For once, Rex Tillerson is not freelancing.
Late Wednesday, ahead of the first-ever meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, the secretary of state suggested that the U.S. is willing to explore “joint mechanisms” with Russia to stabilize the vicious Syrian civil war.
After a dizzying series of policy shifts on Syria, administration and congressional sources tell The Daily Beast that Team Trump is introducing the beginnings of a new strategy for Syria—one that, in the short term at least:
• leaves dictator Bashar al-Assad in power;
• acquiesces to the idea of “safe zones” proposed by Russia and its allies;
• leans on cooperation from Moscow, including the use of Russian troops to patrol parts of the country.
It’s the sort of plan that observers have long suspected would ultimately emerge as Trump’s approach—despite his pledge that Assad has “no role” in governing the Syrian people. Top Trump aides from Jared Kushner to former national security adviser Michael Flynn have pushed for closer coordination with Russia on Syria for months.
A knowledgeable senior administration official discussed the emerging strategy with The Daily Beast on the condition that what the official said could only be paraphrased, not quoted, as the official was not cleared to discuss the issue publicly. The account was backed up by two White House sources and a congressional source.
The goal of the emerging strategy is to deal the so-called Islamic State a lasting defeat. Right now, the American government’s Syrian allies, backed by special operations forces, are outracing the larger questions about what happens after they oust ISIS from places like its Raqqa stronghold. The U.S. has learned to its sorrow in Iraq that without a real force to hold territory taken from insurgents, the insurgents will return.
Complicating matters is the convergence of U.S. and Russian-backed factions in congested territory. The prospect for clashes in areas taken away from ISIS is acute. If they spiral into chaos, ISIS may gain a new lease on life. (In Manbij, Syria, captured by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces last August, Arab residents are complaining about their so-called liberators—who have opened the doors for the Assad regime to return to take charge.)
According to the senior official, coordinating with the Russians to ensure that these clashes either don’t happen or don’t escalate into great-power conflict is simply a recognition of reality.
But all that raises the question of who runs the towns after ISIS is forced out.
The U.S. is not contemplating handing territory taken from ISIS over to Assad, according to the official. Nor will American forces police the areas or enforce cease-fires. In areas taken by the U.S.’ proxy forces, that will be the job of American allies like the Syrian Democratic Forces. But in Assad-controlled areas, some of that patrol work will fall to Russian military police, as happened in Aleppo. If that wasn’t complicated enough, the Turks are ready to dispatch their own forces now based inside Syria on territory seized from ISIS last year.
The building blocks for this plan have been set in place in recent months, with the U.S. and Russian militaries using a so-called deconfliction channel to avoid confrontation or escalation. The channel endured the friction of American guns shooting down Syrian warplanes last month. But in general, a workable battlefield method has emerged, with the pro-American and Russian-Syrian-Iranian factions close but separate. Shooting down the planes, according to the official, showed the Russians that the U.S. was willing to protect its allies, prompting the Russians to take deconfliction more seriously.
In the Room With Putin
Before the secretary of state left for the G-20 summit on Wednesday, he cited the “deconfliction zones” as evidence that Russia and the U.S. might be prepared for “further progress.” Such progress, Tillerson said, might include “establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground cease-fire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance.” According to the senior official, Tillerson’s points merely build on the established U.S.-Russia deconfliction mechanisms.
Most significantly, Tillerson said that if Russia and America can “work together to establish stability on the ground, it will lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria’s political future.”
In the past, Tillerson has floated foreign policy proposals—only to see the White House shoot them down. Trump ignored Tillerson’s desire to remain party to the Paris climate accord, gave a critical diplomatic portfolio for Mideast peace to son-in-law Kushner, and just last month backed the Saudi side in a blockade with Qatar right after Tillerson called for a ceasefire.
Not this time.
Expect Tillerson’s plan to be discussed at Trump’s meeting with Putin on Friday, when the secretary of state will be the only other American official in the room. After the confab, Tillerson will fly to Turkey, where the Syria plan is likely to be raised as well.
What Tillerson is describing, according to the senior official, is a tentative step—a confidence-boosting measure to explore whether the two longtime adversaries can work together to end the conflict. It is an idea with no shortage of critics. When President Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, proposed limited cooperation with Russia to enforce a 2016 cease-fire in Aleppo, the Pentagon and the GOP-led Congress loudly expressed displeasure.
That displeasure was largely motivated by long-standing distrust of Russia. But it also had to do with divergent U.S. and Russian goals for Syria. Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in order to prop up its client, Assad, at a point he was rapidly losing territory to rebel forces. The U.S. position under Obama was that Assad’s brutality made his departure from Syria necessary.
According to the senior official, the administration is effectively punting on what to do with Assad, something it argues is another concession to an uncomfortable reality on the ground. Dealing with ISIS and seeing if Russia can be convinced to help enforce a fragile post-ISIS stability are immediate and burning questions. Whether the Trump administration ever says so out loud, for now, it is willing to live with Assad in power as it goes after ISIS.
“Of course that’s our policy [toward Assad],” one senior White House official told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “I don’t see how you could follow what we’ve done and not come away with [that] conclusion.”
That may be what many observers expected, but Trump’s approach to Assad has been anything but decisive. After the election, Trump told The Wall Street Journal that he was skeptical of aiding Assad’s opposition. By late March, Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the U.S. would no longer prioritize “getting Assad out,” in Haley’s phrase.
But days later, evidently seeing a green light from Washington, Assad launched a sarin attack on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun. Trump unexpectedly launched a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airbase used by Russian forces. Tillerson, hours before the strike, reversed himself on Assad utterly: “With the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”
Shortly after the strike, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, emphasized the unacceptability of chemical weapons use, seemingly rowing the Trump administration back from seeking regime change. Last week, the White House threatened Assad with another missile strike after observing signs of a follow-on attack, something Tillerson discussed with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. While Tillerson settled into a stance that privileged defeating ISIS over ousting Assad, Haley has not, telling the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week, “you can’t have Assad in power with a healthy Syria.”
Splitting Russia From Iran
There is another aspect to the emerging Syria strategy, one that represents a big, long-term gamble: cleaving Russia from Iran.
No one in the administration believes they can split Assad’s two big backers in the short term. But the senior official notes that the U.S. position, in which their allies do not return ISIS-held territory to Assad, is closer to Russia’s position than Iran’s. Iran demands Assad rule all of Syria, while the Kremlin considers that unrealistic.
Cooperating with Russia in Syria is a proposal with a significant pedigree inside the Trump White House. McMaster’s predecessor as national security adviser, Mike Flynn, proposed expanding the deconfliction channel into a mechanism for outright military cooperation against ISIS. The Pentagon didn’t go in for it—not least because of congressionally imposed restrictions on any such joint action. And congressional sources think that’s likely to be a problem with the latest Syria strategy.
The Senate’s version of the annual defense bill isn’t public yet. But a congressional source said the forthcoming version will emerge from the Armed Services Committee with the same ban on cooperation with the Russian military. The source anticipated that the latest Syria strategy, with its acquiescence to Assad’s grip on power, would spark congressional opposition, including from Russia/Syria hawks like committee chairman John McCain. When Tillerson and Haley first floated acquiescing to Assad remaining in power, McCain denounced a potential “Faustian bargain with Assad and Putin sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation.”
A spokesman for the National Security Council said: “We are prepared to explore numerous options to ensure stability in Syria. However, I don’t want to get ahead of any talks with the Russians.”
Accepting Moscow’s Peace
Beyond congressional opposition, the optics of this approach to Syria place the U.S. as tacitly accepting a Russian-Iranian-Turkish peace process. Hashed out without American involvement in Astana, Kazakhstan, the three powers proposed creating four “de-escalation zones” in Syria for demilitarization, the return of displaced people or refugees, the provision of humanitarian aid, and the restoration of vital services. The centrality of the regime’s allies to the plan prompted the Syrian opposition to reject it as a way station to Assad reconsolidating control.
The senior administration official acknowledged the risks inherent to the strategy. Deconfliction has been a herculean effort and will likely continue to be. While the official attributed a recent drop in violence to the Astana process, the official was unprepared to consider Astana a success.
Additionally, the U.S. relies on the heavily Kurdish SDF, which is controlling territory on the border with Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG within the SDF a terrorist group. Russia has a clearer policy—support Assad—than the U.S. does, and a track record of frustrating U.S. efforts in Syria, even the ones that U.S. officials thought aligned with Russian interests.
And with Assad responsible for the devastation of Syria, the biggest question of the new strategy is a long-term one, one that Trump’s meeting with Putin can’t answer: How will generations of Syrians view an America that tolerated Assad in the name of defeating ISIS?
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng, Lachlan Markay, and Betsy Woodruff in Washington, D.C., and Roy Gutman in Gaziantep, Turkey.