National Security

The Enigma of Syrian Policy

The situation is as complex a foreign policy dilemma as any administration will face, but Trump must make a plan.

Todd Johnson · Jul. 11, 2017

While much of the world focused on the atmospherics from last week’s two-hour meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit, what many people missed was the announcement of the latest ceasefire in Syria. The announcement, which was met with considerable skepticism, is yet another chapter in the bloody, prolonged struggle that has seen at least 400,000 Syrians killed and millions displaced.

The Syrian situation is as complex a foreign policy dilemma as any administration will face. For President Trump, the Syrian problem must be addressed but the question becomes one of the lens through which he sees the conflict.

Is it a proxy war against the Russians and Iranians? Is it a continuation of the fight against the Islamic State? Is it a humanitarian crisis? Will the United States conduct operations as part of a coalition or conduct unilateral strikes? Unfortunately, neither Trump nor his foreign policy team have articulated a cohesive view or strategy for the inflamed region 171 days into his tenure. But that may be changing soon.

The Pentagon announced recently that it will be unveiling a new Syria strategy. Indicators thus far look like the new policy will mirror many of the same approaches taken by the Obama administration.

While Trump has been more proactive than his predecessor in many ways — the Tomahawk missile strike on April 6 at the Al Shayrat airfield and a small surge in special operations and artillery troops in Syria earlier this spring — his overall Syria policy seems to be focused on maintaining a status quo. If he is indeed serious about bringing change to the war-torn region he must act now and show our allies, and more importantly our enemies, that he can be a decisive leader who will stand up for Western values.

For starters, President Trump must clearly articulate his strategy for the region and what success looks like in the end. The American people have no stomach for a protracted conflict so he and his surrogates must make the case that it is in America’s and the world’s best interests to dedicate extensive amounts of resources and manpower to destroying the remnants of al-Qaida and the Islamic State currently occupying space in Syria.

The first step in the process is to submit a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that would specifically cover operations against terror groups in Syria. While the administration is currently conducting kinetic operations under the 2001 AUMF that covered al-Qaida, Republicans in Congress may deem it time to pass a new resolution that addresses the current state of play. Not only will a new AUMF give Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clear parameters of engagement but it will also give the Republican Party a needed victory and may provide them some badly needed momentum on other portions of their legislative agenda.

President Trump must also make clear that America has little interest in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. There is no doubt that Assad is a horrible dictator who has conducted war crimes against his people, but the opportunity to remove him from power has long passed. He has the backing of Russia and Iran and it is clear that both countries are planning on supporting him for the foreseeable future. Far more important, however, is the power vacuum that his removal would leave behind. No one should want a repeat of Obama’s mess in Libya.

The recent liberation of Mosul shows what successes can be accomplished when American forces partner with indigenous forces. However, unlike Mosul, where the joint operations were focused on expelling a terrorist group out of a sovereign country, the fighting in Syria will be conducted for a different objective.

Since the United States and its allies will not be focused on replacing Assad, they must instead focus their efforts on taking as much disputed territory from al-Qaida and the Islamic State as possible in order to be able to negotiate from a position of strength during future peace talks. The Syrian Arab Republic is a country in name only and will not likely be whole again. The U.S. needs to ensure that any political solution will benefit its interests in the region. And while a partition of Syria is not optimal, it is the only feasible course of action in the near term.

An end to hostilities through a brokered peace will enable the Trump administration to close the book on the civil war and humanitarian crisis that started over seven years ago and help establish a new beginning in the Middle East. It won’t be easy, but only by taking a new path will new possibilities be found.

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