by David W. Lesch
In the wake of the recent US targeted attack in Syria, President Trump’s comments a couple of weeks ago that the US needs to get out of Syria as soon as US-backed forces mop up the remnants of the Islamic State has run up against elements in the administration who want a sustained US presence in the country. They believe a couple of thousand troops and some military bases supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are needed in the country in order to assure that ISIS is defeated and does not re-establish itself, to provide some leverage vis-à-vis the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus regarding any sort of political settlement, and to contain Iran, which many fear is well on the way to creating a strategic land bridge from Teheran to Beirut. There seems to be a real battle in the administration over the direction of Syria policy.
But let’s examine these goals a little more closely. What exactly is the US doing there? Certainly the Kurds are not counting on a continued US presence, especially not after Trump’s remarks; indeed, they have long been striking deals with the Syrian government and the Russians to hedge their bets. Frankly, once the US leaves, Damascus would then be free to negotiate a modus vivendi with the Kurds regarding autonomy over something less than the 27% of Syrian territory now under their sway, which could then ameliorate the Turks, who might feel secure enough to pull back from northern Syria.
Staying in Syria in order to ensure the defeat of the Islamic State is laudable. But what does “defeat” look like? ISIS still holds pockets of territory along the Iraqi border, but it seems to be reverting to what it was before, i.e. a terrorist organization carrying out attacks against perceived enemies. It appears that eliminating those last bastions of ISIS control, in order to protect Iraq as much as Syria, will do the trick in terms of satisfying Trump. This can be facilitated with a Turkish-US modus vivendi that will allow the SDF to re-focus its attention to the east rather than be diverted to protect its Kurdish comrades fighting Turkish forces in the northwest. The Turks, probably giddy with Trump’s desire to get out, might just let the Kurds resume anti-ISIS operations knowing that a US departure would facilitate their Kurdish objectives in Syria.
Over the long term, however, only stabilization efforts in the cities and towns abandoned by ISIS will prevent it from re-establishing a presence or finding safe havens in which to brew it special brand of chaos. Stabilization will only seriously occur once there is a political settlement. However morally repugnant, this means that the government of Bashar al-Assad and his allies, Russia and Iran, will ultimately be responsible for stabilization. Russia and Iran did much more to help Assad stay in power than the US and its allies did to remove him. So, to the victor go the spoils, and that includes putting Syria back together again and all the challenges that it entails. Political and economic opportunity meet target on one’s back. Trump does not want that target to be US troops. In any event, if the EU and regional Arab powers such as Saudi Arabia, can stomach Assad staying in power, perhaps the spigots of reconstruction aid will open up in a way that will help stabilize the country. Syria still has a functioning central authority that retains a certain amount of legitimacy which can, with international assistance, prevent it from falling into full failed state status, which is exactly the terrain in which ISIS operates. We already have too many Yemens and Libyas in the area.
Regardless, the US is on the outside looking in on a political settlement. That ship has sailed for all intents and purposes. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks are setting the table, and the Syrian government at the moment is not entertaining any serious concessions of the kind the US and various Syrian opposition groups have been clamoring for. How can we lose leverage when we never really had it? Yes, the US-supported SDF hold the vast majority of Syria’s oil wells in the east, which the Syrian regime desperately wants back—this is potential leverage. But the regime will be patient. It has already proven its ability to extract the necessary resources from its population and its allies to stay in power. It will just wait a little longer.
Finally, the Iranian corridor: well, folks, it’s already there, and there is not much we can do about it short of going to war with Iran. Teheran has already achieved most of its strategic objectives in Syria, first and foremost by keeping Assad in power. Besides, there is a much better deterrent in the region than the US to keep Iranian influence in check: Israel. The Israelis have already sent a very strong message to Iran (and Assad) through its forceful military response to the Iranian drone that was shot down over Israeli territory earlier this year. In fact, many believe Iran’s relatively low profile in the Syrian government’s retaking of Eastern Ghouta over the past few weeks was in direct reaction to this. It doesn’t want to bait the Israelis to intercede even more forcefully. This apparent passivity just means that Iran already has what it wants. Keeping it at that level will be the job of the Israelis and also the Russians, who are keen to not let the Iran-Israel dynamic ignite a regional war. We can expect an Israeli-Iranian dance in Syria in coming months, if not years, to determine exactly where the red lines are.
Although awkwardly expressed in a manner that telegraphs our intentions and diminishes our diplomatic leverage, Trump’s assertions are consistent with how he has viewed US involvement in Syria from the beginning. His initial tweets in response to the chemical attack on April 7 displayed anger and exasperation. It was almost as if Trump was saying to Moscow and Damascus: “I told you I was getting out, but you guys keep doing stupid stuff that pulls me back in.” The limited nature of the response suggests that Trump’s view on Syria still holds for now, as long as the the Syrians behave—or at least get the Russians to control their client-state (good luck with that).
Ironically, maybe getting out of Syria will in the end save the most lives in the country by eliminating the regional and international tug of war that Syria has become and creating space for a political settlement. An imperfect peace is better than the wars—actual and potential—in Syria.
David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, and author or editor of 15 books on the Middle East. Republished, with permission, from Syria Comment.