Analysis

The Problem With America’s Syria Policy Isn’t Trump. It’s Syria.

There’s a reason the current president’s approach to the war-torn country is as confused as Obama’s was. Syria is a no-win situation.

Syria Civil Defence volunteers attempt to put out a fire in rebel-held Idlib province on Feb. 7, 2018 (Amer Alhamwe/AFP/Getty Images)
Syria Civil Defence volunteers attempt to put out a fire in rebel-held Idlib province on Feb. 7, 2018 (Amer Alhamwe/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s apparent confusion about what he wants the United States to do in Syriaone week he’s pulling out and the next he’s notis hardly unique. During his entire second term, President Barack Obama occasionally sounded and acted almost as confused about Syria as his successor has.

There’s a reason why two such disparate presidents have suffered this common dilemma: For Washington, the Syrian civil war is a no-win situation. If you want to back the rebels, you end up supporting radical Islamists who could exploit yet another dysfunctional Arab state and harbor anti-American terrorists. If you seek to support the only force capable of defeating the rebels, you end up backing a war criminal and Iran’s close friend, President Bashar al-Assad.

On the whole, U.S. policy through both Obama and Trump has become one of tolerating Assad over the alternative while not saying so and looking the other way. Certainly one could argue the United States should be supplying more humanitarian aid, but there is not much else Washington can do. If the Russians and Iranians have no compunctions about propping Assad up, then they’re essentially doing America’s dirty workkilling radical Islamists (along with many thousands of innocents, tragically)and at little cost to the United States, except in terms of its image as a global benefactor. 

This is America’s unspoken (and largely bipartisan) Syria policy. It’s the best that Washington can muster, many analysts say, and in the coldest of national interest calculations it hasn’t produced the worst of outcomes. For the last several years, various U.S. enemies have been knocking each other off in great numbers there: Sunni jihadis in Syria, joined by Iraqi Sunni insurgents across the border, on the one hand, and Iran-backed Hezbollah Shiites, as well as the Assad government, on the other.

The presence or absence of some 2,000 U.S. troops—who mainly supply military support to the Kurds in the country’s east—will do little to change any of this.

Beyond that, there is little in Syria for U.S. interests but “sand and death,” as Trump put it bluntly last week. It has no real strategic value. True, Syria is a horrific humanitarian disaster, but Washington really isn’t in the business of intervening in those anymore, not since the catastrophe of Iraq and the blowback from Libya. Indeed, by fudging and hedging for years over what to doand giving limited support to rebelsWashington has probably only prolonged the war and made the humanitarian crisis worse for Syria and for Europe, which has suffered from the huge refugee outflow.

Trump appeared to say as much in his impromptu remarks at a White House cabinet meeting last week, when he reluctantly backtracked on a quick withdrawal by saying the U.S. presence was mainly about keeping faith with the Kurds. “We want to protect the Kurds,” he said. “But I don’t want to be in Syria forever.” Trump said again: “It’s sand. And it’s death.”

“That’s totally the truth,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma who was one of the few to accurately predict Assad’s long-term survival in power. “It’s just not an important country for the United States.”

Not everyone agrees with this point of view, of coursewhich is one reason Trump is now backtracking. Hawks such as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo want a strong U.S. presence against Iran, which until Vladimir Putin stepped in was Assad’s No. 1 ally.

“Trump is all messed up. His position in Syria is in severe tension with his stated Iran policy,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “And he is set to repeat Obama’s mistake [withdrawing from] Iraq in 2011, unless Iran and Russia are willing to up their lethal commitments in Syria: There are just too many Sunnis and too few Alawites. Iran effectively now controls Syrian ground forces.”

In other words, Iranian support is critical if Assad is to remain in power because the Syrian leader hails from the minority Alawites, a Shiite sect. Assad therefore needs Tehran’s military help in holding off the mostly Sunni rebels. But Iran has long been the Assad family’s strategic partner for that very reason, and this is unlikely to change (and neither has it prevented U.S.-Syrian cooperation in the past, for example between Assad’s intelligence service and the CIA in pursuit of al Qaeda in the pre-civil war era).

During his tenure, Obama never contradicted himself on Syria quite as plainly as Trump, who on Dec. 19 of last year announced that U.S. troops would leave in 30 days and that the Islamic State was defeated. That caused a brouhaha and prompted Defense Secretary James Mattis to resignbefore Trump took it all back a week later. Obama’s most hesitant missteps were almost as embarrassing, however: At one point, he declared a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons, then said he would retaliate because Assad had used them, and then decided to kick the matter over to Congress.

The United States has basically had a hands-off policy toward Syria since at least 1947, when then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall declined to send a mission to Damascus as the Arab states geared up to attack the newborn Israel. After the Syrian civil war broke out nearly eight years ago as part of the Arab spring, the Obama administration temporized over what to do. At first it seemed as if Assad would falland Washington called for him to step aside. Liberal interventionists urged U.S. intervention for humanitarian reasons, but Obama didn’t want to replay the horrors of Iraq, and he strongly suspected that the so-called secular Syrian rebels were little more than rewrites of the Iraqi con man Ahmed Chalabi—big talkers in Washington with no real backing at home.

Then, after Libya largely fell into Islamist hands after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s U.S.-aided downfallwhich Obama later called the biggest regret of his presidencyand it turned out that Assad would survive and was the only thing standing in the way of an Islamist takeover in Syria, Obama had a realist reckoning: The Arab world still needed its strongmen.

The problem Trump has now is that with his administration’s ditheringBolton said U.S. troops will remain as long as the Islamic State and the Iranian threat dohe’s in danger of adopting a similar policy of pretense as Obama once did. Iranian influence in Syria isn’t going away, and it’s hard to imagine the Islamist threat being entirely wiped out. That’s a prescription for an indefinite stayand continuing to support some rebels. But that’s almost certainly a no-win scenario too.

“The only viable counterterrorism policy in the region is to have a strong state with strong policemen,” Landis said. “You’ve got to deal with Assad. The Russians are doing that. The Gulf Arab states are beginning to do that too. But that’s anathema for Bolton and Pompeo. It means accepting Iran as the dominant power.”

And Washington, in the end, will have little choice but to go along.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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