What Trump Should Seek in Syria Negotiations
President Trump appears committed to negotiating an agreement with Vladimir Putin to get on the same page in Syria. Prior to and since assuming office, Trump and the people around him consistently signaled that they planned to accelerate the fight to defeat ISIL, al-Qaeda, and allied groups; and build safe zones in areas of Syria where refugees and internally displaced persons can be protected and settled.
However, as it pursues these national security objectives in Syria, the Trump administration will need to be clear-eyed about the situation on the ground and what can be achieved. Assad will continue to rule over a Russian and Iranian-backed statelet centered in western and central Syria. The Syrian armed opposition has become even more divided since the fall of rebel-held areas of Aleppo and is still seeking the overthrow of the Assad regime. These represent major challenges to ending the Syrian civil war and protecting U.S. interests in Syria.
America’s first objective in Syria should be to eliminate terrorist safe havens controlled by ISIL and al-Qaeda, and leave in place sustainable alternatives that prevent a reversion to extremist control. Recent territorial losses by the Assad government to the Islamic State in central and eastern Syria, and the growing al-Qaeda presence in northwestern Syria demonstrate how weak a counter-terrorism partner Assad and his allies really are. Syria’s instability also threatens the long-term security of important regional partners, particularly Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and U.S. allies in Europe. The second central objective for Trump and his team must be to protect these partners from the destabilizing effects of the Syrian civil war, to include refugee flows and terrorism. Neither of these objectives are possible without ending the conflict.
Any negotiated outcome will require going region by region in Syria and negotiating solutions acceptable to the United States but also to Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Assad regime, and the Syrian opposition.
In southwestern Syria, the United States has both leverage and significant interests. The area acts as a buffer zone protecting two key partners — Israel and Jordan — and is controlled by moderate opposition groups. These groups are fighting the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Iranian proxy militias. In any agreement, this area must be controlled by the moderate opposition not Assad and Iran. And Russia must restrain Assad and ensure that he does not, at some point in the future, try to retake this territory. In the aftermath of such a deal, the southwest could become a safe zone for refugees as part of larger agreement with Russia toward stabilizing Syria. With the threat of Russian air strikes off the table, the United States and Jordan could also insert special operations forces to assist the moderate opposition in its fight with ISIL and al-Qaeda.
The agreement should also work out a division of labor and territory in eastern Syria to retake ISIL-held territory around Raqqa. The United States is building out a large territorial sphere of influence in collaboration with Syrian Kurds and local Sunni Arab forces. The United States, with the support of Turkey and the Sunni Arab states but not Assad and his Iranian allies, is most capable of taking and holding this territory, and this should be the starting point for any negotiation. As part of this agreement, the United States should also seek to ensure that over time the two cities of Deir al-Zor and Hasakah, which remain regime holdouts in the midst of Kurdish and Arab territory, are ultimately handed over to American partners.
Achieving this will require obtaining active cooperation and support from Turkey, which will not be easy. Ankara is displeased with the potential for an expansion of U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition, a Kurdish majority rebel coalition fighting ISIL and dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group that Turkey has been battling for decades. Fierce fighting between the PKK and Turkey renewed when a peace process fell apart in 2015. Turkey will want the Trump administration to expand the U.S. military’s participation in Turkey’s Euphrates Shield zone east of the city of Aleppo rather than support the SDF’s push on ISIL-held Raqqa. Trump’s team, perhaps in cooperation with Russia, will need to mediate between the Turks and the Kurds and find an accommodation that can work for both sides in eastern and northeastern Syria.
In the northwest, the situation is more complicated and the United States has little leverage. It should seek an agreement with Russia that would avoid a repeat of the carnage we saw in Aleppo, to what might be the next major battlefield in this war: Idlib province, where al-Qaeda is strongest. The Assad government’s strategy of deliberately targeting civilians in these areas and disproportionately attacking U.S.-backed, moderate armed opposition groups as it did in Aleppo will only empower al-Qaeda. And, Assad’s ongoing military campaign does not have the men or resources to win back all of this region of Syria.
Instead, Washington should try to negotiate an alternative approach that starts with a cessation of hostilities and, over time, isolates al-Qaeda elements while limiting civilian casualties. When the Assad government and its allies have respected cessation of hostilities agreements, as they mostly did in February and March of 2016, moderate Syrian opposition groups in this territory temporarily revolted against al-Qaeda. With al-Qaeda isolated, the United States and Russia could work together to destroy it.
Turkey would also have to play a significant role in this effort in Idlib by pressing the groups it supports to distance themselves from al-Qaeda. And as part of the deal, the Turkish-held area to the north of Aleppo would become a safe zone to help absorb displaced persons and refugees, thus relieving significant pressure on Turkey, which has welcomed more refugees than any other country.
In exchange for cooperation in the south, east, and northwest; the United States and its allies would have to swallow a very bitter pill by acknowledging that Assad or some successor acceptable to the regime will control the heart of Syria, including the areas around Damascus, Latakia, and Aleppo. The reality is that these regions represent the true heart of Syria. Unfortunately, there seems to be little alternative at this point to conceding them to Assad since it is an area where the regime and Russia have complete leverage.
This will mean significant influence for Iran’s forces and militias in Syria, which will be problematic for Israeli and Arab interests. To offset those concerns, the United States should enlist Russian support in restraining Iran. This means deterring and dissuading the regime in Damascus from transferring sophisticated weaponry to Hizballah and ensuring the Israelis still have the freedom of action to strike systems in Syria that are on their way to Iranian proxies in Lebanon.
The agreement should also include a tradeoff where in exchange for concessions to Iran in Syria, Iran would cease support for the Houthis in Yemen and Shia populations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. This compromise could be acceptable to both Iran and Saudi Arabia as the Iranians put a premium on their influence in the Levantine and view Yemen as secondary, while the Saudis have the opposite perspective. The United States could help ensure this agreement by signaling that it will take a much harder line to protect its friends from Iran in these spheres, including through a more forward leaning interdiction policy and willingness to conduct limited, joint kinetic operations against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force and its proxy groups if it violates the agreements.
Ultimately, these terms are far from ideal, but they could be acceptable to all the key actors, protect American interests, and set the table for a long-term power sharing agreement in Syria. It would require a measure of goodwill and honesty from Russia, Iran, and Assad — something that has been in short supply for the past five years. It will be difficult for the new administration to achieve a lasting agreement, but if President Trump is going to try, this is the outcome he should aim for.
Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security where Nicholas A. Heras serves as the Bacevich Fellow.