Leaders of the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), an amorphously affiliated group of rebels opposed to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, just made a stop in Washington to meet members of Congress, along with White House and State Department officials. These FSA leaders had one goal in mind: more American aid and involvement in Syria’s civil war.
This follows a speech U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered last week, announcing American troops would be in Syria long after al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) were defeated. Among other things, Tillerson said a continued American presence would seek to remove Assad from power, unify Syria, keep al-Qaeda and ISIS from re-emerging, and hamper expanded Iranian influence in the region.
This is a major shift for the Trump administration, and a relief to the entrenched powers in DC who have a stake, ideological or otherwise, in the U.S. foreign policy of democracy-spreading since the end of the Cold War.
During the GOP primary debates, Trump thwacked Jeb Bush for wanting to “fight two wars at one time” in Syria. Trump called for the United States to focus on defeating ISIS, not regime change. Trump also said that America didn’t know who these Syrian rebels, being supplied with American weapons, really were.
On that point, Trump was absolutely correct. At the time, the Central Intelligence Agency was spending $1 billion per year in Syria with little to show for it, as it was nearly impossible to identify the “good guys” when gearing-up anti-Assad troops. In one example, after training and equipping thousands, all but five of the CIA’s rebels disappeared. So-called moderate Free Syrian Army organizations given U.S. funds and weapons ended up committing atrocities or being allied with groups like the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot.
Because of this, President Trump prudently ended the CIA’s unsuccessful program to create a moderate Syrian rebel force in mid-2017. But after Tillerson’s speech, Trump risks reneging on a key campaign promise. Upping the ante in Syria would be politically disastrous for the president, and more important, it would damage America’s national security. Here’s why.
Tillerson’s aims in Syria — to remove Assad while keeping the country unified, and deny Iranian influence while ensuring ISIS and al-Qaeda don’t return — are impossible to uniformly achieve. Even attempting to achieve any of these goals would require a much greater intervention and commitment of resources in the civil war than America, with 2,000 troops in Syria, is currently undertaking. Doing so would further waste trillions of dollars in another Middle Eastern war, and needlessly sacrifice countless American lives.
But even if America did commit many more troops, Tillerson’s goals are near-impossible given the facts on the ground. About three-quarters of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim. The rest of the population, concentrated in the west of the country in areas controlled by the Assad regime, is made up of Alawites—an offshoot of Shia Islam who count the Assad family as members—and religious minorities including Christians. Because of this, the Syrian conflict is less about a people resenting a savage dictator than it is a confessional struggle, more than a thousand years in the making, between the two great branches of Islam.
As long as Sunni rebels roam non-Alawite Syria, there will be significant elements prone to radicalism. This isn’t due to Assad’s brutality, but Sunni-Islam’s sometimes-proclivity towards radicalism, of which ISIS has been the most abhorrent and recent manifestation. Meanwhile, in Alawite-dominated Syria, Iran will always be a potential suitor when Damascus requires outside assistance, due to Iran’s Shiite religious affiliation.
Because of these complexities, removing Assad almost guarantees that radical Sunni elements would gain further ground, and that acts of atrocities toward non-Sunnis would be dished out as payback for the crimes of the Assad regime. Also, removing Assad does not guarantee that non-Sunni Syria stops eyeing Iran as a potential benefactor in times of trouble.
Likewise, the facts on the ground mean that any serious effort to deny Iranian influence in Syria would require America to back less-than-savory Sunni jihadists. On the other side of the same coin, the greatest fertilizer to ISIS’s ability to rise anew would be a concerted American action in Syria to take ground from the Assad regime.
Increased American intervention in Syria will prolong the conflict and increase the human cost of Syria’s civil war. Research tells us that when foreign actors intervene on both sides of a civil war, especially in a multiparty conflict, the killing is often prolonged.
Assad is backed by Russia and Iran, and would be heaped with even greater support were his regime threatened. Meanwhile, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar back Sunni rebels in Syria, including jihadists. The United States has most-concretely backed the Kurds in Syria’s North, who face enmity from the Assad regime and from Sunni jihadists (and Turkey has just launched an offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurds across its border in Syria’s Afrin region).
Vladimir Putin just had his “mission accomplished” moment. Just after Putin declared that Russia’s mission in Syria was done and the troops supporting Assad would soon come home, a mortar attack severely damaged a Russian airbase. If Putin finds himself in a conflict that he cannot pull away from with dignity, but is unable to style the conflict as a geopolitical struggle with America, his political ascendency could be threatened. And if Putin has just entered a no-win situation in Syria, why jump into the quicksand with him?
Iran’s foreign adventurism doesn’t come without costs, either, as was seen during the recent spate of protests. Much is made about a “Shiite Crescent,” where Iran is able to control vast swaths of the Middle East and run military supply-lines to militant organizations like Hezbollah. This goal still isn’t within Iran’s grasp, and won’t be easy to achieve. Attempting to remove the Assad regime will only increase Iran’s pull over the Arab-world.
Paradoxically, Assad has found a suitor in Iran out of necessity. The more Assad’s government feels secure in its limited position in what is in all reality an already partitioned Syria, the more Damascus will seek a policy independent of its Persian benefactor.
What of Russia’s presence in the region—even if Putin’s army is bogged down, hasn’t he gained a strategic position in the Middle East? The idea that Russia must be kicked out of Syria is historically unprecedented. Russia has been involved in Syria since the halcyon days of the Cold War, and held great sway over the Arab world until the United States played the peacemaker in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Egypt and Israel. In other words, let Russia and Iran exhaust themselves in Syria.
Should America do anything in Syria? The Kurds in Syria’s north are relatively moderate Sunni Muslims. If there is a good guy in this fight, it is the Kurds. Going forward, the Kurds can and will act as a proxy to prevent the rise of ISIS and impose costs on Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. Here, Turkey’s attack on the Kurds in Afrin is troubling. Aside from Syria and Iraq, both Turkey and Iran have substantial Kurdish populations and fear that a strong Kurdish presence on their borders would fuel domestic independence movements. Nevertheless, America should do what it can diplomatically to restrain Turkey’s military action.
As the Trump administration enters its second year, there is a risk that the good instincts and policy Trump expressed on the campaign trail morph into bad policy because of military advisors wholly committed to the status quo that Trump meant to challenge. Doing any more than assisting the Kurds in Syria, for example, amounts to “fighting two wars at one time.”
Remember Turkey’s military operation against the Afrin Kurds, mentioned above? It was in part spearheaded by radical Sunni rebels who have, in the past, received U.S. assistance. That is madness. It was dumb for Bush to propose fighting two wars in 2016, and it would be stupefying if the Trump administration goes that route in 2018. It’s time for Trump to take back control from his status-quo advisors.