The Trump administration’s attempt to pin down a U.S. strategy in Syria showcases a lack of strategic vision. Capitol Hill had been demanding clarity. Instead, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech at the Hoover Institution on Jan. 17 offered no new path for a disoriented U.S. policy. The speech showcased five flawed justifications and conceptions for maintaining open-ended U.S. involvement in Syria.
First, Tillerson argued that American troops are fighting the terrorists in Syria to avoid facing them at home. This has already proven to be the wrong approach since 9/11. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 decimated al Qaeda’s core structure, but the invasion of Iraq in 2003 allowed a new wave of Levantine and Iraqi terrorists to challenge a frailer al Qaeda leadership. This ultimately facilitated the rise of the Islamic State group. While the heavy deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq until 2010 often turned those troops into easy targets, the so-called Arab Spring shifted the focus of these terrorist groups to seizing control of ungoverned spaces across the region. The crucial goal of preventing terrorists from threatening the United States does not depend on U.S. involvement in Syria.
The second justification for sustaining the U.S. role in Syria is to prevent Iran from threatening Israel. In fact, U.S. and Israeli interests are not aligned in Syria, and the Israeli government did not endorse the Jordanian-sponsored U.S.-Russian agreement last July. Furthermore, Israel is coordinating its airstrikes on Hezbollah in Syria with Russia, and there are no incidents in Syria of U.S. military attempts to protect Israel.
Third, Tillerson said a Syrian central government “that is not under the control of (Bashar) Assad will have new legitimacy to assert its authority over the country,” which means the United States will not give up control of northern Syria until Assad steps down. Policymakers in the Trump administration might operate under the illusion that it is possible in the foreseeable future to establish a neutral government in Syria. Perhaps they look to Iraq and Lebanon, but even in those countries, fragile central authorities continue to face challenges in exerting control over their own territories.
Tillerson did not explicitly say when Assad should step down. He urged the Syrian opposition to be patient and said that change will happen “through an incremental process of constitutional reform.” To achieve that objective, the U.S. plan is to urge Russia to push Assad toward serious negotiations, while freezing international reconstruction assistance to any area under the control of the Assad regime. This will not likely convince Assad to step down after what he considers a military victory.
Fourth, Tillerson argued that “reducing and expelling Iranian malign influence depends on a democratic Syria,” which not only acknowledges that Washington will not deter Tehran but also shows how shortsighted is the U.S. policy in the Middle East. The more likely rationale for keeping an open-ended military presence in Syria is to maintain influence in the Levant and Iraq, but that is an influence shared with both Russia and Iran. The United States has gained control over the Amman-Baghdad highway as well as a Sunni buffer zone in Deir Ezour adjacent to Kurdish areas in the North and to the Iraqi border, which will protect U.S. interests from engagement with Iranian backed forces.
Fifth, Tillerson told reporters after his speech that the U.S. plan to establish a border force in northern Syria has been misportrayed. He said some in the U.S. administration had misrepresented a plan that featured budget, personnel and mandate details announced by the Pentagon. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that this force will be strangled “before it’s even born.” It took 48 hours for U.S. officials to publicly deny the plan and now Turkish troops might control Afrin and hold the corridor until Jarablus to establish a Turkish-controlled buffer zone. Tillerson repeated the “stable, unified, independent Syria” mantra across the speech but stopped short of referring to Syria’s “territorial integrity.” The new element in the U.S. strategy is an attempt to include the Syrian Democratic Forces in the Geneva process, which might lead to tensions with Turkey and the Syrian opposition.
In restricting U.S. involvement within Kurdish areas along the border with Turkey and Iraq, the United States gave up on the rest of Syria and has no trusted allies in that web of war. The Trump administration hopes to engage Russia to contain Iran while in parallel draining Moscow’s prevailing influence in Syria. To achieve the long American checklist of prerequisites for withdrawal, the administration has set the bar high and is planning to stay for the long haul with no clear endgame.
Joe Macaron is a fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are the author's own.