Many challenges remain for US in Syria

The Americans needed to ensure the Syrian Kurds don’t migrate to the Russians or the Iranians.
Sunday 17/03/2019
A US soldier mans an armoured vehicle near the city of Tall Tamr in the north-western Syrian province of Hasakah, January 16. (AFP)
Rough ride. A US soldier mans an armoured vehicle near the city of Tall Tamr in the north-western Syrian province of Hasakah, January 16. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - As US President Donald Trump proclaims a victory over the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and orders a drawdown of American troops, experts in Washington said the challenges in the region were only beginning.

“At first, all we wanted to do was survive ISIS,” said Bassam Ishak, US representative to the Syrian Democratic Council. “The fight against ISIS does not end with a military victory.”

Thousands of displaced people will try to return home, those who committed crimes must be held accountable, the infrastructure must be rebuilt, Iran and Russia have invested so that any money that flows in to Syria will return to them and Turkey’s involvement in Syrian politics could leave one-third of Syria’s people feeling disenfranchised, said speakers at the Hudson Institute March 1.

Trump will need to keep all of this in mind as he works on budget requests. He’ll also need to think about a report released by the bipartisan Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States, which advised prevention over military action in the fight against terrorist groups.

Michael Doran, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington, said both Trump and former US President Barack Obama had similar goals: Keep the Middle East at arm’s length and try not to get involved more deeply in wars in the region.

That’s where the similarities ended. Obama preferred to get all the players, including Iran and Russia, together to work through problems such as Syria but Trump wants to withdraw troops and isolate Iran while also defeating ISIS, Doran said.

To that end, Trump would like a “strategic agreement” with Turkey, which, Doran said, would lead to two problems: Turkey does not want to see a separatist Kurdish state in Syria and, by withdrawing troops, Trump gives Iran a “land bridge” from Tehran to Beirut to the Mediterranean, putting both Turkey and Israel in jeopardy.

“He immediately got a call from [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” Doran said.

Doran says he’s hearing that at least 200 American troops would stay in northern Syria and 200 would be posted in the south, near the Jordanian border.

He said the Americans needed to ensure the Syrian Kurds don’t migrate to the Russians or the Iranians. Kurdish militias in northern Syria are aligned with the United States but Turkey sees them as terrorists.

“It’s difficult to thread that needle,” he said. “The key issue is Turkey, in my view.”

Ishak said the situation becomes more complicated when one considers internal politics. He said the Kurds hoped to establish a coalition that fostered diversity of religion, ethnicity and culture, while promoting power-sharing among all ethnic groups and sexes.

“How are we going to run this?” he said they wondered at the time. “How are we going to live together as diverse groups?”

He said the Syrian Democratic Council included Kurds, Turks and Syrians and that any solution must consider the 20,000 Kurds who live in Syria.

“We will resist it and it will mean igniting war in Syria,” he said.

While ISIS has lost the land it controlled, US military and intelligence officials say there are still as many as 30,000 ISIS fighters across Syria and Iraq.

Jomana Qaddour, a Syrian-American analyst, said the human factor may outweigh everything else. As many as 100,000 foreign fighters will need to return home and possibly face legal proceedings and only about 5,000 have.

“No country is excited about taking back any of these fighters,” she said.

Their children also need to return home. Syrians with education or experience in management or construction have fled the country. Homes have been destroyed and the infrastructure is gone and unlikely to return, Qaddour said.

Syrians trying to return home have been detained or have disappeared “immediately upon arriving,” she said, while 100,000 people have been jailed as political prisoners.

She said there would be no peace in Syria without reconstruction. Syria’s GDP decreased 80% from 2010-16 and the lira has inflated by 459%.

“In terms of opening this door, what Iran and Russia are waiting to see is who’s going to invest, so they can profit on the loans they’ve made to Syria,” Qaddour said. They’re too cash-strapped to work on reconstruction themselves.

Any money flowing into Syria and back to Iran will also affect Trump’s sanctions against Tehran.

Still, she said, there might be political leverage in reconstruction.

“I don’t think it will be easy to get [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to concede to anything he hasn’t yet,” she said. “What he’s overseeing is essentially a dead carcass at this point. This kind of chaos is not beneficial for any one of our allies.”