When President Trump launched 59 tomahawk cruise missiles in April over evidence Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had again used chemical weapons on civilians, proponents of a deeper US involvement in Syria rejoiced.
Here was the sign they’d been waiting for, that Mr. Trump would go beyond former President Barack Obama’s narrowly focused effort to degrade and eventually defeat the so-called Islamic State.
The tomahawks announced – at least these advocates thought – a more expansive strategy combining the battle to destroy ISIS in Syria and neighboring Iraq with fights Mr. Obama never wanted to get into. Among them, a deeper role in Syria’s civil war on the side of the forces arrayed against Mr. Assad, and a specific effort to prevent Assad’s allies, above all Iran, from laying even deeper roots in Syria and the region.
Now the proponents of deeper Syria involvement are wondering if it was all wishful thinking.
As the Pentagon prepares to release in the coming weeks the revised strategy on ISIS and Syria that Trump ordered shortly after his inauguration, signs are multiplying that the strategy won’t deviate substantially from Obama’s. And that has some Syria analysts worried.
“Thus far the Trump administration has simply continued the strategy that it inherited from the Obama administration, and nothing indicates that’s about to change,” says Jennifer Cafarella, an expert on Syria and Islamist extremist organizations at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in Washington.
“The tomahawk strike was a tactical deviation, it was something Obama was not willing to do, but it now appears that it was an isolated action that did not portend a change in the overall policy towards Syria,” Ms. Cafarella says. “However, the same limited strategy is not going to address Syria’s deeper conflicts,” she adds, “and that means it’s not going to really destroy ISIS and keep it or some equivalent from coming back.”
The Trump administration’s principal goal remains to destroy ISIS in Iraq and Syria by ending the group’s hold on territory and wiping out as many of its leaders and fighters as possible. Beyond that, administration officials indicate the US aim is to calm the fighting in Syria’s other war – a civil war now in its seventh year – so that the country’s warring factions can find a political solution and Syria’s millions of internally displaced and far-flung refugees can eventually return home.
At a White House press briefing last week previewing the president’s trip to Europe – including Trump’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin – national security adviser H.R. McMaster described US priorities in Syria as “the need to deescalate the Syrian civil war, to defeat ISIS there, and to end that disastrous humanitarian catastrophe.”
And in a statement Wednesday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the priority after ISIS’s “fraudulent caliphate” is dismantled should be on achieving “stability” so that Syrians can begin rebuilding their lives. Noting Trump planned to raise the Syrian conflict when he meets Mr. Putin Friday, Mr. Tillerson singled out Russia as having special responsibility in stabilizing Syria since it is the “guarantor” of the Assad regime.
The problem some Syria analysts see with this strategy is that it does nothing to address the root cause of a conflict that created the space for ISIS to come in and lay hold to large swaths of Syrian territory: the Assad regime and its despotic and murderous rule over Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
If anything, Pentagon officials are suggesting a “be our guest” approach to Assad regime troops – and allied forces including Iranian-led militias – seeking to seize territory abandoned by ISIS fighters as they continue to retreat from the Sunni-populated territory they held for more than two years.
Other Syria analysts warn that as US-backed Syrian opposition forces continue to advance with the assistance and guidance of about 1,000 US troops – for example in the battle to take back the city of Raqqa, the ISIS administrative capital – the US is becoming a de facto occupier in Syria.
Growing risk of clashes
And one serious risk some foresee of a sustained US presence in Syria is a growing likelihood of the US confronting – and clashing with – not just Assad government forces, but outside supporters including Iran.
That has begun to happen, for instance, in Syria’s southeastern desert, where US special forces and their anti-Assad allies repeatedly have exchanged fire with Iranian-backed militias near a strategically important border crossing at Tanf.
“The US is creating a zone of influence over an expanding chunk of Syrian territory as the forces it is backing take control of more and more land,” says Nicolas Heras, a fellow in Middle East security affairs at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “But if an advancing Assad feels he needs to dislodge the US,” he adds, “the Iranians will be there to help him do it.”
So far the US military says it has no interest in confronting Iran or in stopping Assad from retaking territory abandoned by ISIS fighters. Indeed, in a recent press conference, the spokesman for the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in Baghdad said any effort by Assad forces and their allies to take back territory still held by ISIS “would be welcomed” by the US-led coalition.
“We as a coalition are not in the land-grab business. We are in the killing-ISIS business,” said Army Col. Ryan Dillon. “That is what we want to do, and if the Syrian regime wants to” recapture of ISIS-held territory, “we absolutely have no problem with that.”
Still, Mr. Heras believes the US could end up in a clash with Iran if the Syrian forces that the US and Iran are each supporting end up battling for the same territory. If Iran were to kill US forces, even inadvertently, that could lead to a major confrontation between the two adversaries, he posits.
Moreover, a fight between the US and Iran could draw in the Russians, who otherwise have no interest in coming to blows with the US in Syria, Heras says.
A long presence in Syria
The US denials of “land-grab’ interests to the contrary, Mr. Heras says the US is already the dominant power influence over about a quarter of Syrian territory holding as much as 15 percent of the Syrian population – a chunk he expects will expand as US and US-backed forces advance.
“Over time and given the trends we see, as much as 40 percent of territory and 25 percent of the population could end up in a US zone of influence,” Heras says. “Obviously that’s significant.”
The real question, he says, is what does the US plan to do with the areas of Syria it more or less controls? Heras speculates the US will seek to keep small “forward-operating bases” in the territory controlled by US-backed forces for maintaining a counterterrorism mission and “for keeping tabs on the Iranians.” He expects the US military, already granted broad leeway by Trump to formulate Syria operations, will still be in Syria at the end of the president’s term in 2020.
But others say such a strategy will do little to achieve what the US insists is its main goal in Syria – destroying ISIS and keeping it (or some facsimile, perhaps Al Qaeda) from roaring back.
“Until policy changes, until the US formulates a strategy that includes taking on Assad in a way that politically empowers the local Sunni populations and allows them to believe they have a future in Syria, we are not going to definitively win the war against ISIS,” says ISW’s Cafarella. “The coalition may be winning every tactical battle,” she adds, “but we’re not going to win the war because we’re not addressing the reasons the population accepted ISIS in the first place.”
The US so far is showing no interest in repeating the kind of costly and heavy-footed political reconstruction projects it carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the zones US-backed forces have taken back from ISIS, the US military has focused on bringing in food and other emergency supplies while leaving the heavy lifting of reestablishing services and addressing political grievances to hastily formed local councils.
But Cafarella says the Trump administration is mistaken if it thinks such a limited strategy – one that paves the way for Assad to reassert his rule over Sunni-populated territory to boot – will deliver a decisive victory for the Pentagon’s “ISIS-killing business.”
“So far the US has been operating in Syria with blinders on, trying to ignore the civil war, but the civil war has found us,” she says. “Either we realize that and make addressing the political issues part of our strategy,” she adds, “or one way or another, ISIS comes back.”