US no longer tries to accommodate Iran in Syria
During the Obama administration, the United States’ policy on Syria was divided by the Euphrates River. To the east, the objective was to support anti-Islamic State (ISIS) combat operations of a Kurdish (eventually Kurdish-dominated) militia with weapons, advisers and combat air support. The Trump administration has taken credit for accelerating the anti-ISIS campaign but its strategy in the east has remained constant.
West of the Euphrates, the Obama administration supported political transition based on the 2012 “Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria,” which was elaborated by UN Security Council Resolution 2254 in 2015. The strategy relied on Russia delivering its Syrian client to UN-led talks in Geneva in a mood for dialogue, compromise, power-sharing and, ultimately, transition via national elections by mid-2016.
The Trump administration also supports Geneva and Security Council Resolution 2254 but differs from its predecessor in its linkage between the two sides of the Euphrates.
Recognising that Syria is a unitary problem rooted in the crimes of the Assad regime is not new. Doing something about it is. Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama would no doubt agree that the Assad regime bears, as George Washington University Professor Marc Lynch said, “full responsibility for the initiation of Syria’s apocalypse and should never be allowed rehabilitation into the international community.”
Indeed, Obama probably would acknowledge that ISIS’s rise in eastern Syria filled a vacuum created by the Assad regime’s illegitimacy and its decision to concentrate militarily on the civilian populations of western Syria. Obama, however, feared that pushback against Bashar Assad — even similar to the limited retaliatory responses to chemical warfare authorised by Trump in 2017 and 2018 — would alienate Tehran, Assad’s greatest supporter, and scupper US-Iran nuclear negotiations.
Hence the operational fiction that the battle against ISIS in the east was taking place in a separate universe from Assad’s war on Syrian civilians to the west. Reportedly, Obama assured Iran that the United States would take no military action against Assad — a priceless insurance policy for a mass murderer.
Unconcerned with keeping Iran happy, the Trump administration has ended the two universes approach to Syria. Defeating ISIS remains Washington’s priority but the Trump administration has correctly concluded that the underlying cause of Islamist extremism in Syria also must be addressed. The combination of regime corruption, incompetence and brutality and its reliance on Iran-led Shia militias make the resurrection of Islamist extremists in ungoverned parts of Syria likely.
Like its predecessor, the Trump administration does not seek violent regime change in Syria. Rather it is prepared to oversee stabilisation in territory liberated from ISIS while keeping regime forces and Iran-led militiamen to the west of the Euphrates. Ultimately, it wants Shia extremists removed from the country but this will be difficult: Iran’s rulers view the Assad regime as key to solidifying their country’s position in the Arab world and protecting Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The Trump administration’s theory seems to be that Assad has not won, that much of the country is beyond his control, that ceasefire lines are hardening and that a political process can soon commence. A political process would make it difficult for the regime to alter ceasefire lines through force and could lead to a transitional governing body that would ask the Iranians and their hired foreign fighters to leave. There appears to be no administration objection to cooperation between Damascus and Moscow.
Linking the two parts of the Syrian puzzle is long overdue. There is, however, no evidence that the Damascus regime has any appetite for compromise or power-sharing. Neither is there evidence that Russia has the desire or ability to compel Damascus and Iran has no interest in abandoning its Syrian province.
Even under the best circumstances — a negotiation process producing political transition — the destabilising downside of Security Council Resolution 2254 must be avoided: Early national elections could plunge Syria back into chaos. Elections must be preceded by rule of law, return of refugees and the beginnings of reconciliation and reconstruction — things that can be overseen by a transitional government.
The Trump administration’s strategy depends on stabilising eastern Syria, supporting Turkey’s stabilisation efforts in Idlib province and dissuading the Assad regime from resuming mass civilian slaughter. The Trump administration also should do something avoided by its predecessor: identify Syrians with whom to work, especially in the east. Helping the Kurds achieve effective local governance in predominantly Kurdish areas is essential; relying on them to stabilise overwhelmingly Arab areas is asking for trouble.
Uniting the two parts of the Syrian puzzle is a major accomplishment. Implementing a strategy to address the underlying cause of Syria’s misery and the instability it has fostered in the region will take patience and endurance. Unless Syrians are enlisted in the effort, the odds are that Iran will outlast the United States in Syria and breathe new life into a form of Islamist extremism that differs only stylistically from its own.