US Syria strategy under fire as events expose Washington’s inconsistencies

The emergence of competing power centres in US foreign policy has been muddying the waters.
Sunday 25/02/2018
 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu walk to a joint news conference following their meeting in Ankara, on February 16.(AP)
Sidelined. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu walk to a joint news conference following their meeting in Ankara, on February 16.(AP)

WASHINGTON - The escalation of the conflict in Syria is exposing weaknesses in the United States’ strategy for the war-torn country only a month after its rollout, analysts said.

“We know what the United States doesn’t want to see: Russia and Iran,” Alex Vatanka, an expert on security issues at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said. “What we don’t see is what the US is proposing. There is no grand strategy.”

Vatanka said the vagueness on the side of the United States had consequences on the ground. “There’s room for others to take care of their own interests,” he said.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unveiled his country’s Syria strategy in a speech titled “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria” on January 17. Preventing a re-emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) after recent military victories over the jihadists and blocking the advance of Iran’s influence in Syria are two pillars of the programme.

To attain its goals, the United States “will maintain a military presence in Syria,” Tillerson said, although he did not spell out whether the number of US troops in Syria — approximately 2,000 — would be increased.

“US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” Tillerson said. He stressed the role of Russia, the most powerful ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Moscow should pressure Assad to accept a political solution, Tillerson said without providing details.

The United States announced plans in January to create a local force of 30,000 fighters in Syria to secure regions where ISIS has been driven out and to keep control of oil installations in eastern Syria. For that plan, Washington would heavily rely on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), its local partner in the fight against ISIS in Syria.

Shortly after Tillerson’s speech, Turkey sent troops into the north-western Syrian region of Afrin to push out the YPG, seen as a terrorist group by Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to give US soldiers deployed along with the YPG in the city of Manbij an “Ottoman slap” should they not withdraw. Talks between Tillerson and Turkish officials in Ankara in February failed to solve the crisis.

A foray by pro-government Syrian troops and Russian mercenaries over the Euphrates River — another escalation testing Washington policies — triggered deadly US air strikes in the oil-rich province of Deir ez-Zor on February 7.

Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington, said the US strategy assumed that the war in Syria was almost over but “recent events proved otherwise.” There were “new doubts now about [US] commitment to Kurdish forces and a potential confrontation with Turkey in Syria,” Macaron wrote via e-mail. “At any rate, this US strategy lacked specifics and did not convey a clear game plan in Syria.”

Tillerson’s strategy says the United States was “vigorously supporting” UN peace efforts for Syria but does not say how this aim is to be achieved. It calls on the Assad government to “engage constructively” in UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva but says the goal is to “compel Assad to step aside.” The strategy is vague on the question of whether the Syrian leader should be allowed to stay in power for a transitional period.

“A strategy requires both actions and resources and Tillerson didn’t have much to say about either,” Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think-tank in Washington, wrote in an analysis on the CSIS website. Tillerson failed to present a convincing argument for why Americans, sceptical of yet another open-ended commitment in a faraway country, should care about Syria and had not defined Syria’s place on the list of US priorities in the world, he pointed out.

“It is hard to cover up this basic fact: The United States is less committed to shaping an outcome in Syria than any of the major antagonists — the Assad government, the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians or any of the combatant groups on the ground,” Alterman wrote.

The emergence of competing power centres in US foreign policy has been muddying the waters. There are doubts about Tillerson’s influence on decision-making. He has been publicly rebuked and humiliated by US President Donald Trump several times. Just days before Tillerson tried to cool tensions with Turkey with his visit to Ankara, US generals in Syria rejected Turkish calls for a retreat from Manbij. Some parts of US Middle East policy are the realm of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is working on a plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“As of today, the perception in the Middle East is that there is no coherent strategy for the region,” said Vatanka, who had just returned from a visit to the Gulf region. The impression among many in the Middle East was that the US administration was “heavy on rhetoric” but light on strategy and action. “That’s almost half the battle lost,” Vatanka said.