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Opinion Gen. Lloyd Austin has a chance to fix his legacy on Syria

Retired general Lloyd Austin on Dec. 9 in Wilmington, Del.
Retired general Lloyd Austin on Dec. 9 in Wilmington, Del. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

The incoming Biden administration is pledging to fix the failed Obama and Trump policies on Syria. This week, President-elect Joe Biden nominated as his defense secretary a retired U.S. Army general with a long and controversial history there. But if the Senate approves Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, he will have an opportunity to fix both the policy and his legacy.

Biden wrote this week that he picked Austin because of his record in the Middle East, noting that Austin oversaw both the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 and their subsequent redeployment there to fight the Islamic State. Mentioning Syria only in passing, Biden wrote that Austin “designed and executed the campaign that ultimately beat back” the terrorist group. When Austin faces senators during his confirmation, many Republicans are sure to point out there’s another side to that story.

A 2015 video circulating widely in Washington shows Austin, then in charge of Central Command, being scolded by then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) for failing to support measures to protect Syrian civilians or to develop a viable strategy for protecting U.S. interests there.

“I have never seen a hearing that is as divorced from the reality of every outside expert and what you are saying,” McCain told Austin.

Also in that testimony, Austin admitted Centcom’s $500 million train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels had produced only “four or five” trained fighters who survived the first battle. For Syria-watchers, the Obama administration’s policy as partially implemented by Austin was, as McCain said, “an abject failure.”

But that is not Austin’s fault; he was obeying orders and following the Obama White House’s lead. As many have recently noted, Austin is known for being a competent manager and a loyal soldier, never putting his own views or interests ahead of his orders. Some say these characteristics are weaknesses for a defense secretary, who ought to be a strategic visionary and a policy wonk. But Austin may prove to be those things as well. If confirmed, he will for the first time have the chance to make policy, not just implement it.

If Austin chooses to advocate for a more assertive Syria policy (which does not mean a more militarized policy), he will find a natural ally in Secretary of State Antony Blinken (if Blinken, too, is confirmed). Blinken told me in September that U.S. Syria policy has consistently failed to stop the tragic loss of life there and that “it’s something we will need to act on.”

It’s common to say there’s nothing to be done in Syria, but Austin knows that isn’t true. His intimate experience overseeing the military mission there is ideal for leveraging the few hundred U.S. troops remaining in the country to support a reinvigorated diplomatic process led by Blinken. But we don’t yet know if that’s what Austin wants to do.

“We need to see some indication that Austin and Blinken are aligned around what a U.S. policy on Syria will be in a Biden administration and whether Austin is prepared to support the agenda that Blinken has set out publicly,” said Steven Heydemann, director of Middle East studies at Smith College.

Biden himself has said a limited troop presence in Syria is needed to protect U.S. interests and that of our allies, including the Kurds. But there are still many former Obama administration officials around Biden who see Syria as too far gone to save and a complicating factor in the more important policy issues of Iraq and Iran.

“Some of the fractures that hampered the effectiveness of the Obama administration approach have not yet been resolved,” Heydemann said.

Austin and Blinken could find support for doing more in Syria by reaching across the aisle. On Thursday, the Republican Study Committee, a group of some 150 conservative House lawmakers, introduced a bill called the “Stop the Killing in Syria Act,” which lays out a broad menu of options for protecting Syrian civilians — without adding one more U.S. soldier.

Those ideas include sanctions on all Syrian officials involved in torture of civilians in custody, sanctions on all third-country entities that do business with the Assad regime, and new measures to stop the financing or normalizing of Assad. Meanwhile, the bill proposes economic incentives for Syrians living outside Assad’s rule in order to alleviate their suffering without enriching the regime.

Biden won’t like all the committee’s ideas, such as removing Assad from power. But the Biden team could use some of these proposals to consolidate what leverage the United States has and to increase the pressure on Assad to return to a diplomatic process Washington can influence.

An honest Syria policy is one that recognizes that protecting civilians and mounting a new diplomatic push is both moral and in our strategic interest. Austin is an honorable man who should now chart his own waters and give Biden his honest assessment, not what Obama’s old advisers want him to say. That’s the difference between being a good general and a good secretary of defense.

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Read more:

David Ignatius: Lloyd Austin’s qualities may have worked for him as a general, but not as defense secretary

The Post’s View: Can a retired general restore order at the Pentagon? There’s reason for doubt.

Max Boot: Warfare is evolving fast. We need a secretary of defense who is an agent of change.

Jennifer Rubin: Five big challenges for the Biden foreign policy team