Syria: Why Trump Must Learn the Art of Stalemate Diplomacy

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptor. Flickr/Department of Defense

Trump could use enhanced credibility and force to enter negotiations with Moscow and Ankara.

By sitting on the sidelines in the diplomatic process to end the Syrian Civil War, President Trump diminishes his ability to influence outcomes. He should authorize American diplomats to engage with Turkish and Russian counterparts to craft an accord excluding Iran.

Missing Middle

In War and the Art of Governance, per Joseph Collins, Nadia Schadlow opines that U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq revealed what she calls the “missing middle,” defined as a gap between combat and steps to achieve stability and forge a sustainable outcome. Collins said, “If we have such plans for Mosul [Iraq] and Raqqa [Syria], they are well kept secrets.”

This gap is an opening for Trump to use stalemated diplomacy about Syria to help end that conflict: Combine enhanced U.S. diplomatic initiatives with Ankara and Moscow and stepped up military support to the anti-ISIS coalition to render Iran’s continued participation at peace talks irrelevant and unpalatable to Turks and Russians. Secretary Tillerson shows he uses confidential yet forceful diplomacy; Trump and his generals demonstrate a willingness to back up diplomacy with force, U.S. airstrikes on Syrian installations in April 2017 (message of resolve to Moscow) and by announced enhanced support for anti-ISIS forces (message of resolve to Ankara).

The Key Players: Ankara, Moscow and Tehran

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the U.S. strikes were a positive response to “war crimes of Assad,” and called for a no-fly zone over Syria.

Ankara responded negatively when the United States declared enhanced support to its Syrian Kurdish forces, but the level of vitriol was muted, in part because the decision had been previewed with Turkey and the country had not been disrespectfully blindsided.

Per Time magazine, Russian president Vladimir Putin, a steadfast ally of Bashar al-Assad, condemned the strike but did little to aid him. Tehran’s tepid reply was for Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif to engage in a tweet storm: The chemical weapons rationale for U.S. military force against Syria was “bogus.” Also, see U.S. allies and friends that chimed in with full support for the airstrikes.

Filling the gap between the use of force and diplomatic steps to achieve stability and forge a sustainable outcome is the subject of this post. Meeting in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, three guarantor powers—Russia, Turkey and Iran—agreed on May 4, to create “de-escalation zones” across four areas in Syria. Turkey’s participation in this dealmaking with Russia and Iran reflects its desperation to secure itself from the Syrian conflict and conviction—based on the last four years—that U.S. engagement in Syria was not going to be in Turkey’s interests.

The Trump administration was not included in the accord, but an American official was present in Astana. The State Department expressed concerns about the agreement, “including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor.’” “Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”

On May 17, Trump met with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House. (Lavrov had met earlier for a longer meeting with his counterpart, Secretary Tillerson.) The president said it was a “very, very good meeting,” and both nations wanted to end “the killing—the horrible, horrible killing in Syria as soon as possible and everybody is working toward that end.” But Trump offered no thoughts on whether the United States would take part in safe zones in Syria.


That Ankara agreed to cooperate with Moscow for establishment of de-escalation zones reveals frustration in Ankara at not having secured U.S. support for the zones. The Turkish proposal never made clear they would not be co-opted by anti-Assad forces into safe bases for them, ensuring Damascus and Moscow would disallow their establishment. On April 27, Time reported that Ankara and Washington, DC were on a collision course after Turkish aircraft struck the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG). (Turkish aircraft also killed Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga in an error that Ankara admitted.) If that was an attempt to have Washington back down from support for the YPG against ISIS, it failed.