The agonising conflict in Syria, which has vexed the administrations of former United States president Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, is growing increasingly complex and dangerous. Now, more than ever, the US needs to clarify its strategic objectives in Syria and pursue them with ruthless discipline.
Russia and Iran have paid dearly to enable the Syrian leader, Bashar Al Assad, to dismantle the opposition and will stay in Syria to prop him up. Daesh has been dislodged from its “caliphate” but not yet defeated. And the horrific humanitarian plight of the Syrian people endures.
America’s policy options, ever bad, are more limited and less effectual than ever. The air strikes launched last Saturday by the US, France and Britain sent a necessary, calibrated message to Al Assad that the civilised world does not countenance chemical weapons use. But their deterrent effect is likely, again, to be fleeting, not least because the US — wary of provoking a wider conflict — has twice demonstrated that it will not use regime-threatening force to punish Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Moreover, the US has been deliberately ambiguous about whether its current “red line” is the use of chlorine gas alone, to which the US and its allies have never responded with force. (American officials have said the recent attack in Douma may have involved both chlorine and a far deadlier nerve agent, sarin, stores of which Syria seems to have surreptitiously retained or reconstituted despite a 2013 agreement to eliminate them.) If the US responds to incidents involving only chlorine, it will be striking Syria more frequently.
Most dangerously, the Syrian conflict now pits big players against one another: Israel versus Iran, the US versus Iran and Russia, and Turkey versus American-backed Kurds. These standoffs risk escalating into sustained conflict, even if worst-case scenarios can still be avoided.
Against this backdrop, the US must be clear about its interests and strict about avoiding mission creep. Here, despite their evident differences, the Obama and Trump administrations have proved more alike than not.
Mindful of the lessons of Iraq, each administration has defined the primary goal as defeating Daesh, not regime change. Each has sought to avoid entanglement in a wider war that requires a large, lasting commitment of American troops. (While the Trump administration has emphasised thwarting Iran’s ambitions in Syria, it has not put much muscle behind that aim.)
The path forward will continue to be perilous and deeply unsatisfying.
First, America and its allies must maintain current force levels (approximately 2,000 US troops) to defeat Daesh and Al Qaida elements, forswearing any premature withdrawal. Daesh will regain ground if America creates a vacuum.
With its partners, the US must help secure, rebuild and establish effective local governance in liberated areas. This will allow the US to thwart Iranian ambitions to control territory spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; retain influence in major oil-producing areas; and deny Al Assad a substantial portion of Syrian territory, pending a diplomatic solution. Yes, this is nation-building, or at least region building. But to abandon liberated areas is to roll out the red carpet for terrorists.
Second, the US should continue to refrain from deposing Al Assad militarily. The costs of this endeavour have always exceeded the obvious benefits. Now with Russia and Iran so deeply invested in sustaining him, the risks of that strategy have only increased. The US should keep avoiding direct conflict with Russia; limit the risk of Israel from coming to blows with Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah; and defuse the conflict between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, whose help America still needs against the Islamic State. This does not mean allowing Russia and Iran free rein. Rather, the US must push back firmly and smartly, preferably with allies, whether with respect to chemical weapons or other outrages.
Third, the US must sustain its generous humanitarian assistance to Syrians inside the country and in neighbouring states, and immediately halt the inhumane and hypocritical policy of refusing admission to all Syrian refugees.
Finally, the US should renew its push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. While American leverage has declined, its diplomatic weight is still substantial. For Syria to be viable, it needs a government chosen by its people. Without that, it will not be a unitary state able to prevent terrorists from exploiting its territory.
Though Russia, Iran and Al Assad have less incentive to negotiate, the US has two potentially valuable cards to play. These steps won’t end the Syrian civil war, bring back the innumerable lives lost, nor assuage our collective moral conscience. But they will keep the US focused on clear and achievable objectives, avoid strategic overreach and wisely tend to America’s core national interests.
— New York Times News Service
Susan E. Rice was the 24th US national security adviser.