US Foreign Policy

In Search of a Syria Policy

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As US forces carry out President Trump’s order to withdraw from positions in northeastern Syria where a Turkish military intervention is now underway, Congress is considering legislation to assert its own policy views.  Fast-breaking news reports regarding lethal Turkish strikes against Syrian Arab as well as Kurdish towns, formerly US-allied Syrian Kurdish forces turning to the Assad regime for emergency protection, ISIS fighters escaping from camps secured until now by the Kurdish forces, and Russian units moving into the area, all constitute a changed situation whose implications, although unclear as yet, will be far-reaching.

Congress will benefit by drawing from the excellent report prepared at its legislative direction by the bipartisan Syria Study Group and released less than three weeks ago.  The Study Group’s twelve experts were evenly selected by congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle.  The resulting analysis and recommendations were unanimously supported by the Study Group.  Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D, NH) and Mitt Romney (R, UT) strongly endorsed the report’s advice while releasing it at the US Institute of Peace on September 26.

One might say, upon reviewing the report’s findings, that they have been overtaken by events.  It is true that the Study Group’s advice was not followed by President Trump.  It recommended keeping US forces in place while promoting local and legitimate Syrian governance, focusing on expelling Iranian forces and proxy militia from Syria, seeking to address Turkey’s legitimate security concerns while pressing Turkey to avoid a military intervention, denying the Assad regime any avenues toward normalization, and raising the cost to Russia for its destructive actions in Syria.  In a few short days, each of these policies has been undermined by events. 

What has not changed, however, is the reality that American interests will be influenced for years by what is happening in Syria.  Israel now faces Iranian as well as Hizballah threats at close range.  Assad and his Russian patron are undeterred from inflicting further carnage in Idlib province where regime opponents are still found; new waves of desperate refugees fleeing the country may result.  Escaped ISIS fighters could strike again, in the Levant, Europe, or beyond.  Syria matters, said the Study Group even before the Turkish incursion, because it “is now a breeding ground for terrorist organizations committed to attacking the United States, the front line for Iranian power projection, and the main stage for Russia’s return to the region.” 

There is no reliable way to measure the impact of President Trump’s handling of this security challenge with allies, adversaries, or even within the US national security establishment.  Study Group member Ambassador Frederic Hof, an Arabic-speaking former US Army intelligence officer with decades of experience in Syria, elaborated his views in a separate publication at the same time, explaining that, to achieve results, a US effort in support of reasonable policy objectives for Syria would require “years of patient, focused, and disciplined effort.”  That, too, seems out of reach at the moment.

Even if, as many observers are saying today, the crisis in Syria is dissipating American credibility and leverage by the hour, the United States has interests that will be affected by US action or inaction going forward.  Weary of military engagement in situations where force alone cannot compel satisfactory political conditions, elected politicians in both parties reflect a diminished national appetite for geopolitical competition and a loss of confidence in the efficacy of American power.  A bipartisan consensus in Congress might well adopt a cautious attitude toward any initiatives that could expose American soldiers or civilians to danger in Syria at this time.

Even so, whether a legislator is a Republican or Democrat, and irrespective of isolationist or interventionist leanings, all should be clear on what the United States stands for in Syria.  Surely politics has not impaired the country’s ability to know the difference between right and wrong.  Bashar al Assad and his key regime lieutenants, from the time they opened fire on political protesters in Daraa in 2011, have committed massive war crimes against the Syrian people and their homeland; this alone should be driving a conversation about whether the international community can find ways to withhold from Assad’s regime the full privileges of sovereign recognition. 

Russia, along with the Syrian Air Force, has deliberately attacked hospitals in areas known to be populated with regime opponents; these too are war crimes, and they continue in Idlib province, as the New York Times recently reported.  Iran, having commanded tens of thousands of IRGC and Shia militia within Syria throughout the civil war, is fully complicit in the regime’s displacement of 11 million civilians.  Turkey’s plan to transfer Syrian refugee populations forcibly into the territorial strip along Syria’s northeastern border now under assault by Turkish forces would contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949.  To let such transgressions pass as though a regrettable but inevitable feature of normal international affairs would be to condemn the world to more of the same in this century, and break faith with the universal human need for justice, an ideal many in the world have identified with America for generations.

There is a legitimate foundation for shaping future policies aimed at a more stable future for Syria. UN Security Council Resolution 2254, despite Assad’s and Russia’s refusal to support it, mandates a political transition process including a new constitution and free elections producing a legitimate government in Syria.  If nothing else, this resolution should cause governments everywhere to refrain from normalizing ties with the Assad regime.  More productively, as the Study Group recommends, there must be accountability for the crimes perpetrated by Assad and his circle.  A multilateral effort to document the full extent of the regime’s atrocities would serve as a warning to Iran and Russia that crimes on this scale cannot and will not be disregarded or allowed to pass with impunity.

As for the estimated 5.6 million Syrians driven out of the country, it may seem unrealistic right now to think that they could ever return home; yet this ought to be a declared policy objective.  Surely there is a better course than passively accepting that millions will forever be disempowered – with their children poorly prepared for a productive life, and some radicalized – or that Syria’s neighbors must be endlessly burdened with their presence, while the US and others foot a never-ending, multi-billon-dollar humanitarian assistance bill.  It is hard to imagine that any country will pay for the rebuilding of the cities and towns laid waste with Russian munitions delivered by Syrian and Russian pilots so long as Syria’s refugees cannot safely return.  Sovereignty, it bears reminding, rests not with rulers but with the people.

A horrific crisis has just gone from bad to worse.  America’s actions have, for the time being at least, left the US poorly positioned to influence what comes next.  Congress can make a useful contribution by endorsing the basic wisdom of its own Syria Study Group, and urging the Administration to convene its civilian and military policy planners with the Study Group experts to advise on what to do now.

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