Syria Is the Current Theater for Strategic Competition: Time to Step Up
The Trump administration seems to be adopting a narrowly scoped strategy in Syria, similar to that of the Obama administration. Is this a reflection of how little Syria matters to U.S. interests? No doubt the complexity and high risks of the range of choices in Syria have constrained U.S. strategy development and policy options over the last seven years. Yet, the Syrian conflict is the arena in which U.S. adversaries are testing deterrence, competition, and the bedrock normative frameworks that undergird U.S. and international security. Hal Brands has written that the “American Century” died in Syria, giving way to the twenty-first century’s great power conflicts and autocracy. The United States, working with allies and partners, may yet have an opportunity to pursue a broader and comprehensive approach in Syria to implement the principles and guidelines of its National Security and National Defense Strategies and begins to set the United States back on its competitive footing in the region.
The U.S. administration’s waning strategy has become increasingly evident amidst recent escalations in the Syrian conflict. While the administration rightly mobilized an international coalition and sought to minimize Syrian civilian, Russian, and Iranian casualties in the combined U.S., British, and French response to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s most recent use of chemical weapons, the strikes set back but did not destroy the regime’s ability to use and produce chemical weapons. Nor has the response deterred the Syrian regime’s conventional attacks on its own population, the primary means by which Assad has targeted Syrian citizens, aided and abetted by Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, though U.S. allies and senior U.S. military and government officials are urging President Trump to keep U.S. forces in northeastern Syria, the scope and longevity of the U.S. mission remains in question. Despite communications from both the Departments of State and Defense that the United States remains committed to the defeat of ISIS, the White House has affirmed President Trump’s unchanged views on U.S. involvement in Syria, and foreign assistance funding for stabilization efforts remains frozen. The United States, showing flagging support for a sustained commitment in Syria, is increasingly losing its remaining leverage in Syria to Iran and Russia. It must adjust course so as not to facilitate a complete win for Iran and Russia in Syria.
Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria buttressed the Assad regime and enabled it to consolidate gains in Syria’s western spine. Russia is also learning how to disrupt U.S. military operations in Syria that could be applied in other operational contexts. Russia’s support to Assad, tolerance of the regime’s repeated use of chemical weapons and conventional onslaught against Syrian civilians, and its obstructive actions within the UN Security Council contrast with its attempts to use the Astana diplomatic platform with Iran and Turkey as an alternative to the UN-backed Geneva peace effort. As General Joseph Votel, U.S. CENTCOM commander, noted, Russia is playing both firefighter and arsonist in Syria. The United States should seek opportunities for collaboration on areas of mutual interest with the Russian government, such as countering the remaining elements of ISIS and brokering a diplomatic end to the civil war. This may well entail continued Russian military presence in Syria, but Russia could be convinced of the need to transition peacefully away from Assad to another leader that will support its presence. While opportunity exists for U.S.-Russian coordination in Syria, the United States and its allies must hold Russia accountable for its failures to act as a responsible geopolitical leader. The United States should work with its European allies to compel Russian adherence to international norms and laws through multilateral diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and judicial accountability mechanisms. Leaving Syria for “others to sort out” will strengthen Russia’s hand not only in Syria but provide further reinforcement of perceptions among U.S. partners of the United States’ declining influence and Russia’s rise in the region and undermine other U.S. policy goals and security relationships.
Meanwhile, Iran’s entrenchment in Syria has prompted successive and escalating Israeli incursions in Syria. Substantial Iranian-backed militias, growing missile and weapons capabilities within Syria, and
materiel support to the Assad government enable Tehran’s influence. Iran has built an expeditionary military capability to project its regional power throughout the Levant and beyond, leveraging operational experience gained in Syria. Though recent Israeli action against Iranian targets may indicate U.S. intentions to burden share an Iran deterrence strategy with its partners, such actions must be incorporated into a broader strategy forged by the United States and its allies and partners to manage miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. The fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement designed to curb Iran’s nuclear program, is uncertain, given indications that President Trump may pull U.S. support from the deal. If the United States withdraws from the JCPOA, it would imperil Iran’s adherence to the deal, further escalate U.S-Iranian tensions, with the likely redoubling of Iranian regional malign activities. It also would severely strain the U.S. relationship with its European allies, which will be needed to maintain resolve in deterring Iranian malign behavior and to create leverage in political negotiations on Syria’s future, among other global challenges. As the Trump administration seeks to burden share with its regional partners, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as a counterbalance toward Iranian activity, it is imperative that further confrontation be measured in the context of a broader and coordinated approach. Staying in the JCPOA, while exerting stronger pressure on Iranian proxy networks via financial, cyber, information operations, and, where necessary and calibrated, direct and indirect kinetic operations, can help disrupt Iranian activities in Syria and beyond.
To strengthen its competitiveness in the region, the United States must also shore up relations with its difficult ally Turkey. Already strained tensions between the United States and its NATO ally have been exacerbated by the U.S. support of Kurdish militias for counterterrorism and stabilization missions in northeastern Syria. These militias have linkages with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish terrorist group that Turkey has been battling for nearly three decades. The United States should not abandon Kurdish partners that have been instrumental in the fight against ISIS, but it should seriously explore opportunities that also exist in northeastern Syria for collaboration with Turkey. Security cooperation, intelligence sharing, and border security coordination could improve U.S.-Turkish relations and reinforce stabilization efforts the United States is conducting in the east. Working with Turkey to understand pain points but also possible innovations in its own stabilization efforts following Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria should be part of this approach. Decreasing the presence of Kurdish militias around Manbij would likely deescalate tensions.
At the same time, the United States should endorse politically the semiautonomous, locally governed regions in northern and eastern Syria where it has struck partnerships and made investments with Arab, Kurd, and minority group leaders. It should reinforce that commitment through the Geneva process that aims to preserve the Syrian state’s unity through a negotiated political outcome. Under the Geneva framework, the United States and its allies should encourage Arab-Kurd dialogue and de-confliction, as well as negotiating channels on technical details of stabilization. This step is imperative, given rising ethnic tensions in northeastern Syria.
Withdrawal of U.S. force presence and stabilization assistance from northeastern Syria could threaten a backslide that would undermine nascent steps toward stability and create conditions for the potential resurgence of ISIS or other actors looking to fill the power vacuum. The United States should work to consolidate the gains made through coalition efforts in northeastern Syria, connecting withdrawal to conditions on the ground vice arbitrary timelines. Capitalizing on the willingness of regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia, the United States should mobilize a wider international coalition to fund and provide technical expertise for stabilization. This is not the U.S. burden to carry alone. But it can only happen if the United States is willing to maintain the level of resources currently on the ground to preserve influence to positively shape stabilization and counterterrorism efforts there. Moreover, without helping to craft a guiding multinational framework of goals and principles for stabilizing this area, which provides a clear mandate and rules of engagement, encouraging regional partners to send their own troops to the
area may well serve as a magnet for extremist groups and allow individual country contributors to pursue their own possibly contradictory objectives.
The U.S. goal should be the territorial integrity of Syria. However, absent steps to address failures of governance at both the national and local level, the return of Sunni insurgency and violent extremist groups is guaranteed, which Assad, Russia, and Iran will exploit to their advantage. Political and economic pressure to end the targeting of civilians and move to diplomatic negotiations, combined with bottom-up stabilization and resiliency building at the local community level in northeastern Syria, and, where possible in southern Syria, must receive equal prioritization and unified resourcing in U.S., allied, and partner strategy.
The alternative is stark: to cede a complete victory to Iran and Russia and strengthen their platform for regional influence. Syria has become the stage on which power politics and competition are performed. The last seven years have proven that conflict in Syria cannot be contained, and a withdrawal of U.S. commitment will only further embolden U.S. competitors, who are actively working to destabilize U.S., allied, and partner interests in the region. As the Trump administration determines its path forward, it is imperative that it recognize the height of the stakes in Syria and operationalize there the national security and defense strategies it has articulated.
Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program and director of the Cooperative Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Timothy Robbins is an intern in the CSIS International Security Program.
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