The United States Needs a Coherent Strategy to Cope with Syria Conflict
By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Throughout the past two presidential administrations, the United States never articulated a coherent Syrian strategy beyond maintaining the status quo or just outright abandonment of Syria.
The Syrian conflict has dragged on for seven years. Since the beginning of the conflict, U.S. policymakers have been divided on a prudent course of action.
President Trump has called for a withdrawal of military forces from Syria. “I want to bring our troops back home,” he said. That has not happened yet.
No Easy Answer to Resolving the Syria Problem
There is no easy answer to the Syrian conflict. An outright military withdrawal would be reminiscent of the Obama administration’s precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which allowed Iran to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East.
A pullout from Syria would also lock in Moscow and Tehran as Syria’s power brokers. Russia and Iran would further threaten Israel, the longtime ally of the United States. In addition, a U.S. withdrawal would hamper intelligence collection capabilities and constrict Washington’s ability to respond to a resurgent al Qaeda or Islamic State threat.
Whatever strategy the U.S. adopts, the administration first needs to balance its strategic interests in Syria with Washington’s Middle East regional interests. This means incorporating a realist balance of power competition with Moscow and Tehran.
Political Scientist Seth G. Jones, writing in the May 17, 2018, issue of the Center for Strategic and International Studies report, says the U.S. must establish a containment strategy that includes the following components:
- Maintain a small military and intelligence presence that works in conjunction with various groups throughout Syria. This entails working with and providing limited training, funding and equipment to groups in eastern, northern and southern Syria, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
- The United States will have to coordinate with its regional allies such as Jordan and Israel to create a balance against Syria’s power brokers in Moscow and Tehran. The U.S. must also prevent any reestablishment of various Salafi jihadists terror groups.
- Finally, the U.S. must make strong efforts to prevent outside actors from aiding and abetting Salafi jihadists. These actors include Turkey and the various Gulf States.
Washington Must Understand the Strategy of Other Actors
As the United States begins to formulate an effective and comprehensive Syrian strategy, policymakers must first understand the strategic interests of the other power brokers in Syria.
If the U.S. wants put forth a workable strategy, Washington needs to pursue a realistic approach that understands the other actors in Syria such as Iran, Russia and Salafi jihadists groups.
Also, the U.S. must first recognize that Iran’s interests in Syria are led by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini. His aim is to expand Tehran’s regional ambitions against countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, but especially the ambitions of the United States.
Iran’s Goal in Syria: Create a Support System
Iran’s main goal is to extend a line of military, logistic and communications support from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. To do so, Jones writes, “Iran has adopted a ‘forward defense’ strategy, which involves supporting sub-state proxies in countries like Syria.”
Jones says Tehran possesses formidable unconventional capabilities led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Of particular note is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), a special operations unit of the IRGC responsible for clandestine activities overseas.
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Jones notes, “Iran has supplied money, weapons, equipment, development assistance and other aid to the Assad regime.” This aid also includes thousands of Iranian-backed forces such as IRGC operatives and regular army forces.
Tehran has also supported pro-regime militias such as Hezbollah, which had been decimated by fighting in Syria. But Hezbollah got an economic boost with the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015.
That agreement gave Tehran a windfall of additional revenue and sanctions relief. Iran promptly transferred that wealth to its proxy forces, which included Hezbollah.
Failure of Obama’s ‘Red Line’ Threat to Assad Led to Moscow’s Reentry into the Region
The failure of President Obama’s infamous “red line” threat in 2013, coupled with his indecision over the Syrian civil war, allowed Russia back into the Middle East for the first time in decades. Now, the United States must deal with Moscow, which is trying to expand its power and influence in the region, preserve Syria as an ally, try to displace U.S. power and maintain Russia’s military bases inside the country.
“To this end, Moscow will likely continue to push for a decisive victory in Syria through military force and, where necessary, limited political negotiations,” Jones writes. “Russia has provided substantial military, intelligence and political support to Assad. There are over a dozen Russian military bases or installations, such as at Hmeimim airbase and the port of Tartus (where Moscow signed a 49-year lease in 2017), and approximately 6,000 soldiers and military advisers.”
Since its entry into the Syrian civil war, Russia has employed a variety of weapons systems to prop up Assad. To avoid a public backlash, Moscow has been reluctant to inform the Russian people of the financial cost and casualties sustained by Russian troops and contractors, including the paramilitary group ChVK Wagner. This is a development that the U.S. should exploit.
The US Must Prevent Terror Groups from Reconstituting Themselves
Finally, the U.S. needs to face the reality of preventing Syria from becoming a terrorist sanctuary for a variety of Salafi jihadist organizations. Terrorist threats include the Islamic State and al Qaeda, which threaten the U.S. and its regional allies.
Whatever strategy the U.S. adopts, it needs to factor in the resurgence of Salafi jihadist groups, especially those aligned with the Islamic State or al Qaeda.
As Jones points out, “One challenge for Washington is that most of the countries operating in Syria — including the Assad regime, Iran, Russia and Turkey — may not necessarily be viable allies in combating terrorist groups, since they have different interests and priorities.”
Jones cites famed World War I officer and diplomat T.E. Lawrence’s warning to Britain that dealing with the Middle East, one must retain a hand in local affairs to protect British interests. As he wrote in his “Twenty-Seven Articles” on Arab warfare, “Your ideal position is when you are present and not noticed.”
Jones believes that Lawrence’s advice would be the same for the U.S. today: ”Ignore the temptation to cut and run and keep a light hand in Syria to counter terrorist organizations and balance against Russia and Iran.”
Let’s see if the U.S. follows the wise advice of Lawrence of Arabia.