by Daniel Brumberg
U.S. policy toward Syria pivots around vague and potentially incompatible goals that are not linked to adequate means. The White House wants to insure the permanent destruction of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), expel Iranian and Iran-backed forces from Syria and foster a “political solution” whose precise contours the administration is reticent to define. Indeed, since its declaration of a “New Syria” policy in late summer 2018, the Trump administration has reacted to events in the region in ways that underscore that it has neither the will nor the means to change the key strategic calculations of Moscow, Tehran, Ankara, and Damascus. The White House will not confront the Russians militarily, it will not throw U.S. troops into a turf war with Iran, and it will not expend U.S. funds or lives in a belated and risky effort to strengthen the outgunned “moderate” opposition.
The administration’s risk-averse strategy is a product of hard realities. The leaders of Russia and Iran long ago determined and demonstrated that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s survival is fundamental to their security interests. Thus, they will not drastically shrink their military footprints in Syria. Moreover, Turkey has signaled that it is ready to accommodate Russia and Iran so long as Ankara can check Kurdish forces. Emboldened by Saudi Arabia’s growing international isolation resulting from the Khashoggi affair and increasingly estranged from Washington, Turkey has emerged an implicit ally of Russia and Iran. Indeed, Ankara has hinted that it might be prepared to live with a political deal that would leave Assad in power.
This is telling, given that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly insisted that Assad “the terrorist” must go. That Erdogan might back away from this position suggests that the contours of the regional map have shifted in ways that could leave U.S. policy in the dust.
Trump’s “New Syria” Policy
The August 17, 2018 appointment of Ambassador James F. Jeffrey as the State Department’s Special Representative for Syrian Engagement was meant to herald what Jeffrey himself stated was a “new policy.” The essence of that policy, he explained on September 6, “is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year.” The statement seemed to herald a sea change because Trump had insisted only five months earlier that he wanted the United States “to get out” of Syria and bring U.S. troops back home. Presumably, the presence of some 2,000 U.S. troops would help the administration achieve its key aims, namely the defeat of IS, the departure of Iranian troops, and a “major diplomatic initiative” to insure a peaceful post-conflict settlement for Syria
Yet Jeffrey was unclear as to Assad’s ultimate fate. “Assad must go,” he stated, “but it’s not our job to get rid of him.” Although speaking for a U.S. president who is clearly and deeply allergic to any kind of global engagement, Jeffrey noted that it was unlikely that Assad would “meet the requirement of not just us but of the international community,” namely that he would not “threaten his neighbors,” abuse his citizens, allow chemical weapons, or “provide a platform for Iran.” Yet he added little about the precise role of the international community—not to mention the capacity or the will of other states to shape a post-Assad government. Finally, his assertion that “I am confident the president is on board” with this “new active approach” hardly suggested that Trump had contributed to, much less embraced, this policy. On the contrary, Jeffrey’s remark seemed designed to get the president to back him—a risky gambit when the president himself dislikes open efforts to get ahead of the commander-in-chief.
A Huge Gap
The basic task facing the Trump administration was to prioritize its objectives, articulate how each would advance the others, and clearly show that the United States had the will and, most of all, the means to achieve them. On these critical challenges the White House officials has come up short.
Indeed, in June 2018 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted in remarkably frank language that “the Assad regime has been enormously successful in what’s coming up to seven years of war, but from America’s perspective it seems to me that Iran is the greatest threat (in Syria) that we should focus on.” It was unclear whether he meant to signal that the White House was ready to live with Assad as president, provided that he agree or at least acquiesce to the withdrawal of Iranian and Iranian-backed troops. Nor did Pompeo explain, beyond the threat of re-imposed sanctions, how the United States would compel Iran’s exit—an outcome that Moscow, Tehran and, of course, Damascus never envisioned. On the contrary, during his July 25 Senate Foreign Relations testimony, Pompeo acknowledged that the United States had little leverage to force Iran’s compliance. Instead, in language strangely reminiscent of President Barack Obama’s position, Pompeo noted that “we are working to see if we can get Russia to be more cooperative in terms of driving towards a political resolution.”
Trump himself shed no light on the basic issue of goals and the means to achieve them. On the contrary, his August 18 tweet celebrating the White House’s decision to end the “ridiculous $230 million yearly development payment to Syria”—which was supposed to assist Syrians in the northeast recovering from the terrors of IS rule—underscored Trump’s opposition to devoting any U.S. funds to reconstruction or to the return of millions of refugees—many of whom would presumably vote against Assad if any political process gave them the chance. Indeed, on the issue of a political solution Trump was evasive. Having poured scorn on “globalism” during his September 25 UN General Assembly speech. he suddenly if momentarily waxed pro-engagement. “Our shared goals must be the de-escalation of military conflict,” Trump declared, “along with a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people. In this vein, we urge the United Nations-led peace process be reinvigorated.” Presumably Trump’s self-serving embrace of the UN was fully consonant with his previous tweet that “Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payment instead of the US” for any project to rebuild the Syrian state. After all, in both cases, other institutions and countries are supposed to take action—not the United States.
In light of these divergent remarks and signals, it is hardly surprising that during his September 28 PBS News Hour interview, Jeffrey struggled to clarify U.S. policy toward Syria. When asked about his response to National Security Advisor John Bolton’s recent assertion that U.S. troops would not leave until Iran and its allies quit Syria, all Jeffrey could say was “I am not going to contradict the national security advisor.” Pressed if there could be “an irreversible political process with…al-Assad in power,” Jeffrey restated his previous ambiguous formula, namely that “We’re not in the business of regime change…we’re in the business of setting conditions. First of all, it has to be a Syrian peace process…under the UN process…including free elections that the UN would supervise…” But when then asked the critical question, i.e., “how do you get Syria and Russia to take seriously these peace talks…when…they haven’t taken it serious in the past,” Jeffrey offered two revealing answers. First, he stated to the reporter, “You’re right.” Second, he suggested that the emerging Idlib agreement between Turkey and Russia” provided an opening for negotiations.
Yet for all its frankness, these responses only underscored the key point that the News Hour correspondent seemed to be making, namely that Russia, Turkey, and Iran are shaping Syria policy—in short, countries with clear strategic goals and, even more so, the means to achieve them.
The Idlib Agreement
If Jeffrey expected the Idlib agreement to serve U.S. interests he was overly optimistic. Signed in Russia’s Red Sea port of Sochi on September 19 by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the agreement’s geo-strategic import derives less from its details and far more from the fact that it illustrates the growing determination of Russia, Iran, and Turkey to freeze out the United States from any role in shaping Syria’s geo-strategic future. This requires that these three countries mitigate their own tactical conflicts in Syria so that they can focus on their shared strategic interests, especially as they relate to the United States. The Idlib agreement presumably opens this breathing space by creating a 15-20 kilometer demilitarized zone (DMZ) to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkey forces. Russia promises to prevent any regime offensive against jihadist forces while Turkey gets one month to facilitate the withdrawal of al-Qaeda-linked forces and their heavy weapons.
This month’s time schedule is just one tricky element of an agreement that, as observers have noted, has many fault lines—not least of which is the assumption that Ankara has the will, means, or even the interest in compelling jihadist forces to leave without broader guarantees regarding Syria’s political future. The fragility of the agreement was underscored on October 27 after pro-Assad forces attacked civilian targets in the DMZ—a clear violation of the deal.
But in a deeper strategic sense, these shortcomings appear tolerable given that Russia, Iran, and Turkey all appear to agree that they face a common threat, namely U.S. forces east of the Euphrates. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have all made this point perfectly clear. As Erdogan put it, “The biggest threat to Syria’s future lies in the nest of terror to the east of the Euphrates…the Kurdish Protection Units (YGP) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD).” For Ankara, the key issue is the Kurds, while for the Russians it’s the United States (or as Lavrov put it, the threat to “Syria’s territorial integrity…where independent.. structures are created under the direct control of the United States”). On this point Rouhani could not be more enthusiastic. “We need,” he stated, “to force America out.”
It’s not clear whether these converging views of the supposed danger posed by the United States and its allies are sufficiently strong to promote a three-way consensus on the trickiest question, namely the fate of Assad. Much will hinge on the position of Erdogan, particularly regarding his evaluation of the relative benefits derived from enhancing relations with Moscow versus repairing the huge breach between Ankara and Washington.
Jeffrey’s September 4 visit to Ankara was widely seen as a bid by the administration to heal this breach prior to the Idlib talks. In his meeting with Jeffrey, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu declared that, “It is important ..(to discuss)…Syria’s political solutions in terms of border and territorial integrity, humanitarian aid, the weapons and support given by the U.S. to the PKK/YPG.” This last reference to the Kurds telegraphed just how difficult it would be to pry Turkey away from Russia and Iran. Indeed, in the seven months prior to the Idlib talks, the leaders of the three countries issued joint statements that indicated their intention to plow ahead. The second of these statements rejected “all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism”—a clear if self-serving swipe at Washington.
More importantly, it called for a “political process” consistent “with the decisions of the Syrian National Congress (SNC) and the UN Security Council Resolution 2254.” Created under Russian auspices and convened in Sochi, the SNC had been boycotted by key Syrian opposition groups because they fear—with good reason—that the SND will circumvent the more inclusive UN Geneva process as well as the UN resolutions like 2254 that undergird these talks. Thus, by the time Jeffrey visited Ankara, the writing was already on the wall: Idlib was just was more location on a map devised by Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara.
The Costs of U.S. Irrelevance
Although it’s still unclear whether Ankara will embrace a process that will ensure Assad’s political survival, this scenario cannot be excluded. To be fair, Turkey began backing away from unconditional opposition of Assad in 2015, in part because the Obama administration had itself signaled that it might envision a post-conflict arrangement that would include the Syrian leader. Since Trump’s election, Erdogan has repeatedly declared Assad a “terrorist.” But Ankara’s bandwagoning with Moscow and Tehran increases the leverage of those groups and states that have an interest in managing a political process that will play into Assad’s hands.
This dynamic is, of course, part of a widening crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations. That Erdogan’s unhappiness with Washington might now exceed his disgust with Assad will make it hard for the Trump administration to rescue a failing Syrian policy. Turkey’s spring 2018 decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defense system has only exacerbated the situation by by raising questions about Turkey’s place in NATO. But the Trump administration has also contributed to this perfect storm by taking steps, like abandoning the Iran nuclear deal, that have encouraged Ankara, Tehran, and Moscow to draw closer. Erdogan assailed this decision, warning that “we don’t need new crises in the region,” adding that “this is not how international mechanisms work…If any document bears your signature, you need to…abide by that.” More recently, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has given Erdogan ample cause and means to challenge the Trump administration’s key Arab ally, a development that Iran surely welcomes.
Confronted by a regional equation that will not bend to its devices, the Trump administration needs to move from tactical confusion to strategic clarity. But even if it clarifies its stance on key issues—such as the fate of Assad in any reconstruction scenario—the fact remains that the White House has nearly zero leverage.
Frustrated by its irrelevance, the White House seems to be relying on two things. First, it is looking to Israel to act as a major deterrent to Iranian power in the Syria. But the inadvertent September 18 downing by Syrian forces of a Russian reconnaissance plane—which Moscow at first argued was the indirect result of operations by Israeli F-16s—highlighted the risks for Israel of escalating in a narrow and congested airspace. Moscow and Jerusalem have since mended some of these weakening fences. Preoccupied by a dangerous situation along the border with Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to take up the fight on behalf of Washington.
Second, and more fundamentally, the administration has rested both its Syria policy and its broader regional strategy on pursuing an economic war against Iran. The White House expects that its reimposition of nuclear-related sanctions will either force Iran out of Syria or, better yet, produce a veritable collapse of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This kind of wishful thinking will only encourage Iran to further coordinate with Russia and Turkey, and as much as possible to protect its strategic gains in Syria. Sanctions are not the silver bullet that will slay the dragon of Iran or fix a policy that lacks any rudimentary strategic coherence. On the contrary, the White House’s approach will strengthen those Iranian leaders and forces who have long argued that “resistance” to the United States is the only policy that can ensure Iran’s security.
The failings of U.S. Syria/Middle East policy might not ultimately matter to Trump. His main concern is to regain political momentum after the November 6 mid-term elections. Much like his predecessor, Trump is a domestic president whose foreign policies are designed not to stir economic or political hornet nests at home. But unlike Barack Obama, Trump rejects multilateralism. Trump is not leading from the front or from behind. Rather, he is leading from the wallet. And, wherever possible, he wants others to pay.
Daniel Brumberg is director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University and a non-resident senior fellow at Arab Center Washington DC.