Trump’s Syria Strategy Makes Perfect Sense

There's only one way to accomplish all of America's goals in Syria: cooperating with Russia.

Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon return to Andrews Air Force in Maryland on Jan. 18, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Donald Trump steps off Air Force One upon return to Andrews Air Force in Maryland on Jan. 18, 2018. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

This past weekend’s cruise missile strikes by the United States and its allies were, without question, a tactical success. Whether there’s any coherent strategy associated with this latest intervention is another question.

Many in Washington have expressed doubt that the goals of deterring chemical weapons attacks in Syria, while also taking control of the final pockets of territory controlled by the Islamic State along the Syrian-Iraqi border, can possibly be reconciled with President Donald Trump’s insistence on immediately withdrawing the some 2,000 U.S. troops deployed at a series of small bases in northeastern Syria.

The doubters are wrong. America’s strategic goals can cohere with Trump’s guidelines but only if policymakers cease complaining about them and begin to take seriously the solution the commander in chief has proposed all along — uncomfortable cooperation with Russia.

America has set challenging goals in Syria. It would be a vast overstatement to say that the recent airstrikes solved the Syrian chemical weapons problem or that the program has even been hamstrung. The Syrian regime is reportedly in the process of importing equipment to support the resumption of an industrial-sized chemical weapons program, in violation of the regime’s commitment to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Moreover, the reality of chemical weapons production means that the regime will be able to reconstitute destroyed elements of its program quite quickly in small, hard-to-find locations that could easily escape foreign detection.

Meanwhile, Washington’s fight against the Islamic State has centered on cooperation between U.S. special operations forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has taken the lead in fighting and was presumed to have responsibility for holding the territory once it had been cleared. But this has run into geopolitical problems. The SDF is a multiethnic militia, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in southeastern Turkey. The SDF, from the outset of the conflict, had unrealistic expectations about the U.S. ability to prevent a Turkish ground offensive and to protect SDF-held territory indefinitely.

The recent Turkish ground incursion in then-Kurdish-held Afrin in northwestern Syria has already undercut the relationship between the SDF and the United States. In any case, the Kurds’ loss of Afrin has prompted discord with the United States, resulting in the freezing of combat operations in the Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria. Further complicating relations with the SDF is Trump’s stated commitment to withdrawing American combat troops once the few remaining patches of Islamic State territory are taken.

As the United States analyzes the outcome of its latest airstrikes, it must contemplate the question of how to finish the anti-Islamic State ground war while simultaneously winding down its own presence in the conflict and devising a mechanism to compel the Syrian regime to give up its chemical weapons.

To date, the Trump administration has mostly concentrated on the fight against the Islamic State and chemical weapons — a rare point of overlap with President Barack Obama’s administration. The airstrikes were meant to deter future chemical weapons use and inflict punishment for the continued chemical weapons program. The United States, along with France, has also deterred an expansion of the Turkish military operation along the western edges of the Euphrates, which could help close the interest gap between U.S. special operations forces and the SDF east of the river. The administration has also sanctioned Russian entities for their support of the regime and, by extension, their silence and denial of continued chemical weapons use.

The question is whether any of this is compatible with Trump’s desire to withdraw and the American public’s apparently limited appetite for deeper engagement. The answer is, yes — but only if the United States shifts from an emphasis on purely military coercion to diplomacy.

To address the longer-term chemical weapons issue, together with the president’s desire to withdraw, will take more than sanctions and tough talk on cable news. Achieving lasting counterproliferation requires working with international agencies to eliminate chemical precursors, associated infrastructure, and monitor chemical facilities. In Syria, this task will be dependent on an about-face from the Syrian regime and Assad making a political decision to come clean about weapons he held back after agreeing to join the CWC in 2013. This process, as was previously case, will require Russian cooperation.

Raising the costs on Moscow for the actions of its client, whether through sanctions or missile strikes, is a sound approach — but this assumes that the United States is attempting to coerce some specific action from Russia. Washington should be explicit that it would like Russia to convince its client to eliminate its chemical weapons. If it succeeds, the United States should be willing to forgo sanctions meant to punish Russia for the actions of the Syrian regime. If Russia proves unable to manage its client, the United States could increase the severity of sanctions on Moscow for its support of a regime flagrantly violating the CWC and signal that any future regime use will, again, invite a missile barrage that Russian air defenses have proved impotent against.

The United States similarly must grapple with protecting its gains against the Islamic State without the presence of U.S. troops on the ground. The first thing to do is to brief the SDF leadership in Kobani on what it is the United States intends to do, the nuts and bolts of the forthcoming effort to withdraw forces, and how to manage the forthcoming hold effort. Following this, the United States could aim to reach an understanding with Moscow about the SDF’s presence east of the Euphrates River. Absent such an understanding, the regime and Russia could simply choose to attack points along the river, which would destabilize the periphery of SDF-controlled territory and allow for Islamic State remnants in the desert to rise again.

To prevent this, the United States could offer Moscow something it has craved — a guarantee of regime security — in exchange for reciprocal guarantees for the security of the SDF and joint support for representatives from northeastern Syria to attend peace talks in Geneva. The pace of the U.S. withdrawal, too, could be agreed upon cooperatively, and a mechanism to leave behind a small cadre of U.S. troops to hunt the remaining Islamic State leadership could also be worked out with Russia.

The strikes in Syria were not inconsequential. The international community successfully used force in a complicated, multisided environment and proved not to be deterred by Russia’s presence in the country. However, the use of force to coerce changes in state behavior is a short-term response and won’t achieve any long-term gains unless policies are adopted that fit with the current reality in Syria.

Trump has announced his intent to withdraw troops. The regime will still retain chemical weapons capabilities, and the Russian military is still present in country. To answer the question “And then what?” the United States needs to accept that it will still have to talk to Moscow, an enemy, to reach agreement on a narrow set of interests. This is the only way to square the circle and to realistically address American interests in the Syrian civil war.

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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