The Syrian Civil War and Avoiding Trump’s First Big Mistake
With President-elect Donald Trump’s chaotic transition underway, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the international community have begun contemplating the dangerous uncertainties created by this transition and the potential contours of future American policy. This is quite obviously a particularly difficult task based on candidate Trump’s lack of policy specificity, his lack of previous thinking on international affairs and U.S. strategy, and his inchoate and often contradictory impulses about the world on display during his campaign. To the extent that Trump has offered hints about his worldview, they are mostly disturbing in that they reflect an affinity for authoritarian governance and a lack of appreciation for the liberal international order. These biases are even more disturbing as we now collectively contemplate a President Trump wielding the broad authorities of executive power in the international arena.
Yet Trump has displayed a basic but unswerving consistency on two issues, namely U.S.-Russian relations and U.S. policy on Syria. Trump has made clear repeatedly that he wants to decisively shift policy on Syria to align with Russia despite contradictory views on Syria from much of his own party, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence. In President-elect Trump’s first telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the two spoke about Syria and noted “the need to work together in the struggle against the No. 1 common enemy — international terrorism and extremism.” But a sudden, cost-free, wholesale, and non-negotiated U.S. realignment with Russian policy on Syria would be a setback both for longer-term stability in Syria and for stable relations with Russia. Adopting Russia’s war in Syria would represent a different form of escalation that would intensify the worst effects of the current conflict and undermine U.S. counter-terrorism goals. Instead, the United States should continue to prioritize negotiated de-escalation that seeks to restrain the murderous excesses of the Assad regime while sharpening focus on terrorist groups intent on harming the United States, its allies, and their interests. The war waged by Assad and Moscow in Syria is not the American war in Syria.
This is not to suggest that defending the status quo or seeking confrontation with Russia in Syria are sensible courses of action. In fact, much of the recent interventionist rhetoric and analyses surrounding Washington’s Syria policy has been at best ill-considered and at worst disingenuous. Direct U.S. intervention in Syria would be a dangerous, escalatory step with consequences far beyond the borders of Syria. If the intent of such an intervention were to finely calibrate the use of force to push the Assad regime to negotiate a political transition without risking the possibility of regime change, it would be doomed to fail, as has been demonstrated repeatedly during the cyclical course of the conflict. The Assad regime and its external backers have not changed their strategic calculus, even at moments when those parties themselves believed that the regime was at risk of falling.
With Russia both independently deployed and firmly enmeshed in Syrian regime military operations, it maintains escalation dominance. In short, escalation by all actors in Syria has created its own internal logic and has consistently begat only further escalation.
At this late date, the United States cannot achieve any of the core goals it identified at the start of the Syrian uprising. Since August 2011, when President Obama stated that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” U.S. policy has focused on Assad’s ouster, at least rhetorically. That call came amid a regional wave of activism and optimism, as Syria’s uprising gathered momentum and produced a ferocious and violent response from the regime. But U.S. policy was never realized. Five years later, opposition rebel forces remain fragmented and hopelessly interlinked with problematic militant actors, most notably al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.
The Assad regime has regained military momentum since Russia’s direct entry into the war a year ago. The destabilizing spillover effects of the conflict continue, including massive refugee flows, sharpening sectarian polarization, and appalling humanitarian conditions within Syria.
A realignment of U.S. priorities and policies is advisable in light of those circumstances, but the specific sketches put forward by Trump to realign U.S. policy are inadvisable and dangerous. Recalibration of policy should not simply entail the United States switching sides and ceasing covert support to all rebel groups. While there might be moments of convergence with the regime in terms of common enemies, outright cooperation with Assad would sully America’s reputation, produce much broader militant blowback and anti-Americanism, radicalize what remains of the non-jihadist opposition, link the United Stateswith an ineffective military partner in the form of the Assad regime, damage relations with regional allies, and unnecessarily enmesh the United States in the metastasizing enmities consuming the Arab world.
The Assad regime and its external backers seek to achieve a military victory by any means necessary against all forms of serious political and military opposition. That vision of the war expands far beyond U.S. priorities and runs counter to U.S. interests. Despite its outward appearance of confidence and tangible battlefield gains, the Assad regime is not in a position to definitively end the war. The regime’s chronic manpower shortages and the still sizeable ranks of well-armed and battle-hardened rebels mean that the loss of territorial holdings by the opposition will only change the nature of the conflict without ending it. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has spoken optimistically about the incoming American president and suggested that he could be a “natural ally,” but siding with his murderous regime in an open-ended and indiscriminate war against the entire Syrian opposition will only serve to tarnish the United States and embolden future attacks against it.
Instead, the incoming Trump administration should revive the much-maligned diplomatic path forged by the Obama administration by negotiating the terms of its engagement in Syria and seeking Russian and Syrian concessions that could allow for a de-escalation of the central war between the regime and rebels. Much of this approach could mirror the ideas painstakingly negotiated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. While the efforts to reach a ceasefire failed in gruesome fashion, the underlying de-escalatory logic of those understandings remains relevant: Total military victory is unachievable, and some form of political accommodation remains necessary for ceasefires to have any chance of sustainability. Implicit in that logic was a realization that U.S. covert train-and-supply efforts had largely failed in producing credible opposition forces capable of fighting the regime without deep interlinkage with jihadist forces. Thus, regime-change was no longer a tenable goal for U.S. policy. In practice, recent agreements envisioned deepening U.S.-Russian military cooperation against terrorist actors. This new cooperation remained conditional on the execution of several confidence-building measures, such as the negotiated entry of humanitarian aid to besieged populations and the creation of negotiated no-fly zones and safe areas that would restrain the Assad regime’s use of airpower and limit indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure. Implementation of any such agreement, even in the best of circumstances, remains a fraught exercise due to questions about U.S. and Russian leverage, Assad regime intransigence, and the thorny issue of rebel intermingling with terrorist groups. But these types of understandings remain the most likely pathway to de-escalating the conflict, de-coupling rebels and militant actors, and degrading terrorist groups. They also represent the only viable pathway to negotiations regarding a broader political accommodation.
Of course, the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts have failed and there are legitimate concerns that Russia cannot be a good-faith negotiating partner in the context of this conflict. Those concerns were only further magnified by the manner in which the previous ceasefire collapsed, with the September 2016 bombing of a Syrian Arab Red Crescent warehouse and convoy in rural Aleppo, which the United States blamed on Russia, and the more recent escalation of attacks on Aleppo. Any efforts to negotiate de-escalation in Syria must contend with the dubious track record of Russia and the Assad regime, which have redoubled their efforts to achieve a military solution to Syria’s multifaceted war and have proven resistant to even modest confidence-building measures.
The difference at this juncture is that Russian motivations have potentially shifted with the election of a much more receptive and accommodating president in Washington. In such circumstances, Russia could see an opportunity to further cement cordial relations with a new U.S. administration and laud itself as a relevant and useful great power. Additionally, the United States could offer two critical inducements if these negotiations are eventually successful. First, the United States could take the painful step of publicly disavowing regime change as a goal for U.S. policy in Syria. The conditions for a top-down political settlement simply do not exist at present, and public acknowledgement of Assad’s inevitable continuity in power will be seen as a valuable concession by Russia. Second, the United States could offer to eventually end its covert support for rebel groups, which would represent another key concession for Russia that might shift its perception of diplomacy.
More broadly, this type of incremental and negotiated process of de-escalation is much more likely to produce a stable U.S.-Russian relationship. Trump has repeatedly emphasized his unmitigated desire to establish a close and cooperative relationship with Vladimir Putin, he has also done so while putting into doubt core U.S. security commitments in Europe and Asia. Rapid reorientation runs a serious risk of sending confused signals to Russia about future U.S. intentions and may embolden further Russian risk-taking. The risks of confused signals are further heightened by Trump’s inexperience and penchant to speak freely, without the benefit and discipline of briefing by staffers. Given Trump’s preference for off-the-cuff, personalized negotiations, it’s very unlikely whatever accommodation he attempts to make with Russia will be made with the consultation of allies.
The dangers of a wholesale restructuring of the bilateral U.S.-Russian relationship and a reorientation of decades-old security and military policy would be further exacerbated by the risks of implementation. Implementation of this sort of sweeping change would be a huge bureaucratic challenge that would face intense resistance from within the U.S. government. Even the more modest efforts by the Obama administration to negotiate a framework for cooperation with Russia in Syria faced bureaucratic resistance that was aired publicly and vocally This is a situation almost guaranteed to produce further mixed signals and muddled messages. Synchronizing military activities with messaging and diplomacy is a difficult exercise and one that would be infinitely more so given such bureaucratic turmoil. Further, synchronization of policy shifts with allies would also be a major hurdle, as the United States cannot unilaterally enforce the terms of its arrangements with Russia on NATO allies and partners.
Additionally, any diplomatic overture to Russia should contend head-on with the fact that Russia has chosen an overtly dangerous policy of confrontation with the United States and its allies. That policy has sought to both undermine the international order and Western democracies. Most recently, evidence suggests that Russia undertook information operations aimed at influencing the U.S. presidential election. Without naming Russia directly, Director of the National Security Agency Adm. Michael S. Rogers described those actions as “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.” While the Trump campaign clearly benefited from those interventions, an active rewarding of Russia in such circumstances will likely further muddle the issue of U.S. intentions.
Trump’s affinity for Putin and Russia is one of the more peculiar developments of this unprecedented presidential contest. Trump’s effusive embrace of Russia is likely to create serious friction with some Republican leaders and within the U.S government. In these circumstances, a more measured and incremental approach to Syria would offer Trump an opportunity to reassure key allies and a skeptical foreign policy establishment. He could demonstrate that while he wants improved relations with Russia, he is neither beholden to them or, in the memorable phrasing of former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden, Moscow’s “useful fool.”
The time has come to recalibrate U.S. policy on Syria, but how the incoming Trump administration chooses to do so will have profound implications for the stability of Syria, the broader region, and the U.S.-Russian relationship. Trump appears to have given very little thought to most foreign policy issues, although he has repeatedly and superficially returned to the issues presented by Russia and Syria. He has done so with no apparent consideration of America’s broader strategic interests. The proper approach to Syria and Russia is not to be found in unbending hawkishness; it remains possible to work selectively yet cooperatively with Russia at a time of heightened tensions. But a heedless embrace of Putin and Assad would constitute a radical volte-face that would undermine long-term stability in Syria and imperil American equities abroad.
Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University School of Law.