

Russia and Iran are also growing in power. Russia’s decision in 2015 to militarily back Assad tipped the scales in his favor and led to large Russian reconstruction contracts. Iran’s support of Assad through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah continues to help Assad exert military control and granted Iran economic deals to repair power grids and export [HA1] five power plants. With the influence of creating and monitoring the Astana de-escalation zones and Russia’s bilateral de-escalation deals, Russia and Iran have bolstered Assad, increased their power, and staked their claim in Syria’s future. Any attempt to remove Assad cannot ignore the military strength of his powerful allies.

Statements by President Trump and Ambassador Nikki Haley, along with Trump’s choice to discontinue aid to some opposition groups, indicate the Trump administration does not feel that the benefit is worth the cost to remove Assad. The decision, though, seems to be made without a clear policy, instead simply stemming from the Trump team’s unwillingness to be involved in Syria.

Pulling Out of Syria
The current US strategy seems to be pulling completely out of Syria. However, the removal of US military or diplomatic influence may not be the best option either. The US has discontinued support to some opposition groups, pledged to stop arming the YPG, and pushed the opposition in southeast Syria to withdraw into Jordan, leaving the opposition to seek support elsewhere in the form of military coordination with Turkey and financial backing by Saudi Arabia. Assad seems committed to forcibly retaking all of Syria despite opposition groups that continue to fight against the regime and refuse to accept a solution where Assad holds power.

No overt counter-balance to the regime and its allies currently or previously operates in Syria. The result of which is the staggering destruction and immense death toll of the conflict. September saw over 3,000 people killed, mostly in the fight against ISIS, and is the deadliest month since the beginning of the conflict. Over 18 months ago, the United Nations increased its estimate of 400,000 people killed due to the fighting in Syria. While several de-escalation zones now exist, lack of accountability for violations fails to stem the violence as seen by the regime’s bombing of Idlib in late September and its ongoing siege of Eastern Ghouta.

If the United States continues this trend of pulling out of Syria, Assad and his backers will likely succeed in any armed conflict with the opposition, establishing their control in Syria.

Setting Priorities
The United States would seem to have several reasons for staying in Syria, chief amongst them: preventing the spread of terrorist groups that can threaten US and its allies, alleviating the humanitarian crises—including the refugee crisis and the pressure it is putting on US allies—, and curbing Iranian and Russian influence. In the immediate term, the United States has two possible avenues to pursue these goals: active participation in diplomatic negotiations and the reconstruction of Syria. However, the United States is largely avoiding these two, preferring to limit itself to military operations against ISIS and stabilization activities—not reconstruction—in northeast (SDF-controlled) Syria.

US involvement in Russian-sponsored Astana talks and the upcoming Syrian People’s Congress negotiations is non-existent. Additionally, its involvement in the Geneva talks has waned as past negotiations have been unsuccessful. With Assad’s growing military power and the absence of US involvement in negotiations, Russia has become the primary mediator, resulting in one-sided negotiations.

The United States aiding reconstruction through local governments and civil society could also further its interests. Reconstruction in Syria is expected to cost over $200 billion and current funding predominately goes through the central government. Instead the US can aide local reconstruction efforts to potentially stabilize Syria and empower local actors on the ground.

Any policy the United States adopts, including pulling out of Syria, will have challenges. Truly unifying the opposition, for instance, would be a long haul and could alienate some local groups. The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) continues to hold a different view of Syria’s future than the  Moscow and Cairo opposition platforms and insists that the Assad regime cannot be involved in a transition. The recent Riyadh conference aimed at unifying the opposition created a single delegation for negotiations but failed to unify different opposition viewpoints. Moreover, US involvement will likely be met with resistance from Assad’s backers, who stand to lose from the devolvement of Assad’s power and the disbanding of de-escalation zones where “guarantors” hold sway. Turkey may also resist if the US continues to encourage the involvement of Syria’s Kurds in negotiations.

Whatever approach the United States takes, it should not put the cart before the horse: it needs to set its priorities and then settle on an approach. Once it sets its priorities, the US government has available some of the best analysts in the world to decide on an approach. However, the longer the United States waits, the stronger Assad, Russia, and Iran become, making the US decision more complex and costly.

Seth Hershberger is an intern at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Image: Photo: With cheeks painted in the colors of Syria's flag, 13-year-old displaced Syrian girl Malek Al Rifai stands in front of a U.S. flag while taking part in a protest in front of the United Nations building in New York. Several dozens supporters of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria gathered outside the United Nations building to protest the alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus. The UN Security Council said it was necessary to clarify an alleged chemical weapons attack in Damascus suburbs but stopped short of demanding a probe by UN investigators in Syria. Photo taken August 21, 2013. Taken by Adrees Latif.