Shadow Government

America’s Credibility Is on the Line in Syria

Trump must stick to his word and tell Russia to stop violating a critical cease-fire.

Smoke rises above opposition held areas of the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on June 29, 2018.     (MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke rises above opposition held areas of the city of Daraa during airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on June 29, 2018. (MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP/Getty Images)

As Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin prepare for their summit in Helsinki on July 16, fears over America’s declining credibility on the world stage are already acute. After his performance at the G-7 last month, Trump seems set to undercut allies in Europe once again — while failing to push back on possible Russian interference in the U.S. midterm elections this November. But there’s a more immediate worry: Can Trump stand by his own word on the agreement he personally signed with Russia and Jordan for a cease-fire in southern Syria?

Moscow is already undermining the deal, concluded in Amman last November and confirmed personally by Trump in a meeting with Putin in Vietnam later that month. In the past week, Russia has been bombing hospitals and targeting civilians from the air to support the Bashar al-Assad regime’s attacks against opposition-held areas in southern Syria. Just last Thursday, 17 civilians hiding in an underground shelter were killed in an airstrike as part of the growing offensive in the southern province of Daraa.

These violations not only hurt Syrians but also threaten the security of two of America’s closest partners in the Middle East, Israel and Jordan. We spoke with a small group of Syrians in May on a trip to Amman on what could be done. “We need to enforce the de-escalation area. … America needs to be committed to it,” one told us.  But the group, mostly young Syrians, anticipated total abandonment. “Now no one helps us. The Pentagon doesn’t care. Trump has ordered the CIA to stop helping us,” another said.

The group, which included a former senior defector from the Syrian army, was part of the Southern Front that has fought against the Assad regime for years. They have seen their ranks decimated and deflated by the decision to cut off U.S. aid last year, long before this latest offensive.

Trump has done almost nothing in response to these violations of the deal with Russia. True, in late May, his State Department issued a tough public warning against any violations of the agreement, saying “the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Assad regime violations.”

But in practice, that has not meant much. In a private communication sent on June 23 to leaders of the Southern Front and other Syrian activists, a State Department official conveyed a far different message: “We in the U.S. government understand the difficult conditions you are now facing and we are still advising the Russians & the regime not to conduct any military action that violations the south west Syria de-escalation. But we need to clarify our position: we understand you need to make your decisions based on your interests & the interests of your families & factions, however you should not connect your decision on the assumption or expectation any military intervention from our side.”

Translation: Good luck. You are on your own.

What’s happening in southern Syria matters for the bigger picture — and not just in Syria. Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, worries that this current offensive will give Iran more room to maneuver inside of Syria and place dangerous weapons, including increasingly advanced missiles, and Iranian-backed militias closer to its border.

Jordan, another close U.S. security partner and already hosting as many as 1.4 million Syrians, fears another surge, adding to the strains it’s already experiencing from previous waves of Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees.

Syria’s conflict continues to have tremendous repercussions beyond its borders and immediate region. The ugly new xenophobia and anti-Muslim populism in the United States and Europe are in part driven by the unresolved conflict in Syria. The war has sparked a new wave in “gated community” approaches to global security: build walls, impose draconian measures on refugees, and do little to stand by your own commitments to help resolve conflicts, such as the commitment Trump made on the southern Syria cease-fire.

We get it. Syria has been pushed far to the margins of debate in the United States for years now. And America’s sellout of Syria didn’t begin with Trump.

But whatever promises Putin makes to him in Finland, there is little reason to believe that Trump will hold him to his commitment. Putin has played Trump like a fiddle on Syria, and other countries, including North Korea, will be watching closely what happens.

America’s credibility will be on the line — not just Trump’s.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. @Katulis

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