5 Ways Trump Can Navigate Syria's Geopolitical Battlefield
Two months into the Trump administration, it is hard to tell if there has been any discernible shift in U.S. strategy towards Syria. The new president's thirty-day deadline to the U.S. military for devising new plans to defeat ISIS in the Levant and beyond has come and gone—but we cannot easily tell from the outside how consequential that classified set of options may yet have been. In any case, as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford explained in a late February event at Brookings, that thirty-day plan was not intended to be the end of the story. In light of current conditions, where should President Trump aim next in regard to what has surely been the worst civil war of the twenty-first century, and in regard to the ongoing challenge of Takfiri/Salafist violent extremism?
Trump inherited a mess in Syria. Luckily, he also inherited battlefield momentum against ISIS. That is particularly notable in neighboring Iraq, where virtually all of Anbar province and half of Mosul are now liberated from the extremists, but it is partially true in Syria as well. ISIS still holds its “capital” of Raqqa, as well as some smaller towns in Deir ez-Zor and eastern Homs provinces, according to the ongoing excellent work by the Institute for the Study of War on this subject. Yet it has lost ground and the seat of its so-called caliphate in Raqqa is now largely encircled by opposition forces.
Still, given the witches’ brew or, as Gen. David Petraeus puts it, “the geopolitical Chernobyl” found on the Syrian battlefield today, things are a long ways from a success. In the short term, with Turkey and the Kurds at each other’s throats, there is not even a viable plan yet for liberating Raqqa. Even if that issue can be solved, and Raqqa liberated, ISIS may retain smaller sanctuaries elsewhere in the Levant and the broader region. And even if ISIS itself is eventually reduced as a threat, the Front for the Conquest of the Levant (a.k.a. Jabhat al-Nusra, previously Al Qaeda) may remain a problem.
Finally, even if both ISIS and the Front for the Conquest of the Levant are somehow weakened throughout Syria in coming months, the potential will remain for a resurgence of violent extremism absent a stable solution to the civil war. Working with Russian president Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad to achieve that objective cannot, of course, be the entirety of the answer. The Syrian president simply has too much blood on his hands to be a stabilizing and legitimate ruler of all of Syria ever again. He is despised by large segments of the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria, who have seen their neighborhoods barrel-bombed, shelled and their populations deprived of food and medical care—as well as schools and jobs—for six years. We might temporarily defeat ISIS, only to see Jabhat al-Nusra or other extremist groups benefit from the bitterness and disenfranchisement of much of the Sunni population. Another wave of jihadism would surely follow, whether under the same or a different name.
The only way to think logically, even about the short term, the liberation of Raqqa, is therefore to think first about what longer-term political strategy we are pursuing. Replacing Assad as president of the country, however horrible he has been, does not seem to be in the cards. Some form of self government for the Kurds and Sunni Arabs is the only realistic answer. One option might, in theory, be a confederal system by which the whole country is divided into such zones. In light of Assad’s conquest of Aleppo and Trump’s disinterest in mounting a major new effort against Assad, however, a more realistic and minimally acceptable alternative could be the creation of several autonomous zones within an otherwise still-centralized state (not unlike how Iraqi Kurdistan has often functioned). Once those autonomous zones are established, humanitarian and reconstruction aid could be provided to them directly by the international community. International peacekeepers could help them build local police forces, like lightly armed versions of the Iraqi peshmerga, and keep an eye on them to be sure they did not ship weapons to the PKK in Turkey or attempt a pointless march on Damascus to attempt an overthrow of Assad.
The international peacekeepers could include Russians in the country’s west so that Moscow could preserve its core equities in the country. Turks could remain in the north where they are now operating. Arab and other Muslim-majority forces could patrol along the internal demarcation lines. Americans and other NATO troops could help with overall command and control, as well as logistics and ongoing counterterrorism operations. The region in and around Raqqa itself might be administered under a trusteeship, as proposed by James Dobbins, Phil Gordon and Jeff Martini.
As noted, foreign assistance for this reconfigured Syrian state should be provided primarily to the autonomous regions themselves. That would enhance the international community’s leverage with the new, regional governments. They could demand that Syria remain whole and undivided as a condition for future aid, with no attempts at secession. For Assad to see any such aid from European, American and Gulf states for regions that he or his associates controlled, the government would have to call off attacks on the opposition, and Assad would have to agree to a plan to reduce his own future role in the country’s central governance. Full aid flows to the parts of the country he controls now could only occur after his departure, though some aid could flow sooner to help incentivize Assad and Russia to accept this overall approach for ending the war and defeating extremists.