The Trump Administration seems to want to be a player in the Syrian crisis for long-term strategic reasons. Its activities on the ground, however, represent a host of contradictions. This policy reflects the administration’s reticence about getting tied down in a Middle East quagmire and, at the same time, its desire to show both the Iranians and the Russians that their actions in the country will be checked. However, with only 2,000 US troops on the ground, stationed north and east of the Euphrates River and geared to fighting against the remaining pockets of the so-called Islamic State (IS), the United States is unlikely to affect Syria’s future political outcome in any meaningful way.
Washington’s Syria policy has also revealed contradictory preferences between its interests in supporting Syrian Kurds while maintaining its traditional alliance with Turkey. Although it sees the Kurds as a key partner in IS’s near-defeat, this alliance has also made the United States the de-facto protector of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Syria, which has angered Ankara. While US military commanders on the ground in Syria have been vocal in defying Turkish threats, American diplomats are now trying to appease Turkey. In the end, Washington may wind up satisfying neither side of this dispute.
Trump’s Initial Policies on Syria
In the first few months of his administration, President Donald Trump pursued essentially three policies toward Syria. First, he continued military actions against IS through air strikes, the use of US Special Forces, and support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are made up mostly of Kurds. Second, he indicated that his administration was not interested in bringing about regime change and would end whatever limited covert support it had given to moderate Syrian rebels. Third, Trump approved the unleashing, in April 2017, of dozens of missiles against a Syrian air base that reportedly was used to launch chemical weapons on Syrian civilians.
Although the second and third policies seemed to be at odds with one another, Trump’s missile attack was not part of any grand strategy. This was an impulsive decision to show that he was the anti-Obama (emphasizing that Obama did not follow through in 2013 with his own pledge to strike Syria if Assad used chemical weapons) and to register a strong reaction to the suffering of Syrian children. Reportedly, Trump was moved to act by seeing photos of young victims of this attack.
Regardless, and even though the Trump Administration later would say that Assad should relinquish power—although it did not do anything to bring that about—Trump’s chief policy in Syria was focused on counterterrorism. This was to fulfill his campaign pledge that he would “obliterate” IS so it would no longer pose a threat to the US homeland.
Although Trump claims that he is being tougher on IS than Obama, he essentially has carried out the same policy as his predecessor. The only difference is that he gave US military commanders on the ground more leeway to make decisions without always checking with Washington. It was later revealed that about 2,000 US troops were (and continue to be) in Syria helping to train and provide arms and logistics to the SDF, which has carried out the bulk of the anti-IS fight. The fall of the IS capital, Raqqa, in late 2017 was touted by Trump as a great victory; he personally took credit for it during his January 2018 State of the Union address.
A More Articulate but Still Confused Policy
By early 2018, the SDF had removed IS not only from Raqqa but from nearly all of the territory east and north of the Euphrates River, including the oil-rich area around Deir Ezzor. This force also came into contact with Syrian and Iranian-supported militias, which resulted in a few skirmishes backed by US air power. Later, on February 7, 2018, the US military even clashed with a group of Russian mercenaries fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, killing over one hundred of them—but it emphasized that this was a defensive operation, and US and SDF forces remained east of the Euphrates River.
The Trump Administration came to believe that it needed to articulate to the American people why it was necessary to keep the troops in Syria for the foreseeable future. This task fell to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who delivered a major policy address on Syria at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on January 17, 2018. He detailed the following principal goals for US policy in Syria: 1) to prevent IS and al-Qaeda from reemerging in Syria; 2) to support a UN-led political process, begun in Geneva in 2012, that would lead to a stable and unified post-Assad Syria; 3) to diminish Iran’s influence in Syria and deny it a “northern arch” that would extend from Iran to Lebanon, and to secure Syria’s neighbors against Iranian threats emanating from Syria; 4) to create conditions so refugees could return safely to their homes; and 5) to make Syria free of weapons of mass destruction.
While the creation of local civil authorities in areas of SDF control is currently taking place (amid some tensions between Kurds and Arabs in eastern Syria), Tillerson did not explain how this would work in other areas of Syria, most of which are under the Assad government’s control. Nor did Tillerson explain how the UN Geneva process on Syria was going to work, especially as it has had a dismal track record so far. Meanwhile, the Russians, Iranians, and the Turks have been pursuing a separate track that complicates that process.
Tillerson also did not explain why Assad would relinquish power, especially as his army and the militias allied with it, plus Russian air force, have allowed him to retake more and more Syrian territory. Even some of Assad’s well-known detractors in the Arab world, like Jordan, seem to have grudgingly accepted the fact that Assad is not going to relinquish power and, therefore, it is necessary to talk to his government.
Hence, it is highly unlikely the 2,000 US troops in eastern Syria are an effective pressure point on Assad. These troops may be able to influence the Kurdish autonomous region, called Rojava, in the northeastern part of Syria, but that is a far cry from changing and influencing a new regime in Damascus.
As for the policy of diminishing Iran’s role in Syria, it is also unclear how this will come about. Although the United States is opposed to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian-supported Hezbollah fighters in Syria (in part because of Israeli and Saudi concerns), there does not appear to be an actual policy to carry this out except to prevent a so-called land corridor (which Tillerson called a “northern arch”) from developing. US and SDF presence in eastern Syria could be used to block such a corridor, but Iran could develop a land route just south of this troop presence in Syria. In any event, most of the Iranian assistance to Syria arrives via air.
As for Russian involvement in Syria, there has been not only a weak US response—save for the February 7, 2018 incident against Russian mercenaries—but a contradictory one as well. Russia and the Assad government have repeatedly violated the February 24, 2018 UN Security Council Resolution 2401 that stipulated a ceasefire in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, where over 1,100 civilians have been killed thus far. According to a Washington Post report, Trump asked his advisors during this recent spate of violence, and after learning of reports of Syrian government chlorine gas attacks, for “options” in Syria; however, the only result was a White House statement on March 4 that said the “civilized world must not tolerate the Assad regime’s continued use of chemical weapons.” This statement prompted former US diplomat and Syria expert Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council to write sarcastically that it is now acceptable to slaughter civilians using weapons other than chemical ones.
Although the White House did criticize the Russians for their violations of the ceasefire, other parts of the US government condemned the Russian actions in much stronger terms. The US CENTCOM commander, Joseph Votel, during his testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on February 27, said Russia was playing the role of “arsonist and firefighter … fueling tensions and then trying to resolve them in their favor, and then manipulating all the parties they can in order to achieve their objectives.” Votel also blamed Russia, as did the State Department shortly thereafter, for failing to enforce the ceasefire in Syria. He stated: “Either Russia has to admit that it’s not capable, or it doesn’t want to play a role in ending the Syrian conflict here. I think their role is incredibly destabilizing.”
But what really counts is the view of President Trump, and he has been reluctant to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin for Moscow’s Syrian policy. In fact, on February 23, Trump told the press, “we’re there [in Syria] for one reason … to get rid of ISIS and go home.” As long as the Russians see this discrepancy in approach between Trump and his military and civilian departments, they are unlikely to take these more critical assessments seriously.
Walking a Tightrope between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey
Perhaps the most glaring contradiction in US policy in Syria is the matter of the Syrian Kurds. US military officers on the ground have expressed admiration for the fighting spirit of the Kurds and for their sacrifices in the anti-IS campaign. A US military commander in Syria, Lt. General Paul Funk, stated that, “When nobody else could do it, they retook Raqqa. I think that has earned them a seat at the table.”
Funk and other US military commanders are dismissive of the “terrorist” label that Turkey has put on the Kurdish fighters in the SDF, most of whom are from the YPG (People’s Protection Units), which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said is directly linked to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) in Turkey. Erdoğan has also repeatedly said he would not tolerate a “terrorist army” on his southern border. He even threatened US military personnel in the area by stating, “Do not stand between us and the terrorists” as it may result in situations “that are unwanted and we will not be responsible.” These and similar statements led to a war of words between Funk and Erdoğan that were unprecedented between two NATO allies.
The Turkish incursion into the Kurdish-populated Afrin area of northwestern Syria, which began on January 20, put the United States in a quandary. US military commanders in areas farther to the east believe the Turkish military action is working to the detriment of the anti-IS campaign because so many Kurds from eastern Syria have gone to Afrin to defend the area. (It is noteworthy that even with the fall of Raqqa, there are still IS pockets in eastern Syria.) At the same time, US diplomats, particularly Tillerson, have been trying to assuage the Turks’ concerns. In mid-February, the secretary of state traveled to Ankara to cool tensions, and the United States and Turkey have now established joint working groups to iron out differences. The Turks are hoping Washington will pressure the Kurds to leave the city of Manbij in northern Syria, but the Kurds are now concerned that they might be sacrificed for better US-Turkish relations.
It is not clear how all this will play out, and tensions between the State Department and CENTCOM have developed over this issue. For better or worse, the United States is currently the protector of the Kurds in eastern Syria. How Washington threads this needle remains a big question—and it may not turn out well for either side.
Recommendations for US Policy
There seems to be “policy fatigue” in Washington over Syria. While policy-makers are genuinely upset over ongoing civilian casualties, they seem paralyzed as to what to do—except to issue statements of condemnation. One prominent think tank scholar, who had earlier advocated for a more robust US role in Syria, has now called for Assad to “win” because he believes that is the only way to stop the carnage. But if the administration heeds this advice, its stance regarding political transition in accordance with the Geneva process would be for naught.
While there are no easy fixes to the Syrian crisis, President Trump himself needs to be more forceful in his statements about the ongoing atrocities against civilians; simply warning about the use of chemical weapons or seeing Syria merely through an anti-IS lens do not constitute an effective approach. If Trump had echoed what Votel said about the Russian malign role in Syria, perhaps Putin would have taken notice.
As for the disposition of US troops in eastern Syria, they perhaps could stay and work with the Kurds to make their autonomous region more inclusive, particularly in areas where the Kurds are a minority. This would make the autonomous entity less of an ethnic enclave and more of a regional one, and perhaps this would dampen Turkish anger and preclude a Turkish invasion in northeastern Syria. But without a US protective shield, such a deterrent would go away, and that would be a very dangerous situation indeed.