Questions Surround Trump Administration’s Syria Policy

Six years into the Syrian conflict, more than five million Syrians are refugees. More than six million people are displaced within Syria, and over thirteen million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Given the magnitude and the urgency of the crisis, it is a good thing that Syria was high on the agenda of last week’s bilateral meeting between President Trump and President Putin.  One outcome of the unexpectedly lengthy meeting was a declared ceasefire in southwest Syria.

This announcement, however, raises many questions—including how successful the ceasefire might be, what U.S. objectives in Syria actually are, and whether assisting the millions of Syrians in need is among them.

Though previous cessation of hostilities agreements have fallen apart in the absence of credible monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, a  briefing from “a senior State Department official” notes that this agreement differs from previous ones. Unlike past failed agreements, the parties to the new agreement—Russia, Jordan, and the United States—have “agreed on a line of contact between regime and opposition forces,” which all parties to the conflict would be expected to respect.

Still, the ceasefire’s success is not yet a given. A specific, agreed monitoring mechanism is still under negotiation, and the consequences for violating the agreement are unknown. Many parties to the conflict, including Iran, Hezbollah, and non-moderate parts of the opposition linked to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, are not party to the agreement.

Moreover, the ceasefire agreement calls U.S. goals in Syria into question. Russia has clear objectives in Syria that diverge from the Trump Administration’s stated policies. Russia is determined to demonstrate that it can protect its ally, the Assad government, from regime change by U.S. force.

Russia has worked with Iran to achieve this objective. The ceasefire in the southwest frees up Iranian-backed forces to seize more territory vacated by ISIS in the east.

The now-likely gains for Iranian-backed forces in Syria directly conflict with President Trump’s pledge to stand with Sunni Arab states in the Gulf and elsewhere to push back Iranian influence. The U.S. objective in Syria, beyond defeating ISIS, remains unclear.

U.S. allies in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are likely to see this consolidation of a “Shi’a crescent” as a calamity. It would also alarm Israel by strengthening Hezbollah’s situation in Lebanon and easing its access to a bottomless supply of missiles.

The Trump Administration continues to send mixed messages on its attitude towards the Assad regime. Secretary Tillerson’s statement on July 5 called on all parties, “including the Syrian government and its allies,” to cooperate in the fight against ISIS in east Syria. These comments suggest that the United States government is prepared to accept the continuation of the Assad regime.

However, in his speech in Warsaw on July 6, President Trump described the Syrian government as a “hostile” regime, and reprimanded Russia for its support of Iran and Syria. Likewise, Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, remarked after his recent visit to areas liberated from ISIS control in Syria that “nobody wants the regime to come back.”

Faced with these contradictions, it is hard not to have serious questions about the administration’s statements on Syria policy.

In addition to implying acceptance of the Assad regime, Tillerson’s statement asserts that Russia has a responsibility to ensure that “no faction in Syria illegitimately retakes or occupies areas liberated from ISIS or other terrorist groups.”

This is wishful thinking. Russia has assisted the Assad regime, often through the indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, in retaking opposition-held areas like eastern Aleppo. It has done nothing to stop regime-backed forces, many of them non-Syrian Shi’ites, from displacing Sunni civilians from their homes in a process of ethnic cleansing.

Moreover, Russia has consistently maintained that as the legitimate, sovereign government of Syria, the Assad regime can do as it pleases.  Russia would certainly not object to Assad’s forces exercising control over Syrian territory.

The Trump Administration has demonstrated that it will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It has also taken military action to prevent government-aligned forces approaching territory where U.S. forces are operating. But the administration has few options to use military force to deter violations of the recently negotiated ceasefire in the southwest, or to deter the expansion of Iranian–backed Shi’ite militias into territory vacated by ISIS. Such military action would not be authorized by the U.N. Security Council, and would risk open confrontation with Iran and possibly Russia.

There is one area of leverage over Russia and its allies in Syria that the Trump Administration has yet to use to its advantage: holding the Assad regime and its allies accountable for mass atrocities and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict.

On December 21, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly voted to establish “the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011.”  The Trump Administration, though, has not contributed to the work of the IIIM.

The administration should immediately make a substantial contribution to the work of this mechanism and send a clear message to the Assad regime and its allies, including Russia and Iran, that they will be held accountable for their crimes in Syria. Rather than helping to consolidate rule by the Assad regime and its allies—a recipe for endless conflict and division—robust U.S. support for multilateral accountability mechanisms in Syria can strengthen the hand of those working for a lasting peace in Syria.


Published on July 12, 2017


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