David Cortright is the Director of Policy Studies and the Peace Accords Matrix at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
The Trump administration will face one of its most difficult foreign policy tests in Syria, with a high likelihood of failure.
There are no good options for U.S. policy. On one side is the brutal Assad regime which sparked the revolt five years ago by massacring peaceful protesters and has committed countless atrocities since. With military support from Iran and Russia, the regime has regained military ground in recent months and now clings to remnants of power in a shattered country.
Opposing Assad are Kurdish forces, backed by the U.S. but opposed by Turkey and other states in the region, and a vast network of extremist militias and insurgent groups including Jahbat al-Nusra, Al Qaida, and the so-called Islamic State—all sworn enemies of the West. ISIS and other insurgent groups still control wide swaths of territory in Syria.
The U.S. has attempted to build a moderate Syrian opposition force, but John McCain last year labeled that policy a debacle, “a bad, bad sick joke.” Many of the Syrian fighters trained by the U.S. have deserted or been killed or captured by insurgent groups.
The rising costs of the Syrian carnage demand action, but what can be done? Trump has said he will work with Russia and the Syrian government to focus on defeating ISIS, but that approach has been criticized as a short-sighted and ill-informed misreading of the intentions of Putin and Assad that would give sanction to their brutal bombings.
Congressional hawks continue to beat the drum for more American involvement. In mid-November, six congressional representatives suspended the rules of debate in the House of Representatives and convened a special session to ram through a ‘civilian protection’ bill that would, among other things, mandate an assessment of creating safe zones and no fly areas in Syria.
Hilary Clinton supported that approach during the campaign, but imposing such a policy would be costly and dangerous, according to military experts, and might risk military confrontation with Russia. After the disaster of Libya, when a no-fly zone became armed regime change, there is little appetite for repeating that approach in Syria.
Hawks claim that the Obama administration has been sitting back and doing nothing in the face of Assad’s atrocities and the ISIS threat. In truth, the United States is actively involved militarily in Syria and Iraq and has been waging a campaign of sustained bombing and special operations directed primarily against ISIS. Despite Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011, thousands of American soldiers are now back in Iraq, and more than 300 U.S. troops are also deployed in Syria. Over the past twenty months American aircraft have conducted more than 5,500 air strikes in Syria and more than 7,000 strikes in Iraq.
American military involvement in Syria has put pressure on ISIS, but it has not helped to end the war. Efforts to increase the U.S. military footprint in the country could arouse greater support for the insurgents and prolong the agony.
A less costly and more fruitful approach in Syria would be to pursue a diplomatic strategy to end the fighting. The Obama administration worked previously with Moscow to negotiate some limited and partial ceasefires, but efforts to achieve a broader settlement to the war have failed so far. Multiple attempts at diplomacy are often needed to forge a comprehensive agreement for peace.
Trump may be willing to give diplomacy a chance, but his eagerness to cooperate with Putin is disconcerting and could come at a high price in terms of wider security interests. Russia will insist on an agreement that preserves the now truncated Syrian state under the rule of Assad. The United States has proposed an open and inclusive political transition process in Syria, one that accommodates the interests of the majority Sunni population, and that might convince insurgents to pursue their interests through political means rather than continued armed struggle.
Whether the new administration will pursue such an approach remains to be seen. Meanwhile it is imperative for the United States to maintain and increase the level of humanitarian support it is providing for the victims of the war and the millions of people who have fled the fighting. The flood of desperate people fleeing Syria, Iraq and other countries has reached crisis proportions worldwide.
Religious charities have urged Washington to accept a greater number of Syrian refugees into the United States, but no one is expecting that now with an administration that campaigned on a vow to bar Muslims from entering the country. The fate of Syria and its people remains very much in doubt.