A Strategy for Syria: Tillerson Must Look for Leverage

Almost a year into the Trump administration, there still isn’t much of a Syria strategy. Momentum has drifted away from the Geneva-based negotiations on Syria’s political future, which the United States has backed, and toward security-oriented negotiations in which Russia has had the strongest hand. When Secretary of State Tillerson quietly announced he was giving a Syria talk at Stanford last week, hopes rose that a strategy might be announced. The talk Tillerson gave fell short of a strategy, in part because it seems the Trump administration hasn’t yet agreed on one. A strategy requires both actions and resources, and Tillerson didn’t have much to say about either. As the conflict in Syria moves into a new phase, the administration needs to be bolder in asserting its interests, and it must increase its influence over how Syria’s conflict is resolved.

Tillerson’s talk certainly sketched out the reasons the U.S. government should want to have a strategy in Syria. Not only has it been a locus for terrorist groups, but it has also given Iran a deeper foothold in the Levant. But that’s not all that the United States should care about. Tillerson gave relatively short shrift to the security consequences of massive displacement on Syria’s neighbors—most directly the overwhelmed, small populations of Jordan and Lebanon, but also Turkey and an array of U.S. allies in Europe. The flow of millions of people out of Syria creates security challenges, imposes huge social service burdens on often vulnerable countries, and fuels nativist political movements. Embattled allies are as much a problem as emboldened foes.

The problem isn’t that the United States doesn’t have aims in Syria. Tillerson laid out five reasonable desired end states: ensuring the country is not a base for terrorist activity against the United States, supporting its transition to post-Assad government, diminishing Iran’s influence, returning refugees and internally displaced people, and preventing Syria from again holding weapons of mass destruction.

But Tillerson was sent into battle unarmed. His speech preached heightened diplomacy, but he had been given few tools to increase his leverage. Money could make a potential difference, but Tillerson spoke as if his government was not behind him. He promised stabilization assistance in areas liberated from the Islamic State group (ISG), but he did not give an amount and stated clearly that “‘stabilization’ is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction.” A few minutes later, he warned that “The United States, the EU, and regional partners will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime.” The latter seems to incentivize the Syrian people and the international community to turn away from Assad, but when combined with the first statement, it reads almost like a huge loophole. The Assad government is consolidating its power, and that relieves the United States of any obligation to help. It reads more like an excuse than a bargaining chip.

The military situation isn’t much better. Militarily, the United States has a presence in northeastern Syria, a place that may have looked like paradise to the ISG but which is desolate, isolated, and sparsely populated. Tillerson declared that the U.S. military mission is open-ended, but he was less clear on exactly what those troops should do or whom they should be fighting. Much of the action that will matter most in Syria is further afield, in the northwestern part of Syria near Idlib that has gathered most of the remaining jihadi fighters in the country, and the southwestern part along the Jordanian border that is now a deconfliction zone.

What U.S. troops are doing now is furrowing their collective brow as Turkey assaults the positions of Syrian Kurdish forces long aligned with the United States. Turkey is a NATO ally, and it seems unthinkable that the United States would confront Turkish troops. At the same time, Turkey seems to regard the Syrian Kurdish forces with whom the United States is working as a greater priority than the ISG, al Qaeda, or any other state actor engaged in the region.

What Turkey is doing, which the United States is not doing, is acting to increase its leverage. The Syria conflict is entering a new phase, and positions are hardening. Turks are not seeking compromises to allay allies’ fears or speaking vaguely of their plans for the future. Turkey is acting as if it cares, because it does care.

It is hard to cover up this basic fact: The United States is less committed to shaping an outcome in Syria than any of the major antagonists—the Assad government, the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians, or any of the combatant groups on the ground. The United States has sought to find a least-common-denominator for efforts in Syria to build partnership. It should be seeking pathways in Syria that the other parties fear in order to build leverage.

Two fundamental things were missing from Tillerson’s presentation, and they will haunt the U.S. effort in Syria. The first is a clear statement intended to persuade the American public that Syria really matters. After open-ended engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan that yielded mixed results, Americans are skeptical of another U.S. commitment in southwest Asia. But being a player in how Syria evolves will require commitment, and the public must support the effort. It doesn’t now, and Tillerson did not do much to move that ball forward.

The second thing is a genuine commitment that is not merely about money and troops, but also governmental focus and effort. Where does Syria fit on the list of U.S. global priorities? It is hard to say, but Tillerson’s speech implicitly suggested it wasn’t very high.

The fault cannot all be laid at Tillerson’s feet. Since the uprising against Assad began seven years ago, Syria has mattered more than the U.S. government has wanted to admit. Ignoring Syria’s importance does not make it less so. It only makes the United States more impotent.

(This commentary originally appeared in the January edition of Middle East Notes and Comment, a newsletter of the CSIS Middle East Program.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program