Congressional report on US Syria policy yields more of the same

The report acknowledged that the shortcomings in US policy “have enhanced Russian prestige” and have helped to create problems with Turkey that “risk eroding the NATO alliance.”
Sunday 02/06/2019
US President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, May 30. (AP)
US President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, May 30. (AP)

The “Syria Study Group Interim Assessment and Recommendations,” a US congressional study, reflects the expert and political consensus about “what next” in Washington’s Syria policy.

The study offers no indication that a reconsideration of US policies is necessary. Instead, the group doubled down on a course of action that guarantees the continuing impoverishment of the long-suffering Syrian people, enforced by sanctions and unending — and increasingly irrelevant — US military deployments against a regime and its allies who show no signs of surrendering what the US-supported opposition has failed to win on the battlefield.

The report, a final version of which is due in September, is a prescription for another “forever war” against the Assad regime.

Admittedly there is no miraculous cure for Syria’s myriad ills. Yet it is particularly disheartening, if not unexpected, to see that, after so much blood and treasure, the best available policy advice to the US Congress is to do more of the same. In that sense, the report is an accurate reflection of the persistent inability of US policy towards Syria to learn from its shortcomings.

US policy has distinguished itself since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 by its consistent inability to correctly analyse the essential dynamics of the Syrian crisis — from the staying power of the regime to the effectiveness of Russian intervention.

Washington, having misdiagnosed essential features of the revolt, has proven unable to devise winning strategic and tactical plans. All that is left of the grand US-led effort to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad and support a national democratic revival is a rear-guard action to frustrate the regime’s restoration of state control over all sovereign Syrian territory and impede reconstruction and the return of refugees.

Study groups such as this are intensely political exercises. Congress is not interested in ivory tower pontifications or biting self-criticism but in mobilising support against efforts, notably by US President Donald Trump, to end the US expedition in Syria. In this important respect, the report delivers the goods.

It reaffirms support for the status quo against those, arguably including Trump himself, who have shown a preference for withdrawing US troops vital to the existence of the Kurdish enclave in north-eastern Syria and the maintenance of an isolated but strategically located base (al-Tanf) and refugee camp (Rukban) near the Jordanian/Iraqi border.

The withdrawal option met with almost universal criticism among the Washington cognoscenti when it was announced last December. This report is yet another nail in that coffin.

The study group correctly recognises that Assad’s driving, if unremarkable, objective is to “retake all of Syria.”

“Syria for the Syrians” remains the dominant leitmotif of Syria’s modern history. That Assad has squandered Syria’s independence of action won at great cost by his father does not excuse Washington’s losing bet on a strategy centred on undermining the effort to re-establish unchallenged national authority throughout the country. Such a strategy fails to address the importance of Syrian nationalism and the opportunities it presents to reduce Iranian and Russian footprints in the country.

This assessment has important implications for US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the effort to expel Russian and especially Iranian influence from Syria.

Having defeated the Islamic State (ISIS) with US support, the Kurds, who see no future without reconciliation with Damascus, are valued by Washington because of their ability to frustrate Assad’s effort to “retake all of Syria.” Even so, Trump’s Syria envoy James Jeffrey admitted to Congress that: “We don’t have a political future that we offer for [the Kurds]. The political future we offer for them is the political future we offer for everybody in Syria… a democratic, peaceful government.”

The report rejected the essential premise that the absence of state authority is at the heart of the creation of Syria’s “ungoverned spaces” that are exploited by US enemies like ISIS and al-Qaeda and which provide a compelling rationale for the regime’s dependence on Iranian and Russian assistance.

US opposition to Iranian and Russian deployments is one of the pillars of current US policy but the report failed to consider that a strong central authority that has prevailed over its internal enemies is the best way to reduce their undesired presence.

Not only has the United States come up far short in realising its Syria objectives, the report acknowledged that the shortcomings in US policy “have enhanced Russian prestige” and have helped to create problems with Turkey that “risk eroding the NATO alliance.”

These are serious and damaging consequences that in a healthy policymaking environment would spark some serious critical thinking about how to craft a new policy that, in contrast to current practice, would reduce the Iranian and Russian presence in Syria and resolve differences over Syria with Turkey that are imperilling NATO.

Such expectations have been disappointed. The report recommended continuing and even enhanced support for Kurdish control over significant Syrian territory and “stabilisation” in these areas to fortify their opposition to Damascus.

A similar determination to impede the post-war rehabilitation informs recommendations to continue “isolating the regime through sanctions, diplomatic pressure and denial of reconstruction aid” and supporting refugees outside Syria. Why the continuing pursuit of these policies should result in the materially different outcome preferred by Washington is maddeningly left unaddressed.

The report’s key acknowledgement that “an extended US military commitment” will be necessary as long as there is no “stable political outcome” sets the stage for another “forever war” conducted by the United States in the Middle East.