How to Salvage US Interests in Syria
Short of a full military victory by one side or the other, there is no prospect of Syria being stitched back together soon.
When it started in 2011, the Syrian protest movement against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria was entirely domestic and mostly peaceful. I was there and observed up close—so close, in fact, that the Syrian government was furious with me.
Those marching wanted a government that accepted accountability and respect for basic human rights. Some—not all—wanted democracy, but few understood what the word meant.
Now, nearly six years after the revolution started, the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition demonize each other as terrorists, rapists and child-killers, exploiting sectarian fears and grievances constantly. Politically, it no longer matters that the Syrian government has killed far more than the Syrian opposition has, or even the Islamic State (IS). Damaged by internal divisions, short-sighted support for jihadists that has returned to haunt them and, above all, the lack of a coherent political vision, the Syrian opposition doesn’t mobilize enough Syrians to prevail over what is essentially a minority government, weakened as it is.
Moreover, the Syrian conflict has developed into multiple struggles heavily influenced by regional powers and Moscow. The war in Syria is not only a humanitarian catastrophe, but it is also destabilizing the region, aggravating a difficult US-Turkey relationship, and now refugee flows have stirred political turbulence among allies in Europe as well.
What Can the US Do Now?
Historians will debate whether the United States could have made much of a difference to resolve the Syrian conflict in its early years or whether the limited US help to the opposition prolonged the fighting. History will show that American help to the opposition was quite limited and often disjointed. In any case, a real political transition to resolve the conflict is impossible. A different and harder question is what can the US do now to secure its interests in Syria.
The US could begin by limiting the damage of the Syrian conflict to its wider regional stability and counterterrorism goals. These realities would mean supporting the Russian-Turkish ceasefire effort as a means of easing refugee outflows and restraining Iranian gains, even if a Syrian political solution is far off.
A sustainable strategy to contain IS and undermine its recruitment efforts requires reorienting US policy away from the minority Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia as the spearhead against IS and working more like the US successfully did with local Arab forces in Iraq in 2007-10.
That must be done in coordination with Turkey and Russia. Many observers will howl against working with Russia, but Russia will have to shoulder the onerous task of reconciling the Syrian government to those local Arab fighters who boot IS out of its capital in Raqqa and other towns in eastern Syria. Thus, Russia needs to be part of the future solution, even though it helped block the political transition that the US had sought earlier.
Best Allies in Syria
The Obama administration can take some credit in Syria for using fighters from the Syrian Kurdish PYD party’s militia to eject IS from strongholds in northeastern Syria and to deny IS oil revenues from those strongholds. Impressed by the PYD militia’s courageous stand against IS at the town of Kobani in late 2014, US policy has been to provide military assistance against IS and thus direct support also for the PYD’s goal of an autonomous region.
The PYD fighters are courageous and capable; they are also the only Syrian militia to receive constant US combat air support and help from US special operations forces. This direct US military support has made them the best ally against IS, but they are not the only potential ally to whom the US could provide such support.
The history of Turks and Kurds in Syria matters when thinking about the best ally. Prior to the 1921 border deal between Turkey and France (that held the post-World War I Syria mandate), the Kurdish communities in this region were not separated. Unlike Kurds in Iraq, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish communities share historic tribal, linguistic and cultural ties. This is why the Kurds on the north side of the border in Turkey rioted when the Turkish government declined to help the Kurds on the south side of the border in Kobani in 2014; the communities retain links.
The Syrian PYD party has the strongest Kurdish militia and harasses other Syrian Kurdish parties, although the PYD is nowhere near as bad as IS or the Assad government. The PYD ideology, like that of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey from which it descends, rejects both the Turkish and the Syrian states. Given the close ties between the Syrian Kurdish PYD party and its militia with the PKK, Turkey perceives that the PYD’s autonomous Syrian Kurdish region will give the PKK strategic depth in the renewed PKK battle against the Turkish state.
Further progress against IS in eastern Syria does not translate into progress in the much broader Syrian Civil War, and the Obama administration for the past three years has carefully avoided getting more involved in the conflict.
There is little in the relationship between the PYD and mother PKK party or in the direct ties between PYD militia fighters and PKK fighters that shows the Turks are wrong. The vicious battle underway in southeastern Turkey between the PKK and the Turkish government, as well as multiple bombings elsewhere in Turkey blamed on the PKK, add to Turkish sensitivities. Their sensitivities are so great that, finally, the cautious Turkish Army deployed into north-central Syria in an operation called Euphrates Shield last year to forestall expansion of the PYD autonomous zone and to hinder IS access to Turkish territory.
Helping the PYD against IS carries a high regional price; it is not the same as helping Iraqi Kurds against IS. And US strategic gains from further degradation of IS at the hands of PYD fighters will be offset substantially if NATO ally Turkey’s own stability is further weakened in the process.
Stirring Up New Conflicts
Beyond the Turkish angle, there is another reason to rethink the alliance with the PYD to take Raqqa. Because IS gained strength largely due to political grievances against the Damascus and Baghdad governments, undercutting IS recruitment is as much a political as a military challenge. Jihadi recruitment must be slowed to make the gains sustainable over the long term. As the PYD militia cautiously advances into mainly Arab regions, the leftist PYD ideology, which rejects the centralized Syrian state, will not sit well with the very conservative Arab culture of Raqqa.
Moreover, longstanding ethnic rivalries are simmering, to the benefit of IS recruitment. The PYD and the Americans are trying to build up enough local Syrian Arab forces to provide some cover for the PYD militia to keep advancing. However, other Syrian rebels, as well as IS, are labeling those pro-PYD local Arabs as traitors or Kurdish stooges. (Given the PYD’s control over the local Arabs, they are not all wrong.)
Not surprisingly, we have seen the incoherence of CIA-backed Syrian rebels who oppose Assad also fighting against Pentagon-backed PYD and Arab fighters in between Raqqa and Aleppo because the CIA-backed fighters reject the PYD plan for an autonomous region.
It is well-past time to resolve this strategic incoherence by removing the PYD from the Raqqa picture. This could delay the recapture of Raqqa by a few months, but the outcome would be more sustainable in terms of helping Turkey manage the Kurdish challenge and in terms of undercutting local Arab radicalization and IS recruitment. The new US administration should halt assistance to the Syrian Kurdish PYD’s militia and detach local Arab forces near Raqqa from the PYD. The Americans need to encourage Russia and Turkey to determine how to involve, perhaps indirectly at first, the PYD in talks about Syria’s political future.
There needs to be a build-up of local Arab forces not tainted with the PYD brand to recapture Raqqa, recognizing this will take longer but, ultimately, will more durably undercut IS recruitment. A six-month delay is better than still confronting a powerful IS insurgency two years from now. Backing the Turkish Euphrates Shield drive against IS in al-Bab in north-central Syria, perhaps in cooperation with the Russians, and support its further operations against IS might also prove useful.
Furthermore, the US needs to stop any local Syrian Arab forces fighting against Euphrates Shield operations from receiving US aid. The local Arab fighters aimed at Raqqa should focus on that, and perhaps later with other local forces target IS positions in Deir Zour and Albu Kamel in southeastern Syria near Iraq (a topic for discussion with Russia, Turkey and perhaps even Iraq, Iran and the Syrian government).
In turn, the Turks must agree that as part of this American reorientation they will stop any further cross-border transport and trafficking by the al-Qaida affiliate, the Sham Liberation Front (SLF), in northwestern Syria and instead bolster anti-al-Qaida groups to remove al-Qaida from the Turkish-Syrian border where it has imposed taxes, skimmed supplies coming from Turkey, and financed recruitment of new fighters. The US should also support the Turkish and Qatari effort to forestall a merger between mainstream Islamist fighters and the extremist SLF in order to further restrain its recruitment of new fighters.
Let the Locals Settle Local Questions
As local Syrian fighters drive toward Raqqa, the issue of political control of the town will arise. The US military must avoid the temptation to choose the new leadership of Raqqa or involve itself in the political contestation for leadership in towns like al-Bab and Manbij. The administration must not empower a single rebel faction to assume short-term leadership. We learned from the Iraq War that local people who suffered under grotesque tyranny can bitterly resent carpetbaggers, even if the carpetbaggers have local roots. Another lesson is that there will be a rush to dominate and score-settle that will facilitate an IS insurgency recruitment effort.
To steady security post-IS, American military personnel and diplomats, along with Turkey and Russia, should help local communities and fighters come together to identify and implement processes by which local leaderships, including local security leaderships, are selected. They cannot choose winners; they have to focus on a process achieved by consensus. This effort needs to start immediately—well before towns like al-Bab and Raqqa are freed of IS control—even if the process will not end until IS is booted out of the towns.
Further progress against IS in eastern Syria does not translate into progress in the much broader Syrian Civil War, and the Obama administration for the past three years has carefully avoided getting more involved in the conflict. President Barack Obama, in his April 2016 interview with The Atlantic, ascribed much of the conflict in Syria and Iraq to what he thought is ages-old warring between Shia and Sunni Muslims that Americans couldn’t resolve. Better, he decided, for the Iranians and the Saudis to “share” the Middle East and for the Americans to stand back.
During my decades in the region, Iraqis, Lebanese and Bahrainis all highlighted to me that the two Muslim sects for most of the past 13 centuries have lived together peacefully. (There are photos you can easily find with mixed couples holding signs saying they are “Su-Shi.”) There is, of course, competition and discrimination in some locales, but the Obama administration’s perception that Syria was the latest clash in a 1,300-year-old conflict focused on the trees and missed the Redwood forest.
Turkey, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Syrian rebels are not pushing back against Iran and its Syrian ally because they cannot abide by the different Shia inheritance laws. Nor are the Iranians driving forward in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon because they cannot stand the Sunni modalities of daily prayer that differ slightly from their own. The very real battle is, instead, about power politics, regional leadership, and destabilization of opponents.
Essentially, Turkey and the Gulf are status quo powers—they have for the past 10 years determined responses to outside powers, to Israel and to intra-regional conflicts; the Gulf has largely set OPEC oil policy as well. Iran now seeks to seize regional leadership. It aims to poke Saudi Arabia in places like the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi execution of dissident cleric Nimr al-Nimr a year ago was cruel, but Iran’s vigorous reaction to the execution was out of proportion to Nimr’s importance in the Gulf Shia religious hierarchy and aimed at undermining Saudi legitimacy more broadly. Iran is also poking Saudi Arabia through Bahrain and Yemen; the Iranian armed forces chief of staff has even spoken of building bases in Yemen and Syria.
Iran’s Goal in Syria
Iran is moving to dominate Syria and Lebanon because its strategy to secure regional leadership includes confrontation with Israel, rightly or wrongly estimating that Arab populations will drop their concerns about Iran to rally behind Muslims, like Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), against Israel. Some analysts perceive the Iranian goal as essentially defensive: use Hezbollah to deter an Israeli first strike against Iran over, for example, its nuclear program.
While Iranian officials have publicly warned the Israelis about Hezbollah’s thousands of missiles to deter Israel, the supreme leader and the predominant IRGC speak of a larger fight against Israel. If they only sought deterrence, Hezbollah has long been well-enough armed to give the Israelis pause. Moreover, the July 2015 nuclear deal would have diminished their concerns about an Israeli (or American) first strike.
Instead, Iran doubled down in Syria, sending more militia fighters and even convincing Russia to intervene directly as Assad’s army wobbled in the summer of 2015. Iran is building a controlled corridor from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon that will provide direct access to the Israeli border; for this reason Iranian-backed Iraqi militias are pledging to deploy into Syria.
How and when Iran and its allies will challenge Israel depends on Iranian government judgments. Hezbollah has suffered greatly in the Syrian fighting and its leaders would likely welcome time to rest and refit. What is certain is that with Iran prodding Israel’s Lebanese border, and now its Golan border, the situation will become active again at some point.
Consolidation of an Iranian presence and influence is not a Russian goal. There are signs of tension and disagreement between Moscow and Tehran about the endgame in Syria. Both want the survival of the Assad government, but the Russians are more enthusiastic about a ceasefire, while Iran backs the Syrian government’s quest for military victory. It is significant that Russia has provided air support to those Turkish forces against the Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab even though the Syrian government always denounces Turkish aid to the rebels and calls the Turkish presence in Syria illegal. Russia has influence but doesn’t control the Syrian government or Iran. Indeed, there is a longstanding regional rivalry between Persia and Russia.
To pursue its ceasefire idea, Russia opened talks with rebel groups in Ankara and eventually worked an agreement with Turkey to evacuate fighters and civilians from east Aleppo and move to a national ceasefire. The Turks do not want Iranian or pro-Iranian forces aligned along their southern border. The Turkish foreign minister in late December 2016 said that Hezbollah should withdraw from Syria as part of a peace deal. Iran notably swatted the idea down the next day.
Turkish troops in north-central Syria will represent one check, however imperfect, to the Iranian consolidation in Syria. Moreover, the Turks have long supported Syrian rebel groups that are adamantly anti-Iranian. These Syrian rebels cannot overthrow Assad. However, whether because Moscow wants to avoid deeper military involvement in Syria or because it wishes to maintain some future leverage over Assad, the Russians have proposed a ceasefire that will leave the non-extremist rebels in place.
The Russians even accepted hardline Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam as moderate groups admitted within the ceasefire—a dramatic reversal from the public Russian stance during the long talks with John Kerry.
A Ceasefire Could Be Useful
The Russian/Turkish proposal for a ceasefire, if respected, would slow the flow of refugees into neighboring countries, easing pressure on those countries and even pressure on Europe. A few refugees might even return to Syria if the ceasefire holds. Moreover, a viable ceasefire would help an American policy of slowing Iranian consolidation in Syria.
A ceasefire would leave in place anti-Iranian, anti-Assad rebels in locales such as the Damascus suburbs, southern Syria near the Jordanian border, and in Homs and Hama provinces near the Lebanese border; the Russians apparently are even testing the idea of a local government in these non-al-Qaida/IS-held rebel locales. A ceasefire would in the short and into the medium term legitimate the presence on Syrian soil of a small number of Turkish troops. The eventual withdrawal of those Turkish troops could be useful as leverage in an eventual negotiation about withdrawal of other foreign forces from Syria.
Fighting in the northwest and east of Damascus, as well as in Homs and Hama, driven by the Syrian government with Iranian support, may make a mockery of the new Russian-Turkish ceasefire proposal. One result of the Obama administration’s heavy focus on the battle against IS and the erratic military support to the rebels is that Washington has little leverage in the broader conflict even though there are almost daily US combat operations in Syria. Although the US has little leverage in the larger Syrian conflict, the new administration should consider serious requests from Moscow or Ankara that would help make the ceasefire hold if asked.
This could conceivably mean some kind of American representation at the political talks scheduled for January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan, under Russian patronage. Any political deal involving the Syrian government will affect jihadi recruitment in Syria and thus will affect the ongoing US military operations in Syria.
Supporting the ceasefire and political talks in Kazakhstan or Geneva should not extend to trying to help rebuild Syria’s shattered economy. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in November urged the West to establish a Marshall Plan for Syria, and some Syrian government supporters want the tough US sanctions on the Syrian government eased. The new administration should make plain that cannot happen. Politically the US Congress won’t agree to it.
Moreover, it would be abhorrent after the atrocities committed by an unrepentant and unreformed Syrian government. Lastly, even if the US tried, US trade and/or aid would be ineffective in rebuilding Syria. While Kuwait probably would pitch in some funds, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are highly unlikely to join the effort and overall the money will be inadequate given the scale of destruction which, we should remember, is mainly the doing of the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies who possess the heaviest weaponry.
This Syria government, overseeing an economy with a state socialist overhang and mostly under the domination of three ruling families, made a corrupt mess of the economy prior to the 2011 revolution. There are numerous indications, starting with its manipulation of UN relief funds, that the Syrian government will operate in an eventual postwar period very much as it has always operated.
No Easy or Quick Fix
The Russians are also dangling the idea of settling the conflict by enabling local government in place of the centralized Syrian state. We have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq how hard it is to decentralize or empower local government. During my five years in Iraq we threw gigantic resources into the effort to build capable local institutions: Billions of US dollars went to training, construction, and funding of local projects in Iraq’s provinces. We came out with precious little to show for the funds even though the US military was heavily present in half of the provinces where we worked. We shouldn’t entertain the notion that we would try again.
The Russians will find that building local government in Syria would be even harder. Like Iraqis in 2003-2005, the vast majority of Syrians have no concept of what local government means or how it should operate. Local governments have few skilled cadres, no budget resources and no agreed manner of choosing leaders. In Iraq, at least, the central government nominally was supportive of building local governments. In Syria, the Assad Baathist regime rejects the idea. There are small amounts of US aid entering into some opposition-held districts in Syria now, but even in these districts rebel factions squabble about how to use foreign monies and who should manage them.
And the relentless Syrian government drive, backed by Iran, will likely confront a longer-term Sunni Arab insurgency in wide expanses of Syria where the weakened Syrian government’s writ won’t run deep.
None of the proposals above resolve the Syrian conflict or forestalls an IS insurgency in eastern Syria. Short of a full military victory by one side or the other there is no prospect of Syria being stitched back together soon.
In the unlikely event that Astana or Geneva talks evolve into a serious political negotiation, the steps proposed above would give Turkey—an American ally against Iran—greater leverage in those talks. Nonetheless, the rebels and the Syrian government haven’t shown much inclination to compromise, and the prospects of a negotiated deal are dim.
In the absence of that compromise, the Syrian government will keep testing the edge of every ceasefire envelope and gradually, over the course of years, recapture additional parts of the country with Iranian help. And the relentless Syrian government drive, backed by Iran, will likely confront a longer-term Sunni Arab insurgency in wide expanses of Syria where the weakened Syrian government’s writ won’t run deep.
The steps above would help reduce the size of the insurgency by undercutting recruitment, somewhat. It might even be possible to substitute local Arab forces for Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and Syrian government forces as the spearhead against that insurgency. Just getting that far would be an achievement in Syria.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Chiyongxin