Best Defense

Thinking through U.S. objectives in Syria

Following President Donald Trump’s decision last month to strike the airfield from which Syrian forces launched their last chemical weapons attack, statements by our nation’s top diplomats — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — offered decidedly mixed messages about what exactly our attack signified.

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By Daniel Nidess
Best Defense guest columnist

Following President Donald Trump’s decision last month to strike the airfield from which Syrian forces launched their last chemical weapons attack, statements by our nation’s top diplomats — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — offered decidedly mixed messages about what exactly our attack signified.

In his official statement, Tillerson focused exclusively on Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Outside of a brief nod to the overall instability in Syria, his lack of comment on the broader issue of how the conflict might be brought to an end suggested that our attack was limited in focus — deterring the continued use of chemical weapons. There was nothing in his comment, or a later one that he made to ABC suggesting that the fate of Assad should be determined by the Syrian people, to imply that the Trump administration had deviated from its initial desire to not be pulled into the broader civil war. In an interview with CNN, however, Haley voiced a significantly different message — that the administration did not “see a peaceful Syria with Assad there” — implying that Trump may have been considering adopting his predecessor’s policy of pushing for Assad’s removal.

So between these two messages, what did our attack signify? Was it solely to punish Assad and his military for the Sarin gas attack with the limited, but clear, goal of reestablishing the international norm against the use of chemical weapons? Or did it signal a broadening of America’s involvement in the Syrian civil war beyond the President’s previously stated goal of focusing exclusively on the destruction of the Islamic State? There is a major distinction between the two and it will have broad implications for both the military and diplomatic options we pursue as well as their longer-term consequences.

Focusing solely on preventing any future use of chemical weapons is a clear, limited, and likely achievable objective. For all of their terror, the fact is that Assad’s chemical weapons have contributed only negligibly to either his fight against the opposition or the slaughter of his civilian population. The overwhelming majority of the nearly half million Syrians killed in this conflict have been killed by conventional weapons. Put simply, the potential destruction of his forces from U.S. retaliation would be more detrimental to his efforts than giving up the use of chemical weapons. This suggests that limited U.S. strikes explicitly in retaliation for chemical attacks, along with careful messaging to the Russians to reign in Assad if they want to keep us from further degrading his military, stand a good chance of working. It also has a high chance of avoiding escalation with the Russians and Iranians by not putting ourselves at direct odds with their aims.

If, however, Haley’s comments did signal a change in policy to actively pursuing the removal of Assad from power then things get, in that quintessential phrase that has been used so often to describe the Syrian conflict … complicated. Do we move beyond verbally calling for his removal to acting on it? If so, do we limit ourselves to supporting the armed opposition or do we conduct expanded military operations ourselves? Thought would have to be given to how we handle the risk of conflict with the Russians and Iranians, who will likely not sit idly by while the regime that they have invested years of blood and wealth supporting is toppled. And then there is the classic question which we have gotten wrong so often in the Middle East, when we’ve even bothered to consider it: What comes next?

Whatever route we take, this decision should be made, first and foremost, by determining what our primary national interests in Syria are. There are a lot of options — ending the conflict and restoring stability, limiting the expansion of Russian and Iranian influence, ending the Syrian refugee crisis, destroying the Islamic State, and limiting the expansion of Islamist extremist groups more generally, to name just a few. Arguably, removing Assad really wouldn’t even be an end in-and-of itself, although it is often what everyone from politicians to the media focuses on, as if everything else will simply fall into place on its own afterwards.

Reaching a clear decision on what our priorities are will be essential to guiding our actions. Equally important will be acknowledging that we cannot achieve everything we would like to. In fact, achieving some goals will inevitably exacerbate the problems facing our other objectives. It’s what makes Syria so tricky — the fact that we have a lot of competing interests there, many of which are at odds with each other. Want to stem the refugee crisis and end the civil war? Then better think hard about letting Assad continue to reestablish control and accepting that Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East is going to increase. Want to limit Russian and Iranian influence in the region by toppling Assad? Then get ready for the civil war, refugee crisis, and the existence of Islamist extremist proto-states to continue for years, or even the possibility of Syria turning into a permanently failed state. Want to simply stay out of messy Middle Eastern conflicts? That has implications, as well. It’s the quintessential dilemma, a collection of pretty unsatisfying options.

But having only terrible options isn’t an excuse to allow decision paralysis to set in because, as the saying goes, no decision is still a decision. And so is the gradual escalation that eventually takes you, one step at a time, down a road you had no intention of walking, with no clear goal for where you’re headed.

Trump seemed to provide some clarity a couple of weeks ago when the administration’s attention (and the news cycle’s) returned to the Syrian conflict after several weeks of being focused on the Korean peninsula. In keeping with what is becoming his established pattern for conducting international relations — applying pressure with an initially antagonist position before backing off and moderating — he discussed a variety of issues around stabilizing the conflict with Russian President Vladimir Putin and then sent observers to ceasefire talks in Kazakhstan. According to Russian sources, he also told U.N. Security Council ambassadors that the future of Assad is not a deal breaker. If these reports accurately reflect his position, then it would appear that U.S. policy was coalescing around working with the Russians to attempt to end the conflict while deprioritizing Assad’s future.

The recent strike against a pro-regime convoy outside of al-Tanf in southern Syria, however, calls that assumption into question. The strike was reportedly in response to the militia’s violation of a deconfliction zone setup around rebel forces accompanied by American and British advisors. The rebels’ location — along a major highway on the Iraqi border — suggests that strategic considerations of disrupting logistics lines between Syria and Iran may have also played a role in the decision to protect the rebel’s position. Even if the decision was driven solely by the need to defend U.S. and U.K. forces, though, it still demonstrates a new willingness to engage pro-regime forces to support our allied forces.

Whether the president decides that our priority is to establish stability, contain Iran, or one of the many other options, we need to accept that achieving it will create problems in relation to our other interests and we need to plan for how we will then deal with those. We need to get back to playing chess — to deliberately planning several moves ahead and accepting that achieving some interests may mean temporarily sacrificing others. The alternative is to continue the trend of the last decade and a half of U.S. foreign policy, which has alternated between half-heartedly committing to our stated goals and sleepwalking through shortsighted escalations that lack clear objectives, both of which have left the U.S. worse off strategically.

Dan Nidess was a Marine artillery officer from 2005 to 2012, deploying to Iraq twice and then training new officers at The Basic School in Quantico, VA. After leaving the Marines he went into an MBA program and now works at Tesla.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1
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