Why you should care
Because Washington must decide whether it’s going to step up.
The author was acting director and deputy director of the CIA from 2000-2004 and now teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Follow him on Twitter at @jmclaughlinSAIS.
Was the Trump administration’s attack on Syria a one-off event, or does it signal the start of a broader foreign policy strategy? We don’t yet know — and nor may the administration — but a time-tested formula for assessing the situation requires addressing questions about America’s interests in Syria, the desired outcome and what we would have to achieve to get us there.
U.S. Interests: In the Eye of the Beholder?
I’ve heard at least three schools of thought on just how much America has at stake in Syria. Those in the first camp say we shouldn’t do much at all, other than maybe provide humanitarian relief. These are mostly “anti-globalists” in the Trump coalition who argue that Syria is a faraway place in a hopelessly tangled region that needs to sort out its own problems. America first!
A second view is that our main interest lies in crushing ISIS, which poses a demonstrable threat to us and our allies. This seems to be the prevailing view in public statements from the White House, although U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley spoke also of eliminating the Bashar Assad dictatorship.
A third, more expansive view is that Syria is a big deal, that all of the Middle East’s problems converge there — Sunni versus Shia, terrorists versus regimes, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, great power versus great power — and spill over into other parts of the world, like we saw with the refugee crisis in Europe. Proponents of this view also argue that America’s global leadership role is on the line, and that Russia and Iran have seized the mantle in this region.
Options one and two are pretty straightforward, but the third means going big and long. Let’s assume the administration eventually settles on that — a course that involves striving for the preservation of Syria as a state, the elimination of Assad and the transition to a more representative government. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hinted at this when he spoke about first destroying ISIS, then turning to the challenge of replacing Assad in a transition to a new system.
Getting there, however, won’t be easy. The U.S. would have to find a way to match or offset the influence Russia and Iran have already gained on the ground. Moscow has about 4,000 troops in Syria and dozens of military aircraft; Tehran has 7,000 of its own fighters there and leads a coalition of an additional 20,000, including several thousand from Lebanese Hezbollah.
The U.S. would have to get back in the diplomatic game, too, which is where the Syrian war will ultimately be settled. Power since 1970 has been wielded brutally by Assad’s minority Alawite clan, and foreign fighters will keep showing up until Syria’s Sunnis — 70 percent of the population — gain a voice in governance. But Russia, in league with Iran and Turkey, has been managing ceasefire talks without the U.S., stepping into the power broker role normally played by Washington.
To turn the tide, Washington also would have to pull together the non-jihadi opposition in Syria, which is divided and at its weakest point since 2012. These fighters are struggling to survive in the face of growing extremist sentiment and strength — and attacks by Assad and Russia. And finally, al-Qaida and its various offshoots are growing in strength, even as the U.S. and Kurdish fighters close in on ISIS around Raqqa, the so-called caliphate’s capital. Al-Qaida’s local branch, rebranded as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has been bringing more fighters under its umbrella, so defeating ISIS will not be enough.
To tackle these challenges, the U.S. would have to sign up to a long-term strategy, one that could take years and must include key elements of both hard and soft power.
For soft power, the U.S. would need deep reengagement with the U.N. process of negotiations among the parties, displacing Russia as the diplomatic driver or else finding a productive way to partner with Moscow — a step that could appeal to Trump’s desire for a Russia-U.S. modus vivendi but would run counter to his suspicion of multilateralism. The U.S. would also need to pull together and reinvigorate the non-jihadi opposition — and broker a truce between Turkey and the Kurdish fighters that Ankara associates with terrorists.
Resuscitating the non-jihadist opposition additionally would require some challenging hard-power investments. The time may finally have come for two long-debated ideas: a safe zone, the absence of which has always made it hard to gather, train, equip and direct a moderate opposition. And a no-fly zone that would offer a degree of protection to moderate fighters opposing Assad’s forces or terrorist groups.
Such zones would be risky and hard to establish and protect. But this may be the best reason to go for them — because such boldness would establish leadership to a region that remains deeply skeptical of U.S. commitments and intentions.
Finally, the U.S. troop commitment would have to increase and probably involve more forward engagement. This may already be underway, with reports that the Defense Department has plans to add another 1,000 U.S. troops to the nearly 1,000 — a mix of Special Operations, Special Forces and Marines — already reportedly on the ground in Syria.
The bottom line? The Syria problem can be solved, but we would have to really want it badly, because a lot of time has been lost, the problems have metastasized and the way forward is steeply uphill.