The U.S. Must Lean In to Preserve Its Stake in Syria

The U.S. Must Lean In to Preserve Its Stake in Syria

Syrian opposition members stand guard near the city of Afrin in anticipation of an operation against PYD/PKK targets in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 19, 2018.

SourceEmin Sansar/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Why you should care

Because it’s make-or-break time for U.S. diplomacy.

OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS

Syria has dropped out of the headlines after dominating foreign news for much of the time since the dramatic ISIS victories there and in Iraq in 2014. And yet, as is so often the case, it’s what happens after the guns fall silent or trail off that determines the long-term significance of struggles like the Syrian civil war.

That’s the phase we’re in now, and the United States has begun to define what it wants from the next chapter. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the administration has five objectives: make sure there is no ISIS or al-Qaida resurgence; limit Iran’s influence; support the U.N. peace process; help refugees return; and keep out weapons of mass destruction.

On paper, this is a sensible approach and by no means hopeless. But the realities of Syria will require skillful and persistent diplomacy, particularly because the administration will try to do this without a heavy military commitment. There are still about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, mostly special forces and their support elements, and this is not likely to grow significantly.

Here are some realities the U.S. faces:

The Largely Forgotten Conflict That Sparked It All

The Syria civil war grew out of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in early 2011 following the Arab Spring uprisings in Middle Eastern countries like Egypt and Tunisia. The violent crackdown only hardened the opponents, drawn mostly from the country’s Sunni Arab majority, a group protesting 40 years of autocratic rule by Bashar Assad’s minority Alawite sect (an offshoot of Shia Islam).

Although this Sunni-Alawite clash has been obscured by other issues, it remains unresolved and is certain to erupt again — either in violence or as an impediment to diplomatic progress.

… the U.S. must play its remaining cards with extraordinary skill to achieve its objectives.

ISIS Lost Its Territory But Not Its Future

While ISIS has lost its “caliphate” — the large chunk of territory it ruled between 2014 and 2017 — its impact will continue to be felt and likely grow in coming years. This will go beyond the localized attacks that many experts predict. The larger importance of the experience is that it was a kind of “finishing school” for terrorists — much as the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s in Afghanistan was for that generation of militants. In many parts of the world, we will now have to deal with terrorists experienced in everything from urban warfare to heavy weapons, the oil business, chemical weapons and a crude form of governance. Not to mention fighters who managed to survive an onslaught by some of the world’s most powerful military forces.

Assad Isn’t Going Anywhere

The Assad regime, which the U.S. aimed to dislodge, has not only survived but — thanks to Russian and Iranian help — has regained control of a large chunk of Syria, a strategic corridor comprising about 50 percent of Syria and stretching from Damascus in the south up through the northwestern corner of the country. Assad will seize every opportunity to expand this control, and Moscow is likely to help him. Right now, there is very little we or our allies can do about this. We lost this one to Russia.

Russia Will Be Hard to Dislodge

The Kremlin has established a firm military foothold in Syria with about 4,000 troops and has upped its game diplomatically throughout the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin played a weak hand well, and the U.S. will have trouble achieving its objectives without some cooperation from Moscow.

Iran Is Playing to Win

Tehran seized the opportunity to increase its influence in Syria and neighboring Lebanon, where its proxy Hezbollah has a dual identity as a legitimate government member and a violent revolutionary group strongly opposed to Israel and the U.S. The fighting has left Iran and Hezbollah particularly strong in Syria’s southwest, where they will have scope to build military capabilities that will threaten both Israel and Jordan.

These realities mean that the U.S. must play its remaining cards with extraordinary skill to achieve its objectives. First, Washington will have to repair its fraying relationship with Turkey, without whose territory and cooperation it cannot operate effectively inside Syria or resupply U.S. forces. The main issue to resolve is Turkey’s strong objection to U.S. reliance on several thousand Kurdish fighters to help secure areas it has liberated from ISIS. Turkey equates these forces to a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, the PKK, that Ankara fears will unite with other Kurds to form an independent Kurdish state encroaching on Turkish territory. Over the weekend, Turkey actually bombed a Kurdish-controlled village inside Syria

Second, the U.S. needs to plunge more vigorously into the U.N.-sponsored negotiations on Syria’s future. Washington has lost the momentum, in part because Russia, Iran and Turkey have run a separate set of talks on many of the same subjects with only minimal U.S. participation. But as a U.N. Security Council member, these negotiations amount to one of the few leverage points Washington can use to offset the disproportionate power that Russia and Iran have gained in Syria.

Some will undoubtedly ask, why bother? It’s all maddeningly complex, the ISIS “caliphate” is dismembered and we don’t need the region’s oil as much as in the past. Fair points, but they overlook another truth: The U.S. for decades has been a leader and an honest broker in the region, and that reputation is on the line because all of the region’s tensions and conflicts converge in Syria.

How Washington plays its part will affect our ability to protect our allies, broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians, oppose Iranian expansion, preserve democracy where it has taken hold and help societies such as Saudi Arabia modernize, rather than stagnate or implode.

If we value these things, then Syria is worth the trouble. But time’s a-wastin’.

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