The core principles underpinning the Trump administration’s new Syria policy are roughly as follows: The United States is only in Syria to fight the so-called Islamic State (widely known as ISIS) and is not in a position to directly challenge the legitimacy of the Bashar al-Assad regime, despite its many crimes. Meanwhile, it is to be conceded that Russia has invested heavily in Syria and its proposed establishment of “de-escalation zones” is the best path forward to securing stability.
With U.S. troops actively supporting our Syrian partners in a major assault on ISIS-held Raqqa, the second portion of U.S. Syria policy is being newly revealed by our expressed diplomatic support for Russian-mediated ceasefires and our direct role in negotiating one in Syria’s southwest.
While de-escalation by itself is a highly desirable state of affairs for humanitarian reasons, the U.S. is lending diplomatic cover to what is, in all respects, Russia’s foremost strategic mechanism for methodically guaranteeing an Assad victory by selectively freezing front lines in order to free up pro-regime forces to fight elsewhere.
By lending American support to such schemes, the Trump administration is failing to learn from recent history in Syria, where such agreements brought short-term stability to the benefit of one party over the other.
At the core of the agreement, which was sealed during a meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last week, the U.S. and Jordan are responsible for coercing opposition groups to stop fighting, while Moscow will ensure the Assad regime, Iran, and Iranian-backed militias do the same.
This is not a new strategy—it is a consolidation of a policy developed by President Barack Obama, whose administration frequently called for Assad’s departure, but never seriously sought to realize it. By acknowledging the limits of our objectives in Syria, the U.S. is effectively admitting its defeat to Russia and Iran. Gone are the days of “leading from behind”; today we are following from the back.
The greatest weakness in this Syria strategy is short-termism. The U.S. may not have existential interests in Syria, but we have created a stake by intervening against ISIS and putting boots on the ground. If U.S. interests are limited and dominated by combating terrorism, then we need to begin pre-empting those threats, rather than reacting to them after they have developed and matured. There are four major problems with our Syria strategy as it currently stands.
First, by limiting its actions to counterterrorism, the United States continues to treat illogically a symptom of a crisis, while allowing its root cause (the Assad regime) to survive. Extremism has never been the primary cause of instability; instead, extremism feeds off pre-existing conditions that give its radical narrative credibility. Our current strategy does little if anything to address those underlying conditions.
Assad’s horrendous brutality is well-known. Roughly 500,000 people have died since his refusal to consider the opposition’s peaceful demand for political reforms in 2011. Assad’s subsequent use of chemical weapons has shocked the world, but such agents have been responsible for less than 1 percent of civilian casualties. Recent documentation showed that 13,029 Syrians had been killed by torture since March 2011, 99.2 percent (12,920) of whom were killed by the Assad regime. Similarly, 24,799 child deaths have been documented throughout the conflict, and 85.2 percent (21,123) of them were killed by Assad regime weapons.
Those realities, and many more besides them, are the real drivers of extremism. Whatever form ISIS takes next will undoubtedly benefit from and seek to exploit continued instability in Syria, but it is al Qaeda that stands to benefit the most. Through its presence in Syria, al Qaeda has embedded itself deeply within the anti-Assad movement, attaching its fate to that of the indigenous revolution. By that standard, a U.S. admission of Assad’s survival, and thus of Russia and Iran’s victory, would likely embolden nobody more than al Qaeda.
Second, the U.S. does not look set to invest in long-term stabilization efforts in territories captured from ISIS. Instead, local decision-making is being devolved to our Syrian partners: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and its lead force, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The SDF and YPG maintain an ambiguous relationship with the Assad regime, sharing power in some areas, coordinating militarily elsewhere, and abiding by mutual détente in others.
Senior U.S. administration officials have suggested—publicly and behind the scenes—that we expect the Assad regime to eventually re-establish influence in SDF areas and that this would not be an issue for U.S. policy. Looking beyond the YPG’s documented human rights abuses and refusal to allow party political diversity, the eventual return of the Assad regime to towns and cities we liberated from ISIS contradicts every moral and ethical value that the U.S. should uphold and will do nothing but embolden the very reason for groups like ISIS in the first place.
Third, beyond the fight against the Islamic State, the U.S. looks set to lend its support—publicly or not—to Russia’s de-escalation zone initiative in Syria. This suggests we have some faith in Russia’s intentions and trust in its ability to deliver calm, and that we have forgotten that Russia has failed to secure a single neutral, meaningful and durable ceasefire since it intervened in Syria two years ago.
Russia may genuinely want to achieve calm in certain areas, but it does so only to strengthen Assad’s hand. Moreover, there remains no evidence that Moscow has the necessary leverage to control the behavior of Assad, and more importantly, of Iran. Repeatedly entrusting this responsibility to Russia, while repeatedly watching its failure, means the U.S. is pursuing a strategy of insanity—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
It is highly unlikely that Russia’s de-escalation zones will prove durable mechanisms for stability. Moreover, by placing trust in their chance of success, the U.S. is emboldening a regime whose survival precludes the likelihood of more than 6 million refugees returning to Syria and instead sustains the drivers of conflict, radicalism, and divisions that have existed since 2011.
Fourth, a limited counterterrorism strategy paired with a tacit admission of Assad’s victory means Iran has won a huge strategic victory. Over the past several years, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have exploited instability in order to establish a large and intricate network of Shia militias across the Middle East. Today in 2017, Iran may exert overwhelming influence, if not de facto control over more than 230,000 militiamen in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon combined. That number includes 150,000 in Syria alone.
This is the realization of a long-time Iranian strategic ambition: to undermine American influence in the Middle East and to pose an acute threat to Israel. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah pointed to this victory on June 23, when he proclaimed that the next war with Israel would be strengthened by “thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of fighters” from across the region. Though the latest de-escalation agreement for southwestern Syria includes a clause requiring the withdrawal of Iran-linked militias from territory bordering Israel, Tehran has a history of extracting its assets from the area due to external pressure, before again re-infiltrating them when conditions allow. There is no reason to believe this time will be any different.
It is true that the U.S. does not have an interest in forceful regime change in Syria, but it does have an interest in stability. The U.S. has intervened in parts of Syria and has acquired a stake in its fate—we should own that stake and protect progress made in those areas. Holding and stabilizing territory, protecting it and its inhabitants from extremism or other forms of aggression, and fostering an environment in which interim reconstruction and localized governance can take shape would serve to create an alternative reality to that of the Assad regime.
The U.S. must urgently assume a more long-term view when it comes to Syria, based on a continued and genuine commitment to the idea of a negotiated settlement that includes as much of the opposition as possible. By sticking to the short-term vision pursued today, we risk having to intervene again in Syria further down the line, when the consequences of our limited approach come back to haunt us. By then, our options will be even more limited and risk-laden than they are today.