Tillerson on Syria

When speaking about Syria, President Obama and his key aides have never denied the vital connection between the Assad regime’s collective punishment survival strategy—mass homicide, wholesale displacement, starvation sieges, Nazi-style penal practices, state terror—and the ability of Islamist extremists in Syria to live long and prosper. But by failing to complicate and slow the sanguinary work of the Assad regime—by arguing that nothing short of invasion and occupation could protect Syrian civilians—the administration gave the regime and its external supporters a free ride to do their worst. The beneficiaries have been ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, Daesh) and other practitioners of terror and mass murder: most notably al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Will the Trump administration continue to speak of a symbiotic relationship but do nothing about it? Worse, will it ally itself with those whose civilian-centric atrocities promote Islamist extremism?

A recent report to which the Rafik Hariri Center contributed—Combating al-Qaeda in Syria: A Strategy for the Next Administration—makes the point clearly: “Despite claims that the Assad government via Russia could be an effective counter-terrorism partner for the United States in Syria, it is Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian partners who have played a significant role in empowering a religious fundamentalist movement in Syria.” The result has been that “al-Qaeda has found fertile ground to acquire ideological purchase in the minds of average Syrians who feel isolated and abandoned by the international community (especially the United States), to whom they had initially turned for protection.”

Asked about the situation in Syria during the course of his confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson said the following:

We’ve had two competing priorities in Syria under this administration—‘Bashar al-Assad must go’ and the defeat of ISIS. And the truth of the matter is, carrying both of those out simultaneously is extremely difficult because at times they conflict with one another. The clear priority is to defeat ISIS. We defeat ISIS, we at least create some level of stability in Syria which then lets us deal with the next priority of what is going to be the exit of Bashar al-Assad but importantly, before we decide that is in fact [what] needs to happen, we need to answer the question, what comes next? What is going to be the government structure in Syria, and can we have any influence over that or not?”

Mr. Tillerson stopped well-short of promoting an American alliance with a regime that has made Syria safe for Islamist extremism, including the brand represented by Iran and Hezbollah. But aspects of his statement suggest that much work lies ahead for Team Trump in terms of Syria policy planning and execution:

  • Competing Obama administration priorities in Syria has not been an issue. The absence of a strategy addressing, in operational terms, the link between regime mass murder and the rise of Islamist extremism—both ISIS/al-Qaeda and Iranian—has been the nub of the matter. President Obama called on Assad to step aside and did absolutely nothing to make it happen. He promised to degrade and destroy ISIS and then commissioned a desultory air campaign supplemented on the ground by Kurdish militiamen. If anything has been “competing” it has been two lines of policy, more of less pursued “simultaneously,” racing to the bottom.
  • Given that the regime’s collective punishment practices have permitted ISIS and al-Qaeda to take root in Syria, how is it possible to say that “Bashar al-Assad must go and the defeat of ISIS” at times “conflict with one another?” Mr. Tillerson’s explanation of the “conflict” suggests his acceptance of an important element of the Obama administration’s Syria narrative.
  • He says, in essence, that ISIS is priority number one and that Assad’s eventual exit should be conditioned on a satisfactory answer to the question “what comes next.” On the one hand there is no doubt that ISIS in Syria should have been crushed militarily long before it was able to mount terror operations planned in Syria in Paris, Brussels, and various parts of Turkey. It should have been replaced in central and eastern Syria by governance drawn from local councils, the Syrian opposition, and Syrian government civil servants. One will not argue against the Trump administration assigning its top Syria priority to finishing a job long overdue.
  • Yet it is not proper to assign to the Assad regime—the author of countless war crimes and crimes against humanity that have made Syria a fertile field for all brands of Islamist extremism—some kind of stabilizing properties that justify its continued existence until a suitable replacement is found. No such argument was offered in 1945 to promote the perpetuation of Hitler in power. The Assad regime is an asset for Islamist extremism in both its Sunni and Shia forms. In 2012 the permanent five members of the UN Security Council agreed on a formula for transitioning Syria out of brutal, corrupt, and violent rule by a clan and its entourage. It is one thing to say that Russia and Iran have taken military steps to render that formula operationally irrelevant. It is quite another to imply that there is some sort of stabilizing role for Mr. Assad to play until he is suitably replaced. This was one of the Obama administration’s excuses for doing nothing to protect Syrian civilians: fear that Iran’s front man in Syria might inadvertently be toppled. It is a talking point well-worth retiring if the battle against Islamist extremism is to be a serious undertaking.

The Trump administration has been bequeathed an ungodly mess in Syria by its predecessor. Sorting it out will be beyond difficult. Starting with a clear appreciation of the truth—Assad and Islamist extremism are two sides of the same murderous, terrorist coin—would be a good place to start.

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

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Image: Photo: Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be U.S. secretary of state in Washington, U.S. January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst