The Trump administration shares with Russia and all of the regional powers of the Middle East the same nominal end goal in Syria — a political transition that creates a new, decentralized government that can reestablish sovereignty throughout the country.
The problem, as the nightmare of war and tangled diplomacy of the past seven years has demonstrated, is how to get there. A recent column of mine highlighted how tricky this passage can be, as well as the delicacy of the Geneva negotiations to create a new Syria.
My column Friday noted “a controversial new twist” in thinking about how to stabilize Syria that was “being discussed quietly by some U.S. and Israeli officials.” The puzzle was how to “gradually restore the authority of the Syrian government” in the region east of the Euphrates that’s currently controlled by U.S. Special Forces and their Syrian Kurdish allies. I based this description of the exploratory thinking in America and Israel on descriptions from several knowledgeable sources.
Given the sensitivity of anything involving Syria, it’s important to note that there has been no actual change in U.S. policy. The Trump administration says U.S. forces will remain in northeast Syria until the Islamic State is defeated and the region is sufficiently stabilized to prevent the terrorist group’s return. A senior administration official told me Saturday that there has been no interagency discussion in Washington or with Israel of alternative options.
I noted that some officials see the eventual goal as “return of the state, not return of the regime,” but that this approach can’t mean restoration of power for President Bashar al-Assad, whose massacres of his people won’t be forgiven by millions of Syrians.
By “return of the state,” analysts envision simple initial steps, such as paying teachers salaries, repairing dams and other electrical power facilities, and facilitating delivery of food supplies. They don’t imply, in considering such steps, any bypass of Geneva. Administration officials caution that even these very preliminary measures don’t have explicit U.S. endorsement yet.
The Syria endgame has a conundrum: U.S. forces and their allies now control the eastern third of the country. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies control most of the western two-thirds. Neither the United States nor Russia wants to maintain large combat forces indefinitely, and all sides say they want a unified Syria to emerge from the rubble. But to maintain leverage in the faltering Geneva process, each side backs its proxy forces and seeks to maintain or expand its areas of control — and the bloody conflict continues.