US faces difficult task in developing a new Syria strategy

Sunday 16/04/2017
The day after. US Secretary of Defence James Mattis (L) with Turkish Minister of National Defence Fikri Isik at the Pentagon, on April 13. (AFP)

Washington -Having waded into the Syrian war with a mis­sile strike on an airbase south-east of Damas­cus, the Trump admin­istration is faced with the difficult challenge of coming up with a real­istic strategy to deal with the 6-year-old conflict and the complexities involving several regional players as well as Russia.
Analysts said the US government is trying to use the April 6 mis­sile attack and talks with Russia as a chance for a fresh beginning on Syria. “Now the real work starts,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Insti­tution in Washington, suggested.
With the missile strikes — retalia­tion for the Assad regime’s suspect­ed role in a chemical weapons at­tack — US President Donald Trump grabbed the attention of the players in the Syrian crisis. Elie Abouaoun, director of Middle East and Africa Programmes at the US Institute of Peace, a non-partisan think-tank, said the attack on the al-Shayrat air­base told Moscow: “We are back on stage. You are not alone anymore.”
Time to thrash out a new strategy, however, could be short. Another crisis in Syria, triggered by other atrocities or other developments in the war, was “almost inevitable,” said Richard LeBaron, a former US ambassador to Kuwait who is a sen­ior nonresident fellow at the Atlan­tic Council. “Better be prepared,” he warned.
As the Trump administration works on a plan, the difficulties are becoming obvious. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on his first visit to Moscow as a US government offi­cial, failed to find common ground with Russia in the face of severe Kremlin criticism of the US attack on al-Shayrat. Speaking after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Ser­gei Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the top US diplomat said there was a “low level of trust” between the two countries. Trump echoed this from Washington, say­ing, US-Russian relations “may be at an all-time low.”
Before his Moscow visit, Tiller­son declared that the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow’s ally, was coming to an end but there has been no sign that Russia was ready to abandon the Syrian leader.
Putin suggested that the chemi­cal attack in Syria’s Idlib province on April 4 that triggered the US as­sault on al-Shayrat was a false flag, with the aim of putting the blame on Assad. The Syrian leader ech­oed that view in an interview with Agence France-Presse, saying that the reported attack had been a “fabrication” designed to give the United States a pretext for the mis­sile strike.
Russia said it was confused by contradictory statements from Washington, where Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer said only re­cently that it would be “silly” to call for Assad’s resignation. “It is not clear what they will do in Syria and not only there,” Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokes­woman, was quoted as saying.
The Trump-ordered missile strike signalled an end to the American position under Barack Obama, who avoided military intervention while reversing his earlier stance against getting further involved in the con­flict.
LeBaron said the missile attack was a “shot across the bow” to demonstrate that the United States would not tolerate the use of chem­ical weapons. At the same time, statements by US officials about a possible Russian role in the attack in Idlib marked a stark contrast to what critics had called an overly positive approach by the Trump government towards Moscow.
Although the Tomahawk mis­sile attack made it clear that Trump was determined to step into the Syrian conflict under certain condi­tions, such as when a declared red line was crossed, many questions remained about what the United States would do next, including whether the removal of Assad from power, a long-standing demand by America’s Sunni allies in the region, was official US policy.
Critics said Trump simply does not have a plan. “An ill-thought-out military action with absolutely no overall strategy for Syria risks drag­ging us further into a civil war in which we cannot tip the scales,” US Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecti­cut Democrat, said in a statement.
O’Hanlon argued it is too early to judge Trump on Syria. The Trump team has not presented substan­tial proposals of its own, he said, and “avoiding mistakes is not a strategy in itself.”
Abouaoun said a regional dia­logue among Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran was needed to resolve the Syrian crisis and that joint pressure from the United States and Russia would be necessary to get regional talks off the ground.
O’Hanlon added that US officials must consider thorny issues such as the idea of creating safe havens for Assad’s opponents within Syria and the future of the country existing as a federation of several autonomous regions.