Does Washington now have a strategy in Syria?

Translator: 

The State Department’s new Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, co-authored a paper last month outlining his vision for US Syria policy. The fall of Idlib Province to the regime and its allies would leave his proposals dead in the water.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 29 August, 2018]

One could say the objectives of the United States in the Middle East have become clearer of late, after the appointment earlier this month of James Jeffrey as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Representative for Syria Engagement. Jeffrey, who previously served as ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, holds clear ideas that have already been expressed in a paper he published last month with colleagues at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he worked until his recent appointment. Jeffrey is known for his firm stance against Iran and its influence in the region, and one might reasonably expect him to work now towards the implementation of his previously-formed proposals on the ground.

This new vision in Washington incorporates three key objectives of the American presence in Syria: the elimination of ISIS; the diminishing of Iranian influence; and working with Moscow to advance the political process in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. While the clarity of vision is certainly preferable to the improvisational approach taken in Syria by President Donald Trump since his arrival to the White House, the new strategy may nonetheless suffer from flaws that will lead ultimately to the thwarting of its goals, paving the way for results similar to those of President Obama’s policies in the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The policy paper prepared by Jeffrey and his colleagues at the Washington Institute listed a number of “specific actions” to be undertaken, including imposing a “no-fly/no-drive zone north and east of the Euphrates River,” which area is currently controlled by Washington’s principal ally in Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); finding “alternative markets for the oil and agricultural exports” of US allies in the area; “bar[ring] Iran from constructing a permanent military and intelligence architecture in Syria and the Fertile Crescent;” preventing Assad regime forces and allied Iranian militias from opening a supply line through eastern Syria; and financially and economically constraining the Assad regime and its allies in the business world.

These proposed measures, among others in the paper, may be compared to the strategy previously adopted in Iraq after the Gulf War and the liberation of Kuwait, such that they appear suitable in light of Washington’s unwillingness to take military action to remove Bashar al-Assad. They depend on economic pressures on Iran and its Syrian ally crippling their ability to finance their militias, which control the country, weakening the militias in turn. They also rely on Moscow, for its part, viewing it preferable for its own interests to enter into a political process with Washington ending in a political transition conforming in one way or another with the international framework represented by Resolution 2254.

However, and returning to the same comparison, the sanctions and no-fly zone maintained in Iraq for over ten years failed to compel the Saddam Hussein regime to change its behavior. Had the 2003 invasion not happened, ten further years of sanctions would still likely not have produced any results at the political level. This is not to mention that those measures were enforced after the defeat of Saddam’s army in Kuwait, whereas the Assad regime and its allies in Tehran and Moscow appear victorious after their re-occupation of vast tracts of Syrian territory.

At a time that the regime and its allies are unable to advance militarily east of the Euphrates, the regime is trying in other ways to return to the region through the back door. After taking possession of the dams operated by personnel subordinate to it, there is now talk of the return of numerous government-affiliated institutions to the areas east of the Euphrates, to provide services the SDF are unable to provide, such as legal documentation and registry offices. And the door remains open for further regime engagement in those areas, and the normalization of relations, rendering it a significant actor in the area via its management of important services without the need for military forces.

As for the sanctions on Tehran, despite the rapid appearance of their results on the Iranian currency and economy, Iran is a country long-accustomed to sanctions, with economic resilience to and expertise in handling them, making their ultimate political effect uncertain. This is particularly so given that Tehran’s threats to ignite a war in the Arabian Gulf if Iranian oil exports are stopped will likely prompt Gulf states to help it evade the sanctions, for fear of inflaming the region. Nor does it seem that the poor economic situation will push the Iranian street into motion after the bloody experiences since the 2009-10 Green Revolution, to say nothing of the catastrophe faced by the peaceful movement in Syria. The prospect of such popular pressure brought about by economic strain is one likely to be awaited in vain—and the policy paper by Jeffrey et al. itself acknowledges the Khamenei regime would be “well positioned” to handle any such pressure in light of the Revolutionary Guard’s military successes on the Syrian battlefield.

While the US aims to consolidate the situation east of the Euphrates, the prospect of renewed Assad regime control over Idlib Province—the last armed opposition bastion—would put an end to hopes of pushing Assad and his allies to the negotiation table. There would no longer be any need (from the Russian, Iranian, and Assad regime perspective) for negotiations over political transition, or the provision of any concessions, and they would be able to essentially ignore the American presence in eastern Syria, which would become ever more isolated, especially as Washington’s main ally in the neighborhood, Turkey, is not prepared to provide facilitations for American forces to remain there.

In such an outcome, the American presence in eastern Syria would be devoid of any political meaning, and would find itself immersed in the quagmire the regime would work to create in the area through its governmental presence. It would also be possible for the regime and its allies to apply military or security pressure: one may hardly ignore here the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that caused the United States’ departure from Lebanon, especially when the militia that carried out that operation, Hezbollah, still exists, and indeed has bases in eastern Syria not far from American positions.

It is not possible today to return to pre-Obama policies. To ignore his years in power, and the concessions he made to the Iranian alliance in the region, would be to imperil any new strategy with multiple dangers. Policies that may have been suitable six or seven years ago are not suitable today. On the contrary, for all that these policies are seen as harsher against Iran in the region, they may end up producing results similar to those of Obama’s years, if not indeed worse.