In last week’s issue, I wrote about how the alarmist reactions to U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from Syria ignore the deeply complex Syrian chessboard. This week I would like to follow up on that topic and examine how the United States could use a balance of power strategy to deal with the war-torn country in an age where there is virtually no appetite in Washington for large-scale military commitments. The Council on Foreign Relations’ John Finer and Rob Malley correctly noted that while there is no shortage of reasons to be critical of Trump, he is right when he says that that the United States should avoid entanglement in costly wars. Therefore, it is essential to take stock of the complex battlespace realities in the country – as they are, not as we want them to be – and chart a course forward.
Several developments have occurred since last week when the president revised the Syria withdrawal timetable from his initial 30 days to 120 days. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a tour of eight countries in the Middle East in order to reassure Arab allies of continued U.S. engagement with Syria and the broader region. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford visited Turkey to ensure that Ankara does not target the Syrian Kurds in the wake of the U.S. pullout. And in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib during the past few days, the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist grouping consolidated its control after forcing pro-Turkey rebel factions to agree to a peace deal.
In light of the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. policymakers understand that there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict. A key critique has been that if Washington had supported the Syrian rebels early on, the situation would be much better, and jihadist groups including Daesh and al Qaeda would not have dominated the theater. The problem with this argument is the rebels were never a coherent lot, which is why they quickly factionalized. More importantly, the geosectarian nature of the conflict meant that the jihadist domination of the rebel ranks was inevitable.
In fact, I had predicted this as early as February 2012 – given that Daesh’s predecessor and the most organized armed group in the area – was already strategically positioned in western Iraq and maintained strategic depth in eastern Syria. In addition, the Obama administration had very little incentive to support a rebellion whose chances of success were at best uncertain. Between the Taliban in Kabul and the Baathists in Baghdad, Washington learned the costly lesson that regime change is easier said than done. Iraq was especially painful, given the ease of Saddam Hussein’s fall and the agonizing difficulty of putting the country back together, especially with jihadists and pro-Iranian Shia factions rushing to fill the void.
Washington was not prepared to repeat that mistake by seeking the ouster of the Assad regime. In fact, it was in the U.S. interest for the Syrian state to survive. Assad’s fall would have created a far more dangerous vacuum that would only be exploited by jihadist actors of different stripes. But Damascus’ hands became soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of its citizens.
Thus, the United States could not help prevent the fall of the Assad regime, and at the same time, remained deeply reluctant to support the rebels. By 2014, with the loss of territory to Daesh, Kurds, al Qaeda, and at least a hundred other rebel factions, the Assad regime was reduced to the status of yet another faction – though still one with the most military capabilities. Ironically, Russia and Iran’s growing intervention, especially Moscow’s air support in 2015, served American interests. The U.S. was content on seeing the Russians and the Iranians do the heavy lifting.
When the regime regained control of the country’s largest city of Aleppo in late 2016, it was clear that Damascus remained a bulwark against jihadist expansion in the country’s west. However, ensconced in the Syria-Iraqi cross-border region, Daesh remained a major transnational threat, and the United States committed some 5,000 troops to Iraq and 2,000 troops to Syria to degrade the jihadist group. This modest military commitment succeeded in pushing out the jihadist entity out of its urban strongholds – especially in Syria, where American forces supported the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Front militia, which has been the frontline force battling Daesh. Simultaneously, Turkey engaged in its own intervention in northern Syria in an effort to limit the growing power of the Syrian Kurds.
Navigating the Syrian Chessboard
It is important to realize that the American strategy – under both the Obama and Trump administrations – has relied on the various stakeholders, to deal with the complex conflict that is Syria. Washington cannot do more than manage what is essentially a geopolitically shattered nation-state. The largest chunk of territory, especially in the western half of the country, with Russian air and Iranian-mobilized militia support on the ground, is once again under regime control. The Kurds control considerable parts of the northeast while Daesh has fallen back into the rural vastness south of the Kurdish-controlled regions. Elsewhere, the al Qaeda-linked HTS controls much of Idlib – the only province under rebel control whereas Turkish troops, backed by pro-Ankara rebel factions, enjoy a significant presence in the north, which the Turks hopes to expand upon.
Russia, Iran, Daesh, and HTS are all – to varying degrees – hostile actors with agendas that threaten U.S. national security and international stability. Turkey is the only ally of sorts the United States has in this fight, but relations between Washington and Ankara remain strained – largely due to the U.S. alignment with the Syrian Kurds. Meanwhile, Syria’s Kurds possess limited capacity, and cannot be expected to do much more than what they have already done to degrade Daesh. The United States knows that the next phase of the efforts against Daesh would require much more than the firepower of the Syrian Kurdish militia.
To truly neutralize Daesh requires a Sunni Arab fighting force. Currently, the only viable one is the Syrian military but it is exhausted and in no shape to reimpose the regime’s writ over territories formerly held by Daesh – at least not anytime soon. This leaves Turkey as the only option there are a number of factors that constrain its capabilities – even if Washington and Ankara were to agree to work together.
First, the United States will need to mediate a Turkish-Kurdish understanding or at least keep them from fighting one another, which is a tall order. Second, Ankara’s military capabilities remain constrained due to the lingering effects of the massive purging of the ranks following the 2016 failed coup. Third, Turkey will need to mobilize an effective force of Sunni Arab rebels, which requires confronting HTS that currently has the upper hand against pro-Turkish rebel factions. Fourth, Turkey will have to balance its need to project power into Syria with its relations with Russia and Iran– both of whom do not want the Turks to undermine the Assad regime’s standing.
Syria is a strategically crowded piece of geopolitical real estate and Washington does not have the capability to deal with the numerous malign forces operating in the country, which is why the withdrawal of 2,000 troops is nowhere as bad as many continue to make it out to be. In order to truly ensure that Daesh and other jihadist groups can be contained and eventually neutralized, the United States will have to play the various actors off one another. Of course, the process of degrading jihadists tends to empower Iran – an equally unacceptable outcome. Preventing the Iranians from benefiting from the anti-jihadist campaign will also require assistance from Ankara; it is crucial that Washington leverage Turkey’s historical rivalry with Iran to simultaneously deal with both Sunni and Shia radicalisms.
Ultimately, the United States must make sure no one actor becomes dominant and this entails managing a delicate balance of power over the long-term.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is Director of Strategy & Programs at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a National Security & Foreign Policy Specialist at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.