What America Can Learn From its Mistakes in Syria
President Donald Trump’s reckless decision to withdraw troops from Syria last fall, and to assassinate Qassem Soleimani in January, prompted fears of an ISIL resurgence. Indeed, extremist groups thrive on chaos and take advantage of heightened tensions to prey on disaffected communities. But while Trump’s erratic policies have undoubtedly exacerbated instability in the region, the reality is that the enduring defeat of ISIL was always an elusive goal, made more challenging by a U.S. policy that prioritized expediency over coherence.
From the outset, Washington’s stabilization strategy in Syria was riddled with contradictions and lacked a viable end state. To be sure, the task of bringing order to Syria was daunting. Some challenges were unique to Syria, especially given the decision to partner with a sub-state actor — the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — in the fight against ISIL. But others are common in any conflict in which policymakers are weighing a series of least bad options. To focus only on the recent, Trump-induced chaos, then, would be to squander an opportunity to draw valuable lessons and leave policymakers ill-prepared to confront future terrorism threats when they almost certainly arise.
America’s Short-Term Thinking in Syria
The U.S. government’s 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) defines stabilization as “a political endeavor to create the conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict.” Further it recommends that policymakers “set realistic, analytically backed political goals,” “link subnational engagements with national diplomacy to advance stabilization,” and “seek unity of purpose across all lines of efforts.” Unfortunately in Syria, the stabilization strategy went against many of these recommendations.
In launching the campaign against ISIL in Syria in 2014, the United States prioritized short-term military goals at the expense of longer-term diplomatic and development ones that could address the root causes of extremism. Haunted by the failures of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States worked “by with, and through,” the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in an effort to avoid a protracted, expensive commitment. While the SDF proved to be an excellent military partner, its ties to the terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), significantly strained the U.S. relationship with NATO ally Turkey. To assuage Turkish concerns, the United States repeatedly insisted that the relationship with the SDF was “temporary, transactional, and tactical.” Notwithstanding the insulting message that sent to their Kurdish partners, this approach did not actually undercut military goals given the short-term nature of the mission, but it drastically complicated efforts for the long-term governance of eastern Syria.
Typically, after an area is cleared of insurgents, the international community would support the sovereign government to immediately fill a power vacuum that spoilers could otherwise exploit. But in the case of Syria, the United States was actively opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad, while it remained ambivalent about the political role of its chosen partner, the SDF, and hesitant to confer political legitimacy due to vociferous Turkish objections. As a result, the SDF was in the paradoxical position of controlling one third of Syrian territory but prevented from participating in U.N.-led negotiations that would determine the future political makeup of the country.
Ambivalence from a global patron would be a challenge for any political actor seeking to assert control over an unstable area, but was even more so for the SDF, a predominately Kurdish group who was asked to liberate Arab-majority towns far from its base. Wary of this dilemma, the United States urged the SDF to create inclusive and representative governance entities in newly liberated areas. Ostensibly, the SDF adhered to this guidance by incorporating local Arabs into the nascent councils it stood up. Whether these efforts genuinely empowered Arabs or were mere window dressing, however, was unclear. As a notoriously opaque and undemocratic organization with indisputable ties to the PKK, the SDF’s decision-making authority continued to rest in Qandil (the mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan where PKK leadership is based). Consequently, many locals viewed the inclusion of Arabs in these burgeoning entities as little more than tokenism and remained suspicious of the SDF’s intentions, even if they went along with the broader U.S. plan given the other unsavory alternatives.
U.S. policymakers assumed that governance would become more transparent and inclusive over time as the SDF grew more comfortable in its role. However, the SDF’s position grew more authoritarian the further south its writ extended and the more tenuous security became. In Hajin, one of the last towns in Deir Ezzour province to be liberated from ISIL rule, for example, attempts to establish an independent civil council were stymied by Qandil-linked havals (key decision-makers without formal titles) who created a rival one with their preferred leadership to cement their influence.
To be sure, stabilization partners are never perfect. In other conflict zones, America’s local allies have engaged in behavior that is far more egregious than that of the SDF. However, the SDF’s heavy-handed and opaque governance style in predominately Arab territory, combined with the fact that they were never treated as more than a short-term actor by the United States, created a unique legitimacy gap that was ripe for exploitation by spoilers. Notably, as frustrations grew with the deteriorating security situation and the slow pace of recovery, locals increasingly viewed their grievances through a sectarian prism, even if that wasn’t the primary reason for their dissatisfaction. Yet Washington continued to point to the Arab composition of these entities as testament to their inclusive nature.
Spoilers Filled the Void Left by America’s Partners
But while the United States downplayed or overlooked problems simmering beneath the surface, spoilers — from the regime to Turkey to ISIL — took advantage of latent tensions between locals and the SDF to upend the fragile peace.
For example, protests erupted across Deir Ezzour this past spring over frustrations with the SDF. These included, among other things, that the SDF was diverting oil from the area to fund its Kurdish political project further north. In response, pro-Assad cells distributed flyers and painted graffiti throughout the area calling for the return of the regime and for key Arab tribes to rise up against the Kurds. Similarly, throughout the spring and summer, ISIL posted lists of names of residents in towns in Deir Ezzour threatening to kill them for collaborating with “Kurdish infidels” as it stepped up military attacks on SDF positions.
In the face of these challenges, U.S. stabilization efforts needed to adopt a comprehensive approach to recovery, which addressed both the tangible and intangible drivers of instability. This meant programs that not only restored infrastructure, which had been destroyed after years of conflict, but that also encouraged reconciliation and trust-building between various ethnic, sectarian, and tribal groups. It also meant diplomatic engagements, which held Kurdish interlocutors accountable for questionable governance and human rights practices.
Instead, because the United States prioritized expediency, it focused almost exclusively on the physical aspects of stabilization — namely, the restoration of essential services like water and electricity — at the expense of social and political ones. To be sure, the latter issues are undoubtedly hard to define. They’re even harder to address and measure than service provision, which if done well, provides quick wins and meets people’s most basic needs. Furthermore, the scale of destruction and human suffering in Syria was so vast that it was difficult to envision meaningful societal change taking place without the restoration of some basic services. In addition, given that coalition airstrikes as part of the defeat-ISIL campaign were responsible for much of the devastation, there was a strong moral and strategic imperative for the United States to fix what it broke.
All the same, service delivery alone could never have addressed the vulnerabilities in these communities that made them susceptible to extremism. Indeed, recent research demonstrates that there is no clear link between citizens’ access to services and their perceptions of state actors, nor between employment and other economic variables and support for extremist groups.
A related issue was the government’s fixation on demonstrating success through metrics like the number of paved roads or tons of rubble removed. A focus on hard numbers may have obfuscated the more intangible but potentially more consequential issues — like lack of social cohesion or corrupt governance — destabilizing the political environment. More troubling, in creating winners and losers through service provision, the United States may have cultivated the precise situation it hoped to avoid — a sense of injustice or discrimination that academic literature suggests might actually make communities vulnerable to violent extremism.
The singular focus on essential services was all the more questionable given that the regime continued to provide many services throughout Syria. For example, in the education sector, the United States admirably repaired dozens of schools in northeastern Syria, but provided a curriculum that was not nationally accredited. As a result, many families continued sending their children to regime schools—even with the heavy dose of fascist indoctrination— to ensure they could continue their education in the future.
Herein lays the most fundamental problem with the U.S. stabilization strategy. As a political tool, stabilization merely buys time and space for a political end state. However, because the United States never put the resources behind, nor clearly articulated, what a post-Assad transition would look like — admittedly an intractable challenge — it remained unclear what endgame the United States was ultimately trying to stabilize towards. This approach may have been tenable if Washington had been willing to maintain an indefinite presence in Syria until some change in the security environment eventually made a political settlement possible. However, both the Obama and Trump administrations were insistent that the engagement in Syria was to be short-term. Accordingly, it was incumbent upon policymakers to identify clear political conditions, short of a long-term political solution, that stabilization efforts were seeking to achieve.
These political conditions should have been articulated from the outset. The moment the United States decided to militarily partner with the SDF, it needed to be prepared to carry that policy out to its logical conclusion and support them politically. More specifically, Washington should have invested significantly more resources early on to make Turkey comfortable with the partnership — not an utterly fanciful proposition given that Turkey was negotiating with the Kurds until 2014 — and use the limited leverage it maintained with the regime through its military presence to negotiate the SDF’s role in a future Syria. Alternatively, if the White House was unwilling to make the necessary investments upfront to ensure a longer-term strategy with the SDF, it should have more seriously considered the Turkish proposal for a local Arab force even if their relative fecklessness meant a significantly longer and costlier engagement for the United States. Instead, by adopting a policy riddled with contradictions and failing to ever reconcile them, U.S. policymakers created the conditions for a disruptive reckoning that was only accelerated and exacerbated by Trump’s capriciousness.
This begs the question — why did the United States never modify an admittedly flawed policy? First, the timing never seemed appropriate. At the height of the military campaign, Washington was reveling in its successes while, later, as operations drew to a close, Trump’s policy zig zags left policymakers scrambling to mitigate the damage. Second, the constant looming threat of a Turkish invasion meant that the U.S. needed to focus on protecting its Kurdish partners rather than chastising them. So much investment went into preventing a war with Turkey that it left little time to deal with the business of governing. Moreover, in the highly polarized and fraught domestic politics surrounding the intervention in Syria, acknowledgement of the SDF’s governance failures was often interpreted as endorsement of Turkish aggression, even though the two were certainly not mutually exclusive. This is a shame because in the rare instances when the U.S. government put pressure on the SDF, they were responsive to demands. Third and perhaps most fundamentally, bureaucratic inertia proved a powerful force and it was easier to continue muddling along than to course correct.
The limits of the U.S. stabilization strategy were symptoms, not causes, of the flawed U.S. policy in Syria. And there were never going to be easy solutions in the face of least bad options, made worse by the abrupt cuts to stabilization funding that put all programs in survival mode. Moreover, the fact that the United States provided life-saving assistance, however paltry, to try to rebuild these devastated areas, was a small bright spot in an otherwise confused and inconsistent policy.
What Should Washington Do Now?
At every turn, the United States made choices that weakened its efforts to prevent the return of ISIL. Tragically, even as U.S. troops remain in smaller numbers to mitigate the damage of Trump’s erratic decision-making, it’s probably too late to change course on Syria. But at the very least, Washington should learn from the mistakes of its Syria policy for future stabilization efforts, recognizing that the contexts in which stabilization is necessary will always be complicated and require making a series of tradeoffs.
First, at the design phase, policymakers should craft a coherent strategy that reconciles competing and contradictory interests, given that these problems get harder not easier over time. This requires a clear-eyed assessment at the outset of the tradeoffs between short-term and long-term goals, and calibrating long-term goals accordingly rather than kicking the can down the road until there is a massive landmine. Second, throughout their engagements, policymakers should constantly seek to develop and re-develop a holistic understanding of the drivers of instability in the communities they are working. If they find that these drivers are beyond their manageable interest, they should articulate a much narrower set of goals that are intellectually honest about what they are able to achieve. Finally, the United States should be a consistent, reliable ally to its counterterrorism partners while still holding them to international human rights and democratic standards when governing. In Syria, the United States somehow did the opposite — ignoring the concerns about inclusive governance while also serving as a fickle partner.
As the recent fallout in Syria has shown, that approach has had devastating consequences and may well ultimately render the defeat of ISIL elusive.
Daphne McCurdy is a Senior Associate (non-resident) with the Center for Security and International Studies (CSIS). She previously worked for the U.S. government where she oversaw stabilization assistance to Syria.