Via Twitter, where his candor is often remarkable, President Donald Trump has already warned that missiles “will be coming.” If so, one hopes that the president and his advisers also have a clear strategy for what to do after the missiles slam into their targets. A sustained barrage might inflict substantial damage on Assad’s air force, such as the Mi-8 Hip helicopters apparently responsible for the chlorine attacks last Saturday. The United States and its allies should deprive Assad of his air force, yet it would be hard to call this justice for a war criminal with so much blood on his hands.
Instead, if the president has already made a decision to use force, it should mark the beginning of a new effort to exert maximum pressure on the Assad regime, as well as its sponsors in Moscow and Tehran, in order to prevent them from achieving the objectives that they have pursued by means of relentless atrocities. This would be a better approximation of justice while doing far more to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East.
So far, President Trump has not indicated whether his determination to punish Assad has led to him to reconsider his informal six-month timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from northeast Syria. Facing skeptical reporters, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained there is nothing inconsistent about targeting the regime with airstrikes and then bringing home the troops. To be sure, having boots on the ground in Syria has no bearing on the ability of U.S. air and naval assets to deliver their firepower. Yet if Trump wants to put the same kind of maximum pressure on Damascus that he has on Pyongyang, then the troops need to stay—not because they are going to join the fight against Assad, but because they play a critical role in shaping the balance of power in Syria.
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Before its descent into chaos, Syria pumped around 385,000 barrels per day of oil, almost all of it from fields in the country’s northeast. The U.S.-led coalition that dismantled ISIS now controls most of that real estate, although Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias recaptured some key terrain, such as the city of Deir Ezzor. A precise estimate is difficult to offer, but 80 percent or more of the oil seems to be in coalition-held areas, not to mention substantial amounts of gas.
Bashar al-Assad desperately wants the oil back. Syria earned $5.5 billion from oil exports in the last year before the war. Its profits provided about one-fifth of the regime’s annual revenue. Now Syria borrows billions from Iran to import oil instead. The war also shattered the rest of the Syrian economy, with the IMF estimating that its dollar-denominated GDP had plunged 75 percent by the end of 2015.
Were U.S. troops to depart, the Syrian Kurdish force, known as the YPG, would inherit northeast Syria—although its position would be tenuous. After crushing YPG forces in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwest Syria, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced his intention to take the fight to the YPG in northeast. Rather than fighting both Erdogan and Assad, the YPG is likely to resume the partnership it forged with Damascus in the first years of the war.
In exchange for a measure of autonomy and a cut of the profits, the Kurds would let Assad would reclaim his oil.
A wealthier Assad would be stronger, but wouldn’t bring peace or stability to Syria. More likely, his war to grind down remaining opposition strongholds would be at least as bloody as the siege and bombardment of East Ghouta that culminated in the recent chemical attacks. Thus a withdrawal of U.S. troops would bring neither accountability for Assad nor an end to the horrors.
Finishing the fight with ISIS should still be the troops’ mission, yet their presence will set the conditions for a maximum pressure campaign by other means, especially economic ones. Before his departure, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that neither the United States nor its partners would provide funding to rebuild any area under the control of Assad. The United States needs to take this policy a step further by laying the groundwork to impose sanctions on any firm that engages in reconstruction work on behalf of the Syrian government or other sanctioned entities. This may not deter Iranian firms or Russian enterprises already under sanctions, but Chinese companies may not want to risk their access to Western economies.
The United States and EU should also re-evaluate the effectiveness of the sanctions they imposed in the early days of the war. As in the case of North Korea, the common assumption that there is nothing left to sanction may prove quite misleading. For example, Syrian banks still have access to the global interbank messaging service known as SWIFT . In the years prior to the 2015 nuclear deal, the United States did tremendous damage to the Iranian financial sector by forcing it off of SWIFT. Syria’s six state-owned banks and fourteen private banks have already been on the sanctions list for years; their expulsion from SWIFT is long overdue. (Since SWIFT is headquartered in Belgium, expulsion would require EU action.)