Written by: Rebecca Hanks
The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 as protests against President Bashar Al-Assad. Civil unrest quickly transformed into all-out proxy war between rebel groups supported by the United States and Turkey, among others, and the Syrian government under President Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran. The ensuing chaos provided a perfect backdrop for the proliferation of religious extremist groups like the Islamic State, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and Jabhat Tahrir Suriya.
After seven years of constant, brutal warfare Syrian government has reclaimed the vast majority of rebel-held territories. It appears, at least for the moment, that the conflict is approaching some kind of resolution. The only major region outside of Assad’s control is Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria which has become a gathering ground for anti-government forces, whether they be from rebel groups like the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) or terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Syrian government considered launching an attack on the city in mid-September, but instead pursued a peaceful settlement with Russia, supporter of the Syrian government, and Turkey, supporter of anti-government groups, as signatories.
Idlib was designated as demilitarized zone and will remain so as the three countries explore diplomatic solutions to terminate the conflict and stabilize the country. Despite the continued presence of militant groups in the region, there have been some indicators in recent weeks that these groups will begin to grudgingly comply with the Syrian government’s orders to evacuate. In this context, the conflict certainly appears to be coming to an end in favor of President Al-Assad and his international supporters.
Let us first assume that this is true: that the physical altercations are soon to end, and that the Syrian government will regain control of the country within the next few years. What does this mean for the future of U.S. foreign policy towards Syria? In February of last year, I wrote an article for the WIRe titled “Trump In Syria” that attempted to answer this very same question, albeit worded a bit differently. How, I asked, will United States foreign policy in Syria change under newly elected President Trump?
As a whole, the article explored potential consequences on foreign policy of the amicable relationship between President Trump and President Putin of Russia. Inherent in this analysis was a fatal flaw. The article ignored entirely the slow rot of distrust and reactionary policy eating away at the underlying diplomatic foundation of U.S.-Russia relations. Russia’s ties to Iran and China, their meddling in Western elections and computer databases, and their role in President Al-Assad’s chemical weapons attacks have alienated the United States. Similarly, U.S. sanctions and condemnations have served only to broaden the existing diplomatic gulf.
Needless to say, my analysis was misguided. Predicting international relations trends is always challenging due to the frequency of these kinds of unpredictable events or shifts. Still, it is important to recognize that President Trump has been reactionary and consequently unpredictable in the actions he has taken in the country thus far.
In April 2017, for example, President Trump launched air strikes and imposed sanctions against a Syrian government air base in the wake of chemical attacks by President Assad. He noted that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad [had] changed very much” following the attacks.
In February 2018, Secretary of Defense Mattis clarified that airstrikes launched by the United States against Syria were not tied to a larger engagement policy but were a reaction of self-defense. In this particular case, Mattis was referring against military action by the Syrian government on a U.S. base, but that argument could translate as well to the aggression of Assad’s chemical attacks earlier the previous year. Two months later, President Trump announced that plans were in motion to remove U.S. troops from Syria entirely following reports that U.S. coalition forces had recaptured 98% of the territories once held by ISIS. The United States, administration officials argued, was no longer interested in long-term reconstruction efforts post-conflict and simply wanted to get out.
In September of this year, however, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced that the United States military would remain in the region to counter the growing influence of Iran and to continue counterterrorism efforts against ISIS and other terrorist groups.
Although the Syrian government has reclaimed the majority of rebel-held territories, President Al-Assad alone does not have the resources to immediately and irrevocably restore order. The multitude of insurgent and terrorist groups present in Idlib aren’t just going to disappear once evacuated. There is also no telling how existing groups may reemerge or transform as refugees and IDPs are resettled in the poverty-stricken, demolished neighborhoods that they used to call home. International support from Russia and Iran will become essential for Al-Assad as he begins the slow, arduous process of rebuilding Syria. This concerns President Trump more than the risks of continuing to engage in another complicated, open-ended conflict in the Middle East.
It would be misleading to suggest that the United States has ever had a strong, unified policy towards Syria, but President Trump’s changeability towards the conflict is pronounced. This must change as Syria enters this critical post-conflict period. The Trump administration needs to step up to develop a long-term, overarching policy message that can supersede or frame specific political developments. Foreign policy needs to not only react but also to anticipate.
For example, if our long-term goal is to remove ISIS from Syria, we need to emphasize not only immediate military action but also long-term economic development, youth programming, and public education infrastructure. We need to think about what role we should play in the diplomatic peace process. Should we fight for direct involvement in treaties with the Syrian government? Where can we be beneficial, and what are our limitations? These are all essential thoughts and questions to consider in the coming months, and I hope that the Trump administration will begin to take positive steps towards doing so.