US policy on Syria: Zigzags, U-turns and wishful thinking
Just six months after US President Donald Trump said he would end US involvement in the Syrian conflict and instructed his national security team to prepare for the withdrawal of American troops, his administration is changing course.
Its latest strategy is as follows: The United States will have a presence for as long as Iran and its proxies are involved in the Syrian conflict.
Like many American government ideas on the bloodletting in Syria — both under Barack Obama and Trump — this one is based on a large dose of wishful thinking and optimistic assumptions. It continues a pattern of zigzags and U-turns that have turned the United States into a player on the sidelines of one of the worst conflicts since the second world war. At least 500,000 Syrians have died in the fighting since the civil war began in 2011.
The policy twist came despite Trump’s stated view at a rally in March that “I want to get out (of Syria). I want to bring our troops back home… We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.” That announcement stunned many in the foreign policy community and some members of his administration.
The “let’s-get-out-now” vision did not last long. The new strategy was enunciated by John Bolton, the third person to serve as Trump’s national security adviser. “We are not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iran borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” Bolton said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.
That assertion, for the first time, directly linked US actions in Syria — where there are around 2,000 American troops — with Iran’s involvement in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. It has become an administration talking point, frequently repeated by James Jeffrey, the State Department’s newly appointed special representative for Syria engagement.
None of the proponents of the new strategy has put a timeline on when they expect Iran to disentangle from Syria and why they think the Tehran regime might do so. There are no indications that Iran, a steadfast backer of the government of Bashar Assad, intends to give up the foothold on the Mediterranean for which it spent much blood and treasure.
An estimated 10,000 of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, plus thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shia militia, played as large a role in turning the tide of war in Assad’s favour as Russia’s 2015 deployment of aircraft and troops.
Some US officials say they expect an Iranian withdrawal could happen once there is a political solution to end the war. No such deal is in sight. Five years of stuttering UN-brokered negotiations in Geneva have done nothing to inspire optimism. Most attempts at brokering peace have failed over disagreement on the role of Assad.
Under Obama, Assad was routinely denounced as an illegitimate leader who must step aside. Trump has called the Syrian leader a monster and contemplated having him assassinated after viewing stomach-turning video of a Syrian poison gas attack on civilians in April 2017, as stated in “Fear,” a book on the Trump presidency by Bob Woodward.
Officials now say that removing Assad is no longer a “strategic issue.”
The priorities are completing the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), which was the official reason for US military involvement in Syria, and getting Iran to withdraw from the country and stop meddling elsewhere in the region. Both are easier said than done and both point to an American presence that could last decades.
To hear Trump tell it, “We have really wiped out ISIS” and “obliterated” the jihadist group. People outside the Trump White House’s loop of alternative reality view the situation very differently. ISIS has lost much of the territory it held in Syria and Iraq but, in August, a Pentagon report said the extremist group retains nearly 30,000 fighters across the two countries and could mount a renewed insurgency.
Similarly, there are few experts who see an early end to Iran’s involvement in Syria and elsewhere, Washington’s second priority. “The notion that Iran is going to be asked to leave or be forced out in the foreseeable future is illusory,” Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group told the Washington Post. “Iran has been the Assad regime’s longest, most consistent and reliable ally.”
All of this points to a long American commitment to stay in Syria if the Trump administration sticks to its latest strategy. Whether it will do so remains to be seen and Trump has a record of sudden foreign policy changes.