How Trump Should Define Success in Syria

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare mortar shells during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Handarat area, north of Aleppo

There is a way forward in Syria, and Donald Trump has more than once had the courage to stand up to those inside and outside his administration who have urged retreat. 

In western Syria, the United States should rebuild a Syrian opposition force with advisers, weapons, and air power while upping the pressure on Assad and his cronies to select a pathway to a negotiated peace. Pursuing a settlement in Geneva without such leverage over the Assad regime is pure fantasy.

Finally, the United States and other western powers must impede Iran’s and Russia’s ability to be resupplied. Syria’s airfields must be destroyed, and Syria’s airspace must remain clear.

A campaign against Assad will help in gaining the support of Syrian Arab allies against Salafi-jihadi groups. Earlier efforts to build such support failed because of America's insistence that those we helped against ISIS refrain from fighting Assad. Even though these potential allies understood that Assad was the real existential enemy. The recipe for gaining allies among the Sunni, therefore, includes pushing back on Assad and the Iranians.

Yes, we will need some more troops on the ground in Syria. Thousands, not tens of thousands. They will face risks, as all our military does when defending our national security. And we will need to manage the concerns of our NATO ally Turkey, which has played both sides in the Syria conflict and neither wishes to enable Assad nor his Kurdish enemies who have so capably held Syria’s north. Ankara will need assurances that the United States will support Syria’s territorial integrity, as we have Iraq’s. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will need to make a choice, and must know that the choice is between friendship with poor and oppressive regimes whose interests are deeply at odds with his own, or remaining a meaningful member of the strongest and wealthiest alliance in history.

There is a way forward in Syria, and Donald Trump has more than once had the courage to stand up to those inside and outside his administration who have urged retreat. Russia will not go to war over Syria. Iran is much more invested in Assad than Russia, and likely to put up a determined resistance if we are not serious and committed. But with a strategy which consolidates and strengthens moderates who reject jihad and tyranny, and engages our Arab regional allies, we can help Syrians win back their nation and turn the tide once and for all against ISIS, Russia, and Iran in the Middle East. Until now, no leader has tried. A leader with vision can try and succeed.

Gen. Jack Keane, a retired four-star general and former Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, is the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War.

Danielle Pletka is the senior vice president for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The authors are grateful to Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War for her invaluable expertise.

Image: Reuters