This Won’t Look Like Winning: A Sensible Path for Trump’s Syria Policy
For the United States, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency is the beginning of a period of profound political and social uncertainty. For Syria, it signals a sort of end.
Prior to November 8, the national security policy community, like most others, assumed the victory of Hillary Clinton was a near-certainty. A number of proposals for U.S. Syria policy were therefore prepared and advanced with a Clinton presidency in mind. These were mostly forward-leaning and hawkish, calling for things like U.S. escalation against the Assad regime and, indirectly, its Russian ally.
With Trump’s victory, most of this debate is now void. There is still a good deal of ambiguity about how Trump will govern. Many of the positions he took over the course of the campaign seem to have been improvised, or not to be particularly strongly held. But on Syria specifically, he seems to have some clear, consistent preferences: He is focused on defeating the Islamic State, wants to prioritize cooperation with Russia, and is extremely skeptical of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition.
At a minimum, it now seems implausible that America will drive an escalation against Assad, as the Syrian opposition and some American allies had been hoping. How Trump further reorients U.S. Syria policy remains to be seen. Under Trump, America may disengage from the Syrian opposition, or even overtly align itself with the Assad regime against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other jihadists. Without U.S. support for the opposition, there seems little possibility that its other state backers can coordinate effectively and pick up America’s slack.
The combination of Trump’s election and Assad’s still-unfolding victory in Aleppo have translated into a mood among the opposition and its supporters that is end-of-days grim. The possibility of a negotiated compromise solution to the war, much less an outright opposition victory, seems foreclosed. Some sort of an Assad victory is coming, even if its ultimate terms and geographic scope have yet to be determined.
In a new paper for The Century Foundation, A Syria Policy for Trump’s America, I’ve tried to lay out a revised course for the United States in Syria that plausibly translates President-elect Trump’s larger geostrategic priorities into the Syrian context and does a best-possible job securing America’s core interests in the conflict.
But I’ve also used the paper to push back on some of the misapprehensions I think have informed the American debate over Syria. Donald Trump promises a substantive break with Barack Obama’s Syria policy, but he’s also challenged the policy community’s collective understanding of the Syrian war. And on some points, he’s been mostly correct. His election and a possible American reorientation on Syria should prompt a larger rethinking of U.S. assumptions about the war.
Trump has said, correctly, that attacking the Assad regime would risk a confrontation with Russia, which is now invested in the Assad regime’s success and whose forces are comingled with Syrian government troops across the country.
On Syria’s rebels, he’s said, “We have no idea who these people are.” And despite some confident assertions to the contrary, that is also largely true. Outsiders have a limited understanding of how Syria’s rebels relate to each other inside Syria, and of what exactly happens to the generous support the United States and its allies ship across the border from Turkey and Jordan. What we do understand about Syria’s rebels is that they are riven by factionalism and tangled up with jihadists in ways that limit their usefulness for U.S. policy. And to the extent that Syria’s rebels are malleable “proxies,” they are proxies of countries in the Middle East, not America.
But beyond those two specific correctives from Trump, there are a number of other suppositions that have underpinned U.S. Syria policy and that have, after nearly six years of war, been discredited or rendered moot.
There has been a tendency to conflate the interests of the Syrian opposition with those of the United States. The opposition’s priorities are not America’s. On counterterrorism in particular, U.S. and Syrian opposition interests are irreconcilable. In the rebel-held northwest where the opposition is now most vital, the U.S.-backed opposition cannot challenge Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah) without fatally compromising its fight against the Assad regime. And, with some exceptions, the armed opposition has mostly lacked the motivation or the capacity to fight the Islamic State.
The idea that rebels, after being delivered to victory, could turn on their better-organized, more effective jihadist allies was not serious. Nor was the idea that after a negotiated transition that removed Assad but somehow kept the Syrian state together, rebels would team with a state that had murdered their families for years against their jihadist neighbors and cousins, who had been with them in the trenches.
The reasoning that an inclusive political settlement and the removal of Assad – the main destabilizing force in the country – was needed to comprehensively defeat the Islamic State and other jihadists in Syria was correct, but the way it was translated into policy was inverted. U.S. officials worked backwards from the goal of eliminating these jihadists and decided the United States had to effect a negotiated transition. In fact, a political settlement and a transition were never possible, and, as a result, neither was the total defeat of these jihadists. U.S. policy ambitions should have been adjusted accordingly.
The mantra, oft-repeated by U.S. officials, that “there is no military solution” to Syria’s war was also incorrect. After the U.S. government was disabused of its mistaken assumption that Assad would just fall, it adopted this self-serving rationalization, the belief that the Assad regime or its allies would eventually recognize the futility of pursuing outright military victory and would have to seriously sue for peace. America obviously didn’t understand how far the Assad regime and its allies would go to ensure regime survival, and exactly how much of the country Assad could destroy and still declare himself victorious.
The negotiated removal of Assad or restructuring of the country’s security services – the rock-bottom minimum demands of the opposition – were never a serious prospect. The regime was never going to negotiate its own effective suicide. The idea that backing an anarchic armed opposition that was increasingly dominated by genocidal jihadists would make the regime more likely to negotiate was also mistaken.
Of course, there are still some persistent, dubious assertions that continue to inform U.S. and Western policy. A (totally reasonable) lack of understanding of how the regime now functions seems to have led many to assume the Assad regime is weaker or less capable than it is. The idea, propagated in part by the Syrian opposition, that the Syrian state has disappeared in an unruly, chaotic mess of militias has gained traction in the Western policy community despite having a limited evidential basis. My own research and knowledgeable contacts have told me this thesis has been oversold. These findings were supported by my experience recently in Damascus. The top echelons of the regime already presided over competing power centers before the war, from overlapping security services to criminal smuggling gangs. The regime has been meaningfully weakened, and it seems unlikely it can retake the entirety of territorial Syria. But there is little indication it cannot still manage its various constituencies in areas of its control.
Some — including U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, apparently — still think the Assad regime might willingly agree to compromise its sovereignty and tolerate semi-autonomous pockets of opposition control. In fact, the regime’s truces and “reconciliations” are just the other face of its military campaign to retake the country – a complement, not an alternative. They have only one endpoint: the full restoration of state authority, and anything less is just an intermediate stage. The regime seems determined to push for the re-conquest of the country as long as it has the means to do so.
Another widely held belief is that further regime advances will further radicalize Syria’s rebels and drive them towards becoming a mostly jihadist guerrilla insurgency — that this will make regime territory unlivable or impossible to govern, and that the regime will somehow lose by winning. This seems like a stretch, even if I do think the regime is sowing the seeds of long-term instability. I don’t expect the regime to recapture much of Syria’s Kurdish- and Islamic State-dominated east, but I think it will likely try and succeed in taking more of Syria’s west, particularly with the help of committed allies. When it does, I’m not convinced that it can’t mostly subdue depopulated, brutalized opposition communities and reduce the armed opposition to something much less relevant. Only a few anti-regime factions have recently demonstrated a capability to attack behind regime lines, and only sporadically. Jihadists will be weakened, not strengthened, as the opposition around them is beaten down. And an opposition that is confined to mountain hideouts and limited to periodic car bombs and drive-bys is an opposition that has effectively lost.
The likelihood of jihadist blowback from inside Syria is overstated, I think, even if it is a concern outside Syria’s borders. The oppression and violence of the Assad regime is an apparently potent radicalizing force, but for the worst jihadists, a stateless vacuum that allows them to train and organize openly seems more relevant in terms of their strength and operational planning. And warnings about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition need to be weighed against the status quo, in which, right now, northwest Syria is an effective jihadist safe haven.
Syria Policy Under Trump
If the incoming Trump administration executes a pivot on Syria, the United States needs to keep a clear-eyed view of its core interests in the conflict, and it needs to avoid falling victim to a new, opposite set of misapprehensions. America’s core interests in Syria are, as I understand them: counterterrorism; the stability of regional and European allies; and, to the extent possible, civilian safety and well-being inside Syria and in its neighbors. All these interests matter and have to be entertained simultaneously, even if the first two are given priority.
Washington needs to be realistic about what it can achieve in Syria. There is more to be done in the fight against the Islamic State, for example, but there are limits on what the United States can plausibly accomplish without prejudicing other relevant interests. The United States should not try to capture the Islamic State’s Syrian capital of Raqqa with such single-minded, maniacal focus that it destroys its relationship with Turkey. And it should not allow itself to be duped into a counterterrorism partnership with the Assad regime and its allies that serves their nefarious aims at the expense of American interests.
Trump has said repeatedly that Assad is fighting the Islamic State. This is technically true, but with some fairly serious caveats. The Assad regime and its allies are fighting primarily against non-Islamic State rebels to pacify Syria’s strategic west. I think it unlikely the regime will ever muster the will or strength to retake Islamic State-held eastern Syria. The regime is not a capable, useful partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
The regime is also dependent on tactics – chemical weapons, “barrel bombs,” siege and deliberate starvation – that are disgusting, illegal, and, over the long term, counterproductive. The regime’s indiscriminate, barbaric approach to counterinsurgency amounts to bombing civilian populations into traumatized submission and driving large numbers of damaged, angry Syrians into other countries. This does not serve American aims. Normalization with the Assad regime would come with few tactical benefits and entail substantial reputational costs, from damaging America’s relationships with traditional allies and fueling radical anti-American anger. It would also serve the aims of Iran, which is working now in Syria to reinforce and expand a deterrent architecture aimed at the United States and U.S. allies.
The regime has proved more resilient than anyone expected, but it is still a dramatically weakened, pariah state. If it convinces America to come begging for its cooperation, that may be the most incredible Jedi mind trick we’ve ever seen. Under Trump, America should try to extricate itself, to whatever extent possible, from Syria’s war. It should not put its superpower arsenal in service of a malicious, provincial gang.
America should continue to apply pressure to the Islamic State. But it also ought to put that effort in perspective, with the recognition that it has denied the Islamic State its last border outlets, that the organization is now substantially less dangerous than in 2014, and that total, perfect victory is likely impossible. America must also be conscious of its other equities in the region. For example, if it inadvertently provokes a war between Turkey and its Kurdish allies, its gains to date against the Islamic State will evaporate. America should continue to deconflict its fight against the Islamic State and Fateh al-Sham with Russia and its Syrian ally, but no more than that.
If the United States is going to disengage from the Syrian opposition, it should not do so abruptly or for free. America’s support for the opposition represents a substantial source of leverage, and America owes something to its opposition partners and to U.S. allies who are co-invested in them. It should negotiate away support for the opposition only in exchange for Russian buy-in for smaller, internationally guaranteed enclaves in the eastern Aleppo countryside, southern Syria, and the Kurdish northeast. These areas, secured in part through the continued presence of foreign troops, could provide long-term havens for internally displaced persons and serve as buffer zones against various bad actors, thus serving the security needs of America and allies Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And for areas the regime will likely recapture, America should coordinate with Turkey and Jordan to allow the safe exit of refugees who cannot survive under regime control.
And lastly, America should continue its generous humanitarian relief to Syrians on all sides inside Syria and in Syria’s neighbors, and its stabilization assistance to Syria’s rebel-held areas. It’s impossible to undo the damage of Syria’s war to the country’s civilians, but this aid can at least mitigate these bad effects and minimize some of their destabilizing impact on the region. America should not invest in the regime’s reconstruction efforts, which will be used to juice the regime’s patronage networks and on which it will be impossible to impose any effective conditionality.
None of these steps are particularly gratifying. But if we can strip away some of America’s illusions about Syria, I think they might do a good-enough job of satisfying America’s core interests in the country’s war. This doesn’t look like “winning,” necessarily. But if America is going to divorce itself from Syria’s civil war, I think this is the realistic, responsible way to do it.
Sam Heller is a Beirut-based fellow at The Century Foundation. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.