The raging battle between two U.S. allies in northern Syria is a stark illustration that despite some new rhetoric, the Trump administration still lacks the will and leverage needed to lead a solution to the Syrian crisis, or even to properly defend U.S. interests there.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson correctly identified the United States’ challenges in post-Islamic State Syria in a speech two weeks ago in California, including confronting the ongoing terrorist threat, Iranian expansion and Bashar al-Assad’s brutal aggression. By announcing that U.S. troops would remain in the country, Tillerson seemed to acknowledge that on-the-ground influence is necessary for the United States to achieve its objectives.
Inside the administration, officials tell me that getting Syria policy that far was a herculean effort. Many in President Trump’s orbit still advocate focusing solely on the Islamic State and letting the rest of Syria’s chips fall where they may. There’s still a contingent that wants to cut and run.
While the Trump administration now says publicly that the United States does have long-term interests in Syria, it hasn’t yet connected that to a real plan. What’s clear is that the current U.S. commitment in Syria is not enough.
“Those who know history know everything is a question of leverage,” French author Bernard-Henri Lévy told me.
As Turkey’s assault on Syrian Kurdish forces near its border continues into its second bloody week, the Trump administration has chosen to tacitly endorse the campaign. Lévy sees that as a betrayal of the Kurds, who have fought the Islamic State with U.S. support and share the basic values and goals of the United States.
In his view, both the Obama and Trump administrations abdicated responsibility and leadership in Syria, creating a vacuum that authoritarian powers Turkey, Iran and Russia have rushed to fill. Those powers saw the United States abandon Iraqi Kurds when Iraqi and Iranian militias attacked them last year, and they calculate that there’s no cost for attacking Syrian Kurds today.
“The real interest of America is to support the Kurds because they are faithful allies. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is not a faithful ally,” Lévy said, calling the United States’ tolerance of Turkey’s assault a “scandal.”
Tillerson last week said the United States is trying to persuade Turkey to limit the scope of its attacks on the Kurds in the Afrin area of Syria. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials are scrambling to prevent Turkish forces from attacking nearby Manbij, where U.S. forces sit, as Erdogan has threatened to do.
Others argue the United States can and should respect Turkish security concerns but need not throw the Kurds under the bus in the process. Yet even if the Trump team can strike that balance, it wouldn’t address the fundamental flaw in its Syria strategy — a lack of sufficient leverage on the ground to realize Tillerson’s vision.
“We have committed ourselves to a very tactical, myopic fight in Syria from the very beginning, which has worsened these broader strategic issues, including the relationship with Turkey, the Syrian civil war and confronting Iran,” said Wa’el Alzayat, a former State Department official who now runs a nonprofit organization called Emgage.
The Trump administration is still repeating many of President Barack Obama’s key mistakes. The United States is depending on Russia to exert pressure on the Assad regime, which Moscow has proven unwilling or unable to do. The Trump administration touts a U.N.-sponsored peace process as the political way forward, but it has been a perennial failure. The effort to confront Iran in Syria is not properly resourced. There’s no real pressure on Assad to halt his mass atrocities.
What are the alternatives? Short of a large increase in U.S. troops, which nobody is advocating, there are several ways the United States can strengthen its hand in Syria. First, the United States must not abandon the Kurds it has trained. That could prompt them to strike deals with the Assad regime or Russia, with horrendous consequences.
Second, the United States must make a play for influence with Arab groups that still occupy and defend Sunni-populated areas. This means resuming support for moderate rebels, especially in Idlib province, where the Assad regime and its partners are advancing. It also means adding more Arabs to the Syrian Democratic Forces and supporting local governance in areas not under Assad’s control.
Third, the Trump administration should raise the pressure on Assad, Russia and Iran, including through sanctions, the credible threat of U.S. force and whatever else might persuade them to honor de-escalation agreements they are violating and negotiate in good faith. As of now, they have no intention to do so.
A year into Trump’s presidency, his administration is saying the United States has a long-term interest in Syria. The next step is to match those words with action.