Will Syria Be Trump's Next Foreign Policy Blunder?
With the Trump administration celebrating its first anniversary, this much is obvious: American politics has changed in remarkable, disturbing, cringe-inducing ways. But many things have not changed, like the bloody, unholy pit of despair that has defined Syria for the past seven years. The violence may no longer be at its peak, but it is still sufficiently terrible that UN humanitarian and refugee officials blast out press releases predicting a man-made apocalypse if the Assad regime does not allow aid workers unfettered and unconditional access to the millions of civilians a few short weeks away from life-ending malnutrition. Bashar al-Assad, of course, has no intention of doing so, nor does he particularly care about the international community’s pleas for mercy.
Indeed, at the same time that Russian and Iranian-backed Syrian troops and pro-government militias are in the process of bombarding Idlib to eliminate even the most token resistance, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the sunny campus of Stanford University trying to convince everyone in attendance that, yes, the Trump administration does have a Syria policy. The White House is not twisting in the wind as it is commonly portrayed in the mainstream media. Instead, it is focused on doing what the Obama administration failed to do: using U.S. military might to pressure the Russians, who in turn would pressure the Assad regime to negotiate a peace settlement to the seven-year conflict. “We recognize Syria presents many complexities,” Tillerson told the crowd in attendance. “Our proposed solutions will not be easy to achieve . . . we will seek to de-escalate the civil war in Syria, work for peace, and encourage all parties to head to the negotiating table.”
If those policy objectives sound familiar, that is because they are. President Obama, too, attempted to work with the Russians to establish a UN-led negotiating process that would bring Assad representatives and the Syrian political opposition together, but the regime proved to be so radically opposed to any mention of Assad’s removal from office that the process has bogged down into arguments over protocol rather than substantive issues.
The Trump administration, however, is not limiting itself to these three basic goals. Their objectives are far more ambitious—so ambitious, in fact, that one could be forgiven for labeling them delusional.
According to Tillerson, the administration’s Syria policy revolves around five key points: mop up ISIS remnants and keeping U.S. troops in Syria so the group doesn’t regenerate; facilitate the provision of basic reconstruction assistance to towns and cities liberated from the terrorist group; prevent further Iranian expansion; speed up a UN-led political transition process; and create the conditions whereby millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people can return to their homes. “Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for,” Tillerson said, “but change will come.”
Or will it?
There is no question whatsoever that the vast majority of Syrians would like to wake up one morning and find Bashar al-Assad having packed up his things for a comfortable exile in Moscow. Many others would prefer Assad to be arrested, flown to the Hague to be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and then sentenced to live out the rest of his days in prison. Washington would certainly like to see that; indeed, for all of Trump’s supposed affinity and sympathy for dictators and authoritarians, Bashar al-Assad isn’t a part of that club. Trump has called him a killer of children, a war criminal, an animal, and an evil man who has committed some of the gravest crimes in the twenty-first century—all of which are true and reiterated in less forceful tones by Tillerson in his remarks yesterday.
But thoughts and emotions don't make a concrete policy, let alone a policy the United States can actually achieve. Tillerson’s speech was high on hope and grandeur with the typical talking points that Republicans and Democrats in Washington have used ever since Assad first ordered his military to shoot peaceful protesters in March 2011: that Assad is such a murderous despot that he does not deserve any role in a Syrian political transition. Tillerson said that with time, patience, and persistence, Assad will be pressured into vacating the presidential palace in Damascus. Syrians will then have the best opportunity that they have ever had in their lives to begin the process of writing a new constitution for the post-Assad era. And the UN will finally be able to start scheduling presidential and parliamentary elections, to which the Assad clan would be barred from participating in.
The address, full of optimism on what could be accomplished, was short on the very details that would take those hopes and turn them into realities.
How, for example, would keeping several thousand U.S. troops in northeast Syria in perpetuity correlate into an acceleration of the Syria talks in Geneva, a diplomatic process that is on tinder hooks after eight rounds of negotiations? Are we really to believe that Assad, who has no incentive whatsoever to negotiate his own resignation or a diminution of his political power, will tremble in his boots and suddenly become a new man once he realizes that U.S. soldiers will remain stationed in his country? Let’s not forget that U.S. special operations forces and advisers have been operating on Syrian soil for years now, a deployment that has had zero impact at all on the regime’s willingness to participate in conflict-ending diplomacy. How would this deployment be any different?
Tillerson intimated in his speech that Washington will redouble its focus on combating Iranian influence in Syria, a goal that many inside and outside the Beltway would unquestionably support. But what does countering Iranian influence mean in practice? If it means authorizing the U.S. military to fight Tehran-backed Shia militias on the ground, this would be the definition of mission creep and a campaign with a dubious legal foundation. Congress has not authorized the use of U.S. military personnel to fight the Syrian government, not to mention Iranian paramilitaries or Iranian operatives. So what legal basis would the Trump administration cite to pursue an Iran-centric strategy in Syria? Tillerson didn’t say, preferring instead to focus on common boilerplate language about the necessity of forestalling a complete Iranian takeover of the Levant. These are terrific lines that Washington hawks will eat up like juicy steaks in one of Trump's hotels, but they won't be enough to persuade the American people—many of whom would rather stay away from the Syria mess entirely—that yet another indefinite American military commitment in the Arab world is in the U.S. national-security interest.
If Tillerson’s address was meant to clarify to the American people and to America’s allies in the region what the Trump administration’s Syria policy consists of, he missed the mark. In the end, we are left with even more questions.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.