The Trump Administration’s Objectives in Syria


US National Security Advisor John Bolton during a press conference in Jerusalem where he spoke on Syria.

As if reminding the world that the United States is still relevant in the current phase of the Syrian civil war, US National Security Advisor John Bolton opined on August 22 during a visit to Israel that Russia is “stuck in Syria” and is looking for funders for Syria’s reconstruction. He also threatened the Syrian regime should it resort to using chemical weapons in a potential assault on Idlib, the opposition’s stronghold in the northwest. From his side, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed a seasoned diplomat, James Jeffrey, as “special representative for Syria engagement,” and that is in addition to Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy to the coalition against the so-called Islamic State (IS) operating in Syria and Iraq.

For an administration almost bereft of on-the-ground levers of power, Bolton’s and Pompeo’s actions were clearly intended to help insinuate some important American preferences into Syrian matters, as the conflict arguably nears its end on Russian terms. Their attempts, however, appear to contradict President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw $230 million in American assistance for stabilization in Syria, an amount Trump derided as “ridiculous,” saying he wants to use the funds domestically. He had also declared his acceptance of President Bashar al-Assad’s remaining in power and has been inching toward withdrawing American troops from Syria, an objective that has generated much criticism and pushback from both administration officials and political and expert circles outside of government.

While not getting deeply involved in Syria’s affairs, the United States would like to see a semblance of a future constitutional political transition in Syria.

Despite the contradictions, however, American officials would still like to maintain or influence the development of several clearly interconnected objectives in Syria—some more directly than others—because of the potential negative repercussions of full abdication. A favorable outcome would depend on the administration’s ability to get its institutional machinery in order. Just as importantly, success would hinge on whether Russia, first, allows others to have a say in Syrian affairs and, second, is sincere in wanting to broker an equitable peace agreement in Syria—a tall order given its sponsorship of Assad’s authoritarian rule. As it is today, Russia has been able to maneuver among several external actors in Syria––the United States, Iran, Turkey, Israel, the Gulf states, and others––and to emerge as the decidedly pivotal player on the ground.

The Vexing Question of Transition

While not getting deeply involved in Syria’s affairs, the United States would like to see a semblance of a future constitutional political transition in Syria. In fact, Washington believes that funds for Syria’s development may very well depend on US approval of a process for such a transition. As the president was axing the stabilization funds for Syria, Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield insisted that the United States and other countries would not contribute to any reconstruction in Syria unless there is a “credible and irreversible” political process that could end the conflict. This assertion is only logical––whatever the position of President Trump and his administration regarding the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or his regime––since any funders of reconstruction would want to assure the safety of their contributions against renewed instability.

Perhaps indicating a general acceptance of this American position and its repercussions, United Nations Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura is said to be organizing a meeting for Russia, Turkey, and Iran for September 11-12 to discuss forming a constitutional drafting committee for Syria. Considering the current state of relations between the United States and Iran, the United States was not invited to the meeting. Instead, de Mistura met with Secretary Pompeo on August 15 when the latter insisted on the necessity of a political process of “constitutional reform and free and fair elections as described in UN Security Council Resolution 2254.” In other words, while the Trump Administration may not adhere to the Obama Administration’s position on Assad’s departure, it will hold the reconstruction of Assad’s future Syria hostage to his acceptance of some restraints on his currently unlimited power.

The issue of a process for political transition is related to another one that is essential for the future of Syria: the fate of millions of Syrian refugees who want to return to their country. Russia has in fact employed this cudgel to pressure the United States, accusing Washington and European capitals of using the issue of reconstruction to delay the return of the refugees and not allowing UN agencies to help them. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov received arguably unqualified support from Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who expressed his country’s support for “the quick and safe return of Syrian refugees without any link to a political solution.” According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of August 9, 2018, there are 5.6 million registered Syrian refugees in neighboring countries: 3.5 million in Turkey, 972,000 in Lebanon, 668,000 in Jordan, 249,000 in Iraq, and 130,000 in Egypt. An additional one million are in Europe as of the end of January 2018.

Continuing the Fight Against the Islamic State

Sustaining the limited American presence in Syria are some 2,000 troops deployed in the northeast and southeast of the country, ostensibly to fight IS and train the friendly Syrian Democratic Forces––an amalgam of Kurdish and Arab fighters––to do the same. Although IS’s area of control of Syrian (and Iraqi) territory has shrunk, the Trump Administration finds itself unable to just pack up and leave. As presidential envoy Brett McGurk has reported, IS still operates in pockets in the “middle Euphrates valley” so a final phase to uproot its “caliphate” remains necessary. Furthermore, the US Department of Defense believes that IS still controls about 5 percent of Syria’s territory and fields about 14,000 fighters in the country, while another 17,000 are in neighboring Iraq. No military planner in the Pentagon can ignore these facts, given the recent message sent by IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to his followers exhorting them to attack targets in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.

Continuing with the mission against the Islamic State in Syria presents significant challenges related to Turkish relations with the Kurds and the latter’s inclination to cooperate with the Syrian regime.

But continuing with the mission against the Islamic State presents its own challenges. The Kurdish allies of the Pentagon represent a thorn in Turkey’s side in northern Syria; this is because of Ankara’s distrust of the Kurds’ ambitions for self-rule. Any cooperation between American and Turkish troops thus depends on the politics of Turkish-Kurdish relations. Moreover, as the Syrian war changes into a final battle for the control of Idlib in the northwest, two pivotal and related issues should raise serious concerns in Washington. The first is the seemingly open-ended Turkish-Russian-Iranian relationship that does not even pretend to respect American wishes and plows ahead with mutual accommodation of interests. Leaders from Turkey, Russia, and Iran are scheduled to meet in Tehran in September after they have established themselves as the undisputed actors in Syria’s war and its resolution. Turkey also appears to be striking out on its own as it cultivates a very cozy relationship with Russia—historic ties to the United States and the West be damned.

The second is the openness of US-supported Kurdish militias to cooperating with the Syrian regime on a formula that allows Damascus to reclaim its old condominium in the Kurdish north and northeast—one would imagine with the aim of not running afoul of Turkey. It is indeed not hard to fathom a situation where Syria’s Assad, aided by Russian assurances to Turkey, will be allowed to control these areas in exchange for his regime quashing any independent Kurdish activities there. Moreover, Syrian and Russian troops can direct their attention to the remaining IS fighters along the Euphrates Valley while American soldiers can simply be withdrawn or sent across the border to Iraq to continue their mission on the Iraqi side.

The Iran-Israel Equation

Another important American objective in Syria is to assure full Iranian withdrawal from the country and a halt to Iran’s influence on its developments. This is a lofty wish that lacks the requisite pressure points, short of an outright military confrontation—one that may not do the trick anyway. Going against all indications on this matter, National Security Advisor Bolton went as far as threatening any deal with Russia on Syria before Iran is made to leave the country. In an interview on “This Week” on August 19, he had even assumed that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be interested in ending Iran’s military presence altogether in Syria. However, Bolton may have missed the news toward the end of July when Russia announced that it cannot force Iran out of Syria. He also would have realized that the administration’s objective is unattainable after Damascus and Tehran declared that they are strengthening their military cooperation, with Iran insisting that its presence in Syria is by invitation from the Syrian government.

If one important consideration of ending Iran’s role in Syria is to help assure Israel’s security, then Russia may not need too much nudging.

In effect, the Trump Administration has gone as far as it could on this demand. If one important consideration of ending Iran’s role in Syria is to help assure Israel’s security, then Russia may not need too much nudging. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already produced what could be considered the maximum attainable by being in direct contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin. As Josh Rogin writes in the Washington Post, the two men have reached an agreement––and reported it to President Trump––by which Russia keeps Iranian troops and proxies 50 miles away from Israel’s border and allows Israel to attack “Iranian assets in southern Syria, especially if Iran deploys weapons that threaten Israel, such as strategic missiles or anti-aircraft systems.” In other words, there may not be a need for the Trump Administration to try to have Israel’s back since Putin appears to be the one who can deliver on that objective.

What’s an Administration to Do?

Of the panoply of issues and associated factors that the Trump Administration considers as giving it some leverage in the Syrian civil war, only the first––regarding funding reconstruction—appears to be the most effective. While fighting the Islamic State is a dearly guarded American objective that, so far, has been pursued with vigor and efficiency, Washington remains constrained in how much it can influence Syria’s future. To be sure, defeating IS will not translate into chips in the geostrategic game played by outside actors on the Syrian battlefield, and it will not be used to advance a political transition in Damascus.

Neither is the United States capable, or committed enough, of forcing a full Iranian withdrawal from Syria. Iran’s forces and its proxies in the country would not be easily dislodged without a full-scale American military intervention, which hardly anyone in the United States considers advisable, let alone feasible. As for Israel’s defense, its prime minister seems to have decided to go to the source of power and influence in Syria––i.e., Russia––to guarantee it in light of the impossibility of completely doing away with the Iranian menace.

Indeed, Washington’s efforts can be influential on the issue of Syria’s reconstruction, and here is where the United States can use its leverage in Syrian affairs. It is hardly a secret that Russia alone cannot rebuild Syria. Neither can Russia line up enough funders for the process without direct assistance from the United States, which has the necessary financial clout with many international donors, especially the Gulf Arab states. As it is now, the cost of Syria’s reconstruction ranges from $100 billion to $350 billion, which is not a paltry sum. To be sure, Washington’s role is indispensable. If the Trump Administration does not squander this ace in the hole, it could have a major influence on Syria’s political future, beginning with a new constitution that ensures the protection of civil rights and equality as well as a healthy democratic transition in Syria.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here