Washington should review its approach to Assad

The punitive approach is morally satisfying and politically expedient but, as a practical matter, it just perpetuates the conflict and sustains Assad’s dependency on Iran.

The Trump administration has begun to roll back the president’s announced pullout from Syria. On December 19, US President Donald Trump said the Islamic State (ISIS) had been defeated but administration officials now acknowledge ISIS hasn’t entirely been beaten.

Trump ordered a troop withdrawal within 30 days, then administration officials said it would take four months and, more recently, announced there was no fixed timetable. The departure was originally unconditioned — now it is explicitly conditioned on — receiving assurances from Turkey regarding its treatment of the Syrian Kurds’ demand that caused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to snub US national security adviser John Bolton during Bolton’s January 8 visit to Ankara.

Despite tension with Ankara, these evolutions are all in the right direction, recognising that the anti-ISIS campaign is not entirely over and that the United States has residual obligations to its main partners in that fight, the Syrian Kurds. The change in strategy is also evidence of serious disarray within the administration, as officials at all levels struggle to carry out what appear to be ill-prepared instructions and unrealistic policies.

Confusion over Syrian policy preceded the president’s withdrawal announcement. Trump has said he had earlier given the Pentagon a firm deadline for withdrawal and had refused to extend it. Yet, in the weeks leading up to his December announcement, Bolton and his top Syrian envoy, James Jeffrey, publicly maintained that American forces would remain in Syria as long as Iranian forces and proxies did, which is to say indefinitely. So either the president had not given clear instructions or his principal advisers did not take his guidance seriously. Either explanation would be cause for concern.

In their December 14 phone call that preceded the withdrawal announcement, Trump and Erdogan agreed that Turkey would take over the fight against residual ISIS elements in Syria. A glance at the map would indicate how improbable this is.

ISIS is holed up in isolated pockets of resistance on the Iraqi border, not the Turkish border, and thousands of Kurdish fighters occupy the territory in between. Geography makes clear that any future anti-ISIS campaign in the Euphrates River valley would likely be conducted by the Kurds or the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.

The Kurds can conduct this fight only if they are not attacked by the Turks and if they continue to benefit from US equipment and air support, which probably requires at least a few American forward observers on the ground. Having the Syrian government occupy this area would be a lot less desirable but better than leaving ISIS undisturbed.

Washington’s attitude towards the regime in Damascus also warrants review. Syrian President Bashar Assad is a serial war criminal but the United States has previously talked with other leaders in that category, such as Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

Iran will never leave Syria entirely but its presence will diminish as the civil war winds down. Ending that war and offering the prospect of international reconstruction assistance could provide the best means of eventually reducing Iranian influence. The United States’ Gulf allies are beginning to make their peace with Assad to better compete with Iran for influence there.

European governments are also becoming restive and, after the most recent shifts in US policy, less likely to follow Washington’s lead.

Washington’s strategy, under Barack Obama as well as Trump, has been to “impose costs” on the government in Damascus by diplomatic ostracism and economic sanctions. This punitive approach is morally satisfying and politically expedient but, as a practical matter, it helps perpetuate the conflict and sustain Assad’s dependency on Iran.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.