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BEN BAIRD: Trump puts America first in Syria
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Although President Donald Trump campaigned in 2016 on the promise that he would avoid foreign entanglements, the Pentagon acknowledged in December that there were four times the number of U.S. troops in Syria than previously disclosed.
Meanwhile, many Americans wonder if it is prudent to continue allocating resources and manpower to Syria, even after the Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate has crumbled.
But the Trump administration remains committed to ending the bloodshed in Syria while preserving American interests.
To understand why this is a sensible policy — as well as how the president plans to meet his strategic objectives in the Syrian civil war — requires an understanding of the complex array of alliances and the diverse set of circumstances which motivate both state and non-state actors involved in the Middle Eastern conflict.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson formally spelled out the administration’s Syria policy during a speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Tillerson established broad parameters for a comprehensive strategy in Syria while acknowledging the American people’s intolerance for becoming entrenched in yet another Middle Eastern war.
The secretary of State said:
But let us be clear: the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.
Internecine fighting began in 2011 as a populist uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but the gradual Islamification of the resistance eventually gave birth to the Islamic State in 2013.
By 2014, ISIS was the predominant rebel force opposing the Assad regime in Damascus, bolstered by the recruitment of some 50,000 foreign fighters who made their way to Syria mostly by way of Turkey.
Although the Barack Obama administration initially dismissed ISIS as the terrorist “JV team” in January 2014, just a year later Obama cautioned Americans:
This is a long-term campaign. [ISIS] is opportunistic and it is nimble… As with any military effort, there will be periods of progress, but there are also going to be some setbacks.
Capturing Syrian military hardware abandoned on the battlefield, jihadist fighters quickly expanded down the Euphrates River Valley and into Iraq, committing atrocious human rights violations and enforcing their literalist interpretation of Islam along the way.
The Islamist tide was then momentarily halted in 2015 by a U.S.-led coalition loosely allied with Shiite militias in Iraq and Kurdish paramilitary forces in Syria.
Then, with the election of Trump, strategic leadership for the wars in Iraq and Syria shifted from civilian stewardship to military command and control. Coalition air strikes became much more responsive, and U.S. generals soon regained the initiative as a direct result of Trump’s strategy, putting ISIS on the run.
Trump’s revitalized military accomplished in months what his predecessor could not do in years. After pushing ISIS out of their Iraqi capital of Mosul, U.S.-backed ground forces took ISIS’s Syrian capital of Raqqa in October 2017. Trump explained the victory in a radio interview:
It had to do with the people I put in and it had to do with rules of engagement.
The Islamic State has now been reduced to waging an underground resistance, and besides pockets of resistance centered around Golan and the Iraqi border, their conventional warfare capabilities have been decimated. However, experts warn that ISIS is not completely powerless, and the radical jihadists which make up their Islamist core are likely to evolve into a new, equally dangerous threat.
In an exclusive interview with the Conservative Institute, former CIA director and the commander of multinational forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, cautioned against “the rise of ISIS 3.0” and asserted that military leaders must “ensure that fertile fields are not once again created for the planting of the seeds of extremism.”
There are already signs of this evolution in Iraq, where defeated ISIS fighters retreated to austere environments to lick their wounds and used their hideouts as staging areas for attacks reminiscent of the insurgency which emerged after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Unfortunately, peace in Syria will still not be guaranteed by the military defeat of the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition has remained committed to the complete overthrow of Bashar al-Assad since 2011, when the region’s Arab Spring movement motivated numerous factions in Syria to seek regime change.
Assad took over after his father in 2000 and has retained control of the Sunni-majority nation through the administration of an oppressive socialist Baathist kleptocracy. The Syrian president belongs to the Alawite minority in his own country, a Shiite sect which reveres the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali.
By appointing Alawites to top military and multiple security services positions, as well as cementing alliances with other minority groups within Syria, Assad has preserved his dynastic regime from being overthrown by the Sunni majority. In addition to this domestic core, however, Assad has been forced to rely upon support from Russia and Iran.
Iranian-backed mercenaries from the U.S. designated terror group Hezbollah, as well as Fatemiyoun Afghan Shia units, have been used as “cannon fodder” by Assad to buttress his regular Syrian army units, which have been eroded by massive casualties in the seven-year war.
While the U.S.-led coalition has officially avoided direct military confrontation with Damascus as a matter of policy, Trump authorized a “one-off” attack against the Shayrat air base in April 2017 in response to the regime’s use of sarin nerve gas against civilian targets. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis describes the retaliatory use of force:
A total of 59 [Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles] targeted aircraft, hardened aircraft shelters, petroleum and logistical storage, ammunition supply bunkers, air defense systems, and radars.
Besides this punishing sea-to-ground assault, the coalition has been compelled to order air strikes against pro-Assad forces on rare occasions, such as when they breach established “deconfliction zones,” or areas set aside to train indigenous forces in their fight against ISIS.
Ultimately, the U.S. is determined to reach a diplomatic solution in Syria. During his Stanford speech, Tillerson remarked:
Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections. But that change will come.
Since 2015, Russian military support has been instrumental in beating back the opposition with air strikes and a small group of military advisors. But after experiencing strategic setbacks in the last six months, Moscow is determined to draw down their support, close Russian bases in Syria, and force the regime to rely purely on Russian air power.
The Kremlin has supplemented and replaced the use of embedded Russian military advisors with Russian military contractors. These mercenaries, drawn from private security firms like Wagner, were recently involved in a direct confrontation with U.S. forces where they paid a lasting price for an impetuous assault.
After pro-regime forces closed in on a U.S.-backed Kurdish base in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zor province on Feb. 7, the U.S.-led forces took defensive action with an airstrike that reportedly killed over 100 Russian mercenaries.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova later acknowledged that five “Russian citizens” were killed in the defensive strike, representing the first time during the civil war that Russian and American fighters faced off in a combined arms battle.
With the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah has set up bases throughout Syria and maintains a significant presence in over a dozen locations in the eastern and northern sectors of the country.
As co-religionists, Iran wants to see the Shiite minority continue to rule over Syria, providing a strategic corridor for Tehran that stretches through a friendly Iraq, into Syria and through Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.
If Assad continues to beat back the Sunni opposition, Iran stands to be one of the biggest victors to emerge from over a decade of hostilities in the Middle East.
The U.S. leads a 74-nation coalition, although America operates independently from this anti-ISIS alliance in parts of eastern Syria.
In December, the Pentagon publicly acknowledged that there were over 2,000 soldiers — mostly special forces — in Syria, and the coalition has engineered a semi-permanent presence in the country through the establishment of air bases and artillery batteries.
Several Western nations committed more assets to the fight in Syria after the Islamic State launched elaborate terrorist attacks in European capitals beginning in 2015.
But moderate rebel forces have seen their influence and ability to resist the regime marginalized by factionalism and the gradual Islamization of the insurgency. Founded in 2011, the Free Syrian Army is an umbrella group of small rebel units which has slowly splintered into multiple hardline Islamist groups.
As the few remaining moderate rebels proved to be militarily unsuccessful, fighters from the Sunni Arab majority gradually joined up with radical Islamist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front and al-Qaida in Syria).
Trump formally ended a clandestine CIA program arming the Free Syrian Army soon after taking office. This covert program was established by Obama to train and equip rebel forces opposed to Assad, and it was inexplicably continued even after these groups began to show signs of radicalization not dissimilar to the Islamic State’s own fundamentalist brand of Islam.
Syrian Democratic Forces
America’s most constructive alliance with indigenous Syrian forces has been with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a coalition of local militias that emerged from the fight against ISIS, dominated by Kurds belonging to the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
The YPG was instrumental in wresting control of eastern Syria from ISIS control, and they retain control of the northwestern province of Afrin.
Coalition officials recently announced an intent to arm, train, and equip a 30,000 strong SDF force charged with policing Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq.
With a history of Kurdish insurrection in Turkey, a U.S.-backed Kurdish army operating with impunity so close to their border has prompted Ankara to launch cross-border ground and air strikes designed to dislodge the “terror army” from the border.
Turkey initiated Operation Olive Branch in January, and the Pentagon has since been reluctant to provide tactical support to their Kurdish allies in Afrin.
In a strange turn of events, pro-Assad militias and Syrian regular army units have moved into Afrin to assist besieged SDF forces.
Assad views Turkish intervention as an affront to Syrian sovereignty and has therefore determined to provide military assistance to a U.S.-backed militia opposed to his regime.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has empowered its generals to be responsive to sophisticated, multi-layered threats emerging from this international war zone, calling audibles where appropriate and sticking to their basic principles in other areas.
What has not been explicitly defined as U.S. policy in Syria can be gleaned from the administration’s consistency of action.
Since taking over as commander-in-chief in January 2017, Trump’s strategic objectives in Syria may be defined by certain fundamental attributes:
- The U.S.-led coalition will remain in Syria to oversee the complete destruction of the Islamic State and ensure that they do not re-emerge as a terrorist counterinsurgency.
- Working with the United Nations, the U.S. will seek a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. Without getting bogged down in a costly nation building project, Trump would like to work with the international community to pressure Assad into relinquishing his authoritarian control of the government and allowing free and fair elections.
- Unlike the Obama administration, Trump is prepared to use military force against Assad when his regime steps out of line. This includes retaliation for the use of chemical and biological weapons against both the opposition and the civilian populace, as well as other, undefined human rights violations.
- Likewise, Trump is not afraid to directly confront Russian nationals fighting with and training Syrian forces. The U.S. military is prepared to use any means at their disposal to defend its bases and those of the SDF.
- However, the coalition is not prepared to defend SDF against cross-border airstrikes from Turkey, as demonstrated by recent developments in Afrin.
- The Trump administration realizes that a complete and total withdrawal at this stage of the war would be imprudent, largely because of the influence America would be yielding to its rivals. Russia stands to attain a position of increased importance throughout the oil-rich region, while Iran would gain a Shiite corridor to the sea, unencumbered by Sunni opposition.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, Trump’s “America first” policy actually coincides with maintaining an open-ended presence in Syria. A premature withdrawal would not only set the conditions for a reemerging ISIS insurgency, it would allow Russia and Iran to determine the future of the Middle East.
Trump’s strategic objectives are limited, definable and realistic. The U.S.-led coalition is not concerned with nation-building or establishing a democracy in Syria.
Rather, their primary objective is to prevent the emergence of a terrorist organization which possesses the ability to threaten U.S. interests, both at home and abroad.
Secondarily, Trump refuses to cede regional hegemony to Russia and Iran, both of whom assumed this authority during the Obama administration.
By balancing these diverse interests and empowering U.S. military leadership to do what is best for America, Trump is learning from the lessons demonstrated in Iraq and avoiding the far costlier ramifications of premature disengagement.
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