Donald Trump doesn’t talk a lot about Syria, except to say it’s screwed up. He likes to keep things simple, after all, and his great talent lies in confirming prejudices, not confusing them. But as the Trumpian shadow looms over the November elections, the Syrian question ain’t going away, and if we see a re-christened “Trump White House” in January, some real decisions are going to have to be made.
The memo below was originally written as a kind of joke, a Swiftian “modest proposal,” but its logic does fit in with the politics of a man who admires leaders with tough-guy credentials like Russian President Vladimir Putin. And how does Putin play the Syrian game?
So, let’s imagine:
Date: 2 February 2017
To: Donald Trump, POTUS
From: Omarosa Manigault, National Security Advisor
Subject: Syria, All In.
The Players and Stakes: The Syrian Civil War has global implications. What began in 2011 as a local protest against the Assad regime’s casual brutality has grown into an existential threat to America’s post-Cold War dominance. The conflict is in its fifth year, has killed upwards of 200,000 people and displaced millions more. Multiple factions—sectarian, secular, and mercenary—vie for control of the populace, and, where control is impossible, settle for extermination.
Fleeing the terror, refugees have sought shelter in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, or moved on to Europe, where their unwelcome presence is contributing to tensions among EU member states. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey each back their proxies in a bid to mold Syria in their image.
Meanwhile, Russia has chosen to emerge from its post-Soviet doldrums by flexing its military muscle in support of a longtime client, the Assad regime.
In the midst of this chaos, the Obama administration decided to follow a carefully measured strategy of muddling through which, while utterly failing to end the conflict, also managed to fritter away America’s political capital like an old lady playing nickel slots.
While the U.S. could choose to walk away, doing so would leave America’s reputation on the table, with nothing to show but blood, tears and IOU’s.
Instead, the U.S. should change the game, place a bet, and play to win. Picking a side is guaranteed to lose us some “friends,” but America’s interests would be best served by a definitive end to the conflict soon, rather than the endless hemorrhaging which is the primary attribute of an “equitable” solution later. All moves are calculated risks, so let’s look at them in the language of a casino, which the American people know you’ve mastered:
Salafi Blackjack: Backing the rebels with military and economic aid, while actively targeting the Assad regime, would keep America aligned with traditional allies, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey, and has the greatest continuity with the existing policy of building a viable alternative to the Assad Regime.
However, this option will require the largest post-conflict investment to ensure there is not another outbreak of hostilities. The “deck” is made up of disparate rebel factions, many of dubious value, and others, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS), are self-declared enemies of America. Due to the chaotic environment and the shifting loyalties of the rebels, there is no guarantee that aid to one faction will not find its way into the hands of our enemies, as has happened repeatedly to date.
Further, at this point our hand has been split so many times that even should we pick a “winner” from among the factions, the “losers” are likely to make building a sustainable peace expensive at best, impossible at worst. This option also carries the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia.
Lastly, backing the Sunni proxies of Saudi Arabia and Turkey would likely require the U.S. to abandon the Syrian Kurds as a precondition for Turkey’s cooperation. This would be unfortunate because, to date, the Kurds have proven themselves the most capable opposition to the Islamic State in the region.
Alawite Hold’em: Siding with the regime is the fastest way to end the conflict and thereby bring an end to both the mass killings and to stem the flow of refugees into Europe. However, it also would be guaranteed to completely alienate the Gulf States and Turkey.
As of mid-2016 military momentum had swung in favor of the regime, largely due to the direct intervention of Russian military forces. While the Assad Alawite minority regime is no friend to the United States, it is also an enemy of the Sunni extremists, such as ISIS. Should the United States side with the regime, many of the non-Sunni minorities, such as the Kurds and the Christians, would likely rally around the government due to their distrust of the Salafists.
The degree to which they would do so would be contingent on a guarantee by the U.S. to prevent reprisals and encourage sectarian autonomy in a reformed Syria. A victory by the regime also has the advantage of not requiring a large foreign occupation to assist with stability and governance.
The regime already has the mechanisms of governance, however imperfect, under its control, and so there would not be the same level of chaos following the war as there was in Iraq.
The primary risk with this scenario is to America’s reputation as an enduring partner of the Gulf monarchies and Turkey. In the most extreme case, Turkey might even withdraw from NATO.
However, based upon Turkey’s recent turn toward authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, NATO might be better for the loss. (A crisis might also encourage the remaining members to pay their membership fees.)
Many critics will also claim that this policy would strengthen Iranian and Russian power in the region. However, while both these nations would like to see the Assad regime remain in power, the increased U.S. influence over Syria would not be viewed with favor by either Putin or the Ayatollahs. In the long run, the U.S. has more to offer Syria than they do.
The last major downside of this policy would be the ethical dilemma of backing a regime which has killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. This risk can be mitigated in two ways, first by making America’s support contingent on the (eventual) removal of President Assad, and second by a concerted information campaign highlighting the atrocities of the Salafist rebels.
Walk Away: The only way to guarantee that the United States does not waste any more lives or resources in Syria is to walk away. However, to walk away from Syria would be tantamount to walking away from the Middle East. While many Americans would be happy with such an outcome, the chaos unleashed would be worse, even, than we saw under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.
What little stability exists in the Middle East is to a large degree contingent upon U.S. security guarantees. While the U.S. does not have a historical relationship toward Syria in the way that is does toward Israel or Saudi Arabia, America’s “abandonment” of the region would likely result in both increased competition between regional states, and the possibility of severe internal state conflict as well. For example, there is some question whether the Al Sauds would be able to maintain their grip on Saudi Arabia in an environment of low oil prices without the U.S. security umbrella. While the Al Sauds are hardly the ideal regional partner, they are unquestionably better than the alternative of an Arabian Peninsula ruled by Salafist extremists.
Recommendation: For the past five years, the United States has been playing a bad hand. It is time to end the conflict fast, and the best way to do that, while also reinforcing the perception of America as the dominant Middle East power, is to back the existing government of Syria. The worst downsides of such an outcome would be diplomatic, but while Turkey and Saudi Arabia might resent such an outcome, the Syrian people and the rest of the world would appreciate an end to the war.