Trump’s Post-ISIS Retreat Leaves Syria Vulnerable to Russia and Iran

The U.S. administration is reluctant to help with Syrian recovery.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on May 17. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, during their meeting in Sochi, Russia, on May 17. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)

As the U.S.-led coalition winds down its fight against the Islamic State in northeastern Syria, analysts are warning that Washington’s reluctance to devote resources to stabilizing the area could allow Russia and Iran to exert greater influence over the country.

Coalition forces are closing in on the last bastion of Islamic State fighters in the city of Hajin, near the Iraqi border. Once the militants are routed, the next challenge will be providing food and services to civilians, demining the cities, repatriating millions of refugees, and re-imposing rule-of-law in broad swaths of the country.

But President Donald Trump has indicated the United States would not play a broad role in Syria’s reconstruction.

Trump ordered the State Department earlier this year to freeze some $200 million in funds earmarked for Syria’s recovery. And Congress has failed to include a Senate-backed provision in this year’s defense policy bill that would have given the Pentagon $25 million per year and increased authority to support stabilization efforts there.

“There are quite a few pros of helping with stabilization,” said Will Todman, an associate fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Middle East program. “It helps prevent a return to the same of conditions that led to the rise of ISIS … and it gives the U.S. a seat at the table and probably more of a say over the future of Syria.”

Todman said Trump’s unwillingness to pitch in would leave the United States with “very little leverage in Syria.”

The estimated cost of rebuilding Syria is more than $250 billion. According to the United Nations, 13.1 million Syrians are in need, 6.6 million of whom are displaced within the country. Another 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011, seeking safety in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and other countries.

But other experts argue that in order to have any significant role in Syria moving forward, the United States would have to commit significantly more resources and troops—without getting much in return.

“It all makes for a great tweet but when it comes to putting boots on the ground and putting American lives in harm’s way you have to ask: What is the strategic interest of the U.S.?” according to Luke Coffey, the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

As it is, Coffey said, the United States only has influence in a small piece of Syria, the northeast, where the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces operate (the group is made up mostly of Syrian Kurds and Arab fighters).

Turkey is heavily involved in the northwest near Idlib province, while the rest of the country is dominated by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Todman said it was unclear what advantages Russia and Iran would gain by cementing their hold on Syria. The country has been ravaged by years of conflict, and neither Russia nor Iran has the resources or the will to fund reconstruction on its own.

“Funding reconstruction is … essentially a way of rewarding [President Bashar al-Assad] even though the U.S. has consistently called for his overthrow since early in the conflict,” he said. “Doing so will also help make Syria a more valuable strategic asset for adversaries like Russia and Iran.”

The Trump administration is in the process of reviewing the U.S. role in stabilization activities across the region these days, according to one House Armed Services Committee staffer.

The concern over the Defense Department’s role in stabilization stems in part from the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow at the Center of Strategic and International Studies and the deputy director of the think tank’s international security program.

“There is an ongoing concern [about] mission creep,” said Dalton. “There’s just been a really poor track record of DoD taking on broader stabilization missions and then unfortunately not really seeing stable results.”

Coffey said that once the U.S.-led coalition withdraws the few troops that remain in northeastern Syria, the burden of rebuilding will likely fall to local governments, the Syrian regime, and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Syrian Democratic Forces will likely broker a deal with Assad over how to govern the eastern part of the country, according Dalton. But the more the U.S. abdicates a leadership role in orchestrating that deal, the less leverage the group will have against Assad and his allies, Iran and Russia.

“The very abhorrent reality is that Assad has prevailed in this civil war,” Dalton said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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