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Opinion Trump is setting his new Syria team up for failure

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia province, Syria, on Dec. 11, 2017.  (Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via Reuters)

Late last week, President Trump appointed two new officials to lead U.S. policy on Syria — and simultaneously slashed U.S. resources for Syrian civilians. Trump is undercutting his State Department’s new effort and repeating the Obama administration’s mistake of trying to negotiate with Russia without real leverage.

On Friday, the State Department announced former ambassador Jim Jeffrey’s appointment as the “secretary’s representative for Syria engagement,” a new position Secretary of State Mike Pompeo created. Jeffrey will handle “all aspects of the Syria conflict,” except the fight against the Islamic State, which will still be handled by Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk, officials said. Former National Security Council staffer Joel Rayburn will now be deputy assistant secretary of state for Levant affairs and special envoy for Syria.

Jeffrey previously served as ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. McGurk has been working on these issues for a decade. David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is expected to be soon named U.S. ambassador to Turkey. Objectively, it’s a top-notch team with deep experience and expertise.

Jeffrey’s marching orders are work with Russia and others to reinvigorate international diplomacy on Syria via the United Nations process under Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for free and fair elections in Syria to transition to a new government. But that wasn’t Friday’s only announcement.

Trump also permanently canceled $230 million of stabilization assistance already appropriated for Syria’s northeast, the region struggling to recover from Islamic State rule where approximately 2,200 U.S. troops are deployed. On Saturday, Trump bragged about stopping what he called the “ridiculous” funding and claimed “rich” regional allies would foot the bill.

Even if others pay for the water restoration, landmine removal and other vital assistance Trump calls “ridiculous,” U.S. influence in that area will suffer. Although Satterfield claimed “there should be no doubt as to the position of the president” on staying in Syria, Trump has repeatedly said the United States will leave Syria “like very soon,” which would diminish U.S. influence even further.

But there’s an even bigger problem with the administration’s new Syria approach. Trump’s policy is predicated on the notion that Russia is interested in the U.N. process and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has an incentive to cooperate. There is, however, little evidence to support either assumption. It’s the same mistake President Barack Obama’s Syria team made for years. Even Pompeo acknowledged in recent testimony that the United States doesn’t have the leverage needed to push forward the Syria political process.

Satterfield said Friday the United States and its allies would withhold huge amounts of reconstruction assistance for Syria as leverage on the Assad regime and Russian President Vladimir Putin: “That’s the door to getting what we believe the regime, the Russians very much want, which is international money flowing into the wreckage that is presently Syria.”

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told me that’s not going to work. Sure, Putin says he wants the West to rebuild Syria, but his priority is ensuring military victory in Syria, not helping Syrian civilians, Graham said.

The ship has sailed on the U.N. political process, Graham said, and there’s no chance dangling money in front of Putin will get it started again. The Obama administration tried this for years. In 2015, then-Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken predicted that Putin would feel the pressure of Russia’s financial burden in Syria and change his calculus.

“That is absolutely naive beyond belief that Putin gives a damn about reconstructing Syria,” said Graham. “They are the people who sided with Assad and Iran that created this mess. We would be chumps to find donors to pay to clean up Russia’s mess for them.”

Putin is now working with Iran and Turkey in a separate diplomatic process based in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. Assad has less reason than ever to cede power. The Trump administration has secretly endorsed a deal with Russia and Israel that seeks to diminish Iranian influence in Syria, but even the Russians admit they don’t have the power to enforce it.

What’s more, Assad and Russia are beginning a fresh assault on Syrian civilians in Idlib province, where hundreds of thousands have fled previous rounds of fighting. To think Assad and Putin are going to deal away their power for promised reconstruction money from the international community anytime soon is pure fantasy.

Of course, Jeffrey and the rest of Trump’s Syria team already know all this. Privately, officials say they are just trying to do their best given the lack of resources from the White House and their understanding that Trump really does want to cut and run. For now, they seem to have persuaded Trump to keep U.S. troops there, but Trump could change his mind at any time.

The United States should contribute to stabilization in areas not controlled by the regime, for strategic and humanitarian reasons, Graham said. He is meeting with Pompeo on Wednesday and pressing him to restore the stabilization funding.

“This idea that we’re not going to help with reconstruction is shortsighted,” said Graham. “The Arabs should pay more, the region should lead the reconstruction effort, but us contributing some money is just good long-term policy.”

Graham said Trump should listen to his generals, who are urging America to keep its presence in Syria, calling for the United States to support Syrian civilians liberated from the Islamic State and saying clearly that Russia cannot be trusted.

“Our presence there keeps the place together, ensures that ISIS doesn’t return and gives us leverage. It’s insane to think we can withdraw from Syria and it not follow us,” he said. “General Obama was terrible. I don’t think General Trump is going to be any better.”

Read more:

Josh Rogin: Trump and Putin may be about to make a terrible deal on Syria

David Ignatius: Is Trump handing Putin a victory in Syria?

Dennis Ross: We already gave Syria to Putin, so what’s left for Trump to say?

Max Boot: To save Syrians, let Assad win

Jamal Khashoggi: It’s time to divide Syria