It is understandable why the United States has avoided any major intervention in Syria; Washington has never had any reliable Syrian partners in this conflict. But the Trump administration needs to understand that it cannot simply engage in surgical attacks such as those against Daesh and the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability. These short-term tactical moves have strategic implications that will inadvertently aggravate conflicts among the various regional stakeholders. There is a need for a more comprehensive approach based on a balance of power strategy to deal with this crowded battlespace.
Syria as a Stage for Regional Drama
U.S. efforts to degrade and destroy Daesh, as well as last weekend’s airstrikes to prevent the Assad regime from using its chemical weapons — though necessary actions — do not address the real threats radiating out of Syria. The long-term threat is that the country has moved beyond civil war and has become an arena for regional conflicts. All four major regional powers – Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – are locked in a complex struggle. The United States and Russia are engaged in limited moves in Syria where multiple conflicts are brewing between Iran and Israel, Turkey and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and even between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
If left unchecked, these conflicts could escalate regional and international insecurity to a magnitude far greater than has been seen in the past seven years. Precious time already has been wasted. Russia has been allowed to exploit the Syrian conflict for its own interests and complicate things for the U.S. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have done the right thing in avoiding the pressures for a large-scale military intervention in Syria. However, Washington must now engage in skillful strategic moves to keep the situation from getting worse.
Syria – as we have known it since it emerged as a sovereign nation-state in 1946 – is shattered, and it is extremely unlikely that it will ever be the country it was. The Assad regime may be winning against the rebels at the moment, but that strength comes with a huge cost: complete dependence upon Iran. I have long argued that a key unintended consequence of the U.S.-led coalition efforts against jihadism is that Iran gained the upper hand in Syria and the broader region. Israel is more frequently engaging in military action to try to counter this trend. This could lead to a major war between Iran and Israel on Syrian and Lebanese soil, which in turn could facilitate jihadist resurgences in the region.
Far more alarmed about the rise of Iran is its geosectarian rival, Saudi Arabia, which does not have the military capability to counter Iranian efforts by itself. To complicate matters, Turkey is engaged in its own military actions in northern Syria to secure its interests by containing Kurdish separatism and simultaneously countering Iranian influence in the country. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is happy to play in this complicated battlefield to make matters worse for the U.S., especially in terms of facilitating the rise of Iran.
Finding a Balance
Managing this arena thus requires working with multiple stakeholders and having a clear, 30,000-foot view of the congested battlespace. There exists a point of mutual weakness, where the deeply divided rebels are unlikely to be able to defeat the regime and the regime lacks the ability to re-establish its writ on a good chunk of territory in the eastern half of the country. This situation gave Iran and its allies freedom of operation in western Syria and in the ungoverned spaces in the east. The way to prevent a Daesh resurgence is for the U.S. to ensure that Sunni Arab rebels, rather than Kurds, control the territories retrieved from Daesh since having Sunni Arabs control the lands that had been part of the Daesh caliphate can prevent the jihadist movement from resurfacing. The Trump administration plan to mobilize a force consisting of troops from Arab states is not going to work because the Arab countries, assuming they are willing to get involved, do not have the troops to spare.
This can be achieved by working closely with Turkey, which is in the process of reviving rebel forces — though the U.S. has been at odds with Turkey over our alignment with Kurdish militias in the fight against Daesh. Washington can negotiate an arrangement where Ankara accepts a de facto autonomous Syrian Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria in exchange for Sunni Arab rebels gaining a foothold in the Raqqa-Deir el-Zour corridor along the Euphrates. With the rebels ensconced in these eastern parts of Syria, the U.S. and its allies can contain Daesh and Iranian expansionism simultaneously. Accomplishing this will be quite challenging, given the need to make sure that the rebels are more of a Sunni nationalist orientation than an Islamist one. The U.S. will need to work closely with the Turks and the Saudis on this matter.
A rebel revival in the east could force the Assad regime and its backers to earnestly come to a future negotiating table. In addition, Israel will be less inclined to engage in unilateral actions knowing that the U.S. strategy is built on the notion of preventing Iran from dominating Syria. Russia is using Syria as a lever in its strategic dealings with the U.S., but Washington holds far more cards than Moscow and can get the Kremlin to influence Damascus to begin serious negotiations. As for Iran, it is seeking the path of least resistance and will settle for what it can get, and therefore Tehran is likely to opt for negotiations.
Complex statecraft and diplomacy should complement military and intelligence operations in order to establish a balance of power in Syria, and by extension, in the region. Engaging in tactical military strikes is not going to cut it; rather it will further exacerbate the multiple wars going on in Syria. In the end, unfortunately, there is no easy solution to the Syrian crisis, but it can be managed through a holistic strategy that factors in all the main players involved.
The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.