Can Trump End the War in Syria?
The “Art of the Syrian Deal” is possible.
With the near-doubling of U.S. forces in northern Syria, and perhaps more on the way, President Donald Trump is moving aggressively on his pledge to “demolish and destroy” what remains of the Islamic State. American troops, backing a coalition of Kurds and Arabs known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), now have Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic States’s self-described caliphate, in their sights. Meanwhile, the Trump administration seems to be ramping up the intensity of the U.S. bombing campaign against al Qaeda’s deadly Syrian affiliate. But the lasting defeat of the Islamic State and al Qaeda will take more than American firepower — it will require a clear strategy to end the Syrian civil war. As long as the conflict rages, it will be impossible to address the underlying drivers of extremism and reorient combatants to truly eliminate the terrorist threat.
Six years of grinding war has left Syria a deeply fractured land. Yet this very fragmentation provides an opportunity for the Trump administration to work with Russia and key regional states to de-escalate the conflict and reach an enduring political settlement. Doing so will require close coordination with regional allies. But, more than anything else, it will also require the Trump administration to do three things it has to date not been keen to do: play hardball with Moscow, provide foreign aid to Syria, and engage Iran.
The Syrian war has effectively divided the country into six geographic zones, each dominated by a different constellation of local groups backed by external powers. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — supported by Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, Russia, and Shia militias recruited from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan — rules over a statelet centered in the coastal and western-central region of the country. In the northwest, Idlib province is home to much of the remaining armed opposition, including a powerful extremist bloc led by al Qaeda. North and east of Aleppo, the Turkish military and Turkish-backed opposition forces — with U.S. support — have carved out a 500-square-mile buffer zone, with the twin goals of pushing the Islamic State from Turkey’s border and preventing Syrian Kurds from linking up the territory they control to form an autonomous state. Elsewhere in the north, Washington has backed the very Kurds Turkey despises, supporting the SDF as it has cleared a huge swath of northern and eastern Syria from the Islamic State. In other parts of eastern Syria resides what is left of the Islamic State’s caliphate, including the key bastions of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor (where Assad’s regime also maintains an outpost). And finally, in the far south, a coalition of moderate Southern Front opposition forces, supported by Jordan and (indirectly) Israel, control territory along the Jordanian border. In January, these de facto zones of control provided the foundation for Iran, Russia, and Turkey to broker a fragile cessation of hostilities in western Syria. If the Trump administration moves out decisively, it has an opportunity to build off the Astana process, and take advantage of the influence derived from the expanding U.S.-managed territorial zone in northern and eastern Syria, to push for a resolution to the conflict.
Such an effort should start by seeking to broaden existing arrangements to produce a national cease-fire, with the major foreign actor in each zone of control being primarily responsible for enforcement, security, and ensuring unfettered distribution of humanitarian assistance. Achieving this outcome will require deft diplomacy to address fundamental tensions along the seams of existing zones — most notably managing Turkish fears of Kurdish expansion in northern Syria. But, if successful, it could potentially produce the “interim zones of stability” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded to during a recent meeting of foreign ministers from the 68-nation counter-Islamic State coalition, and enable parties to the conflict to shift their focus to defeating the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
It would then open space for negotiating a political settlement that would reflect the current realities on the ground, shifting power away from Damascus (and Assad), and allowing opposition groups considerable control over local security and governance. While the opposition and its backers would clearly prefer a transition away from Assad altogether, it is hard to see the United States and its allies mustering sufficient military pressure on the regime or the Russians and Iranians to force such an outcome. A more realistic approach would seek to leverage the exhaustion of all the parties, the inability of the regime to retake the entire country, and the shifting calculus of regional states more concerned with combating terrorism than unseating Assad, to press the regime and the opposition to accept a decentralized arrangement.
Getting to this outcome will be extraordinary difficult and will require the Trump administration to go against its instincts in a number of important respects. First, it will require Washington to get tough with Moscow in order to push Assad to freeze the conflict and accept a decentralized political solution. The United States possesses important leverage — in the form of potential counterterrorism cooperation — to induce Russian agreement. Although Trump often talks about the benefits of cooperating with Russia to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism,” the United States does not need Russia to crush the caliphate or target al Qaeda plotters in Syria. On the contrary, it is Moscow that desperately wants American counterterrorism cooperation to legitimize Russia’s intervention.
The Trump administration could offer to coordinate with Russia on clearing and holding remaining Islamic State hotspots in the east and work with them to clear al Qaeda from opposition-held territory in Idlib. But any arrangement with Moscow must come with significant strings attached or it is likely to exacerbate the violence. The opposition will never agree to a lasting ceasefire or a political outcome that keeps Assad in Damascus, even with greatly diminished powers, if the regime (or the Russians) remain free to wantonly bomb opposition areas in the name of fighting “terrorism.” It is therefore essential for the Trump administration to condition any counterterrorism cooperation with Russia on commitments to keep Assad’s air force from operating over remaining opposition-controlled areas across the country. The administration should also push Russia to hold back Iranian-initiated ground offensives in these areas, and it should condition any sharing of U.S. targeting information on credible Russian commitments to align air operations with the laws of war and provide Washington veto rights over targets. In exchange, the United States would coordinate with Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to pressure the armed opposition to distance itself and, where possible, confront extremist groups, particularly al Qaeda.
When the Obama administration attempted to negotiate similar conditions last fall, in the context of the regime’s assault on Aleppo, Russia proved unwilling or unable to meet them. The same may hold true today. But, given changed circumstances on the ground and the high cost to Assad and his backers if they attempt to take the entire country back by force, it is worth the Trump administration retesting the proposition. If instead the Trump administration pursues unconditional counterterrorism cooperation with Russia, the humanitarian horrors of Aleppo will be repeated in other opposition areas, pushing more rebels into the hands of extremists.
American commitments to mobilize international resources to fund the stabilization and reconstruction of Syria in the context of a peace agreement is another essential piece of leverage with Russia, Assad, and other key parties to the conflict. Rough estimates suggest that hundreds of billions of dollars will be required to rebuild Syria. Absent concerted efforts by the United States, working alongside the United Nations, the European Union, and wealthy Gulf states, the regime and its backers will be left holding the bag. This gives the Trump administration and its allies tremendous leverage to shape the outcome of the Syrian conflict, if they are willing to use it.
Trump clearly disdains anything that smacks of “nation building,” and the deep cuts he has proposed to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development budgets suggest that he places little value on foreign and humanitarian assistance. Yet the offer to work with the international community to raise money to rebuild Syria should not be seen as charity — it should be viewed as a strategic imperative. It is the only way to prevent extremists reemerging from the rubble of liberated areas.
Resolving the Syrian war will require Trump to move beyond his comfort zone in a final respect as well: The administration will have to talk to Iran. Trump has railed against the Iran nuclear deal and put Iran “on notice” for its ballistic missile tests and other destabilizing behavior. The president has shown no appetite to resolve tensions with Tehran through dialogue — but, in Syria, he has little choice.
Iran has invested in Syria for decades. And, over six years of war, Iran has built significant networks of influence throughout the parts of the country under Assad’s control. Given Assad’s dependence on Iran, the strategic importance Iran places on maintaining ties with the regime as a means of projecting power into the Levant, and the significant investments in blood and treasure made by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it is unrealistic to expect Iran’s influence to be substantially reduced anytime soon. Therefore, if the Trump administration adopts a strategy of pure confrontation with Tehran in Syria, or conditions any U.S. deal with Russia and other regional states on Iran’s complete withdrawal, that approach will fail. Instead, the administration has to engage Iran directly — at least in multilateral settings — to identify a workable solution.
Outreach to Iran will unsettle some of America’s regional partners, especially Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have supported the opposition in Syria in large part to blunt and bleed Iran and Israel. But there are options to address Gulf state concerns about Iran in other ways. In exchange for Gulf state support for de-escalation and decentralization in Syria, as well as help in financing reconstruction, the Trump administration could offer more assertive U.S. cooperation to interdict and disrupt Iranian support for Houthi militants in Yemen — a form of Iranian influence that much more directly implicates Saudi interests and is of lesser priority to Iran. The Trump administration could also offer to expand efforts begun under the Obama administration to enhance Gulf military capabilities — especially in areas such as special operations, maritime and missile defense, and cyber — to counter Iran’s asymmetric capabilities and influence throughout the region.
Israel, America’s closest regional ally, would also be displeased with Iran’s continued influence in Syria. Nevertheless, Israeli leaders would likely see real value in an agreement that instantiated a buffer zone in southern Syria to help keep the IRGC off Israel’s border and empower moderate opposition forces to target Sunni extremists that might otherwise threaten the Jewish state. And the Trump administration could further address Israeli concerns through intelligence cooperation aimed at thwarting the transfer of advanced Iranian weapons systems across the Syrian border to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Trump has understandably prioritized the destruction of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State and al Qaeda. But, if he wants to truly vanquish these threats in a sustainable way, he has no choice but to tackle the Syrian war. Developments on the ground provide an opportunity to do just that. The “Art of the Syrian Deal” is possible. But it will take real leadership, a willingness to strike tough bargains with adversaries and allies alike, and the use all instruments of American power — not just the military one — to achieve a lasting peace.
Image credit: Institute for the Study of War/LiveUAMap
Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.
Ilan Goldenberg is a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security program at the Center for a New American Security. Previously, he served as chief of staff to the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative to conduct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.