Next US steps in Syria

Knowledgeable people gathered last Thursday under Chatham House rules to discuss shifting US objectives in Syria and how the new administration might pursue its ends. The explicit intent of American involvement in the conflict, most thought, should be population protection, because the greatest threat to US interests and security stems from violence against civilians and the resulting population displacement. The most likely outcome for post-conflict Syria is a fragmented and weakened state. The issue would then become how the United States could influence and stabilize the various regions.
The current Russian ceasefire is likely to prove little more than a strategic reset; a true end to the violence will not be realized. There are various strategies the United States might undertake to stop the bloodshed, including reducing the regime’s capacity for aerial bombardment and incentivizing a cessation of violence.  It should be made clear that these moves aim to exact a cost on those who thwart US funded humanitarian efforts or directly harm civilians, rather than to engender regime change.

The United States needs to work with partners outside of the regime to establish a lasting ceasefire and dismantle terrorist control. It is particularly important to secure the borders of Syria, an effort in which both Turkish and Kurdish fighters need to be involved. The hostility between them derails peace efforts. One commentator called for senior US leaders to demand a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds as a necessary benchmark before any meaningful objectives or lines are drawn. Some participants demonstrated concern for the potential success of this strategy given a growing desire within the Pentagon to leave areas in the east under Assad’s control, and America’s general reluctance to get involved.

The conversation made it clear that the security of post-conflict Syria as a federal system of statelets depends on the “de-marbleization” of opposition groups. Separation of the groups would lead to their turning against Al-Qaeda and subsequently the stabilization of the country. International support today is not sufficient to achieve this. In addition the moderates must be linked to civil society to lead and maintain the separation. Though one speaker was averse to the moderate label, remarking that “moderates never win,” he described a need for a genuine Syrian nationalist movement. There is a lot of  local discontent with extremist control. It is urgent to consolidate and support this resentment before it is supplanted with anti-Western rhetoric. The US government must determine which areas to support, and whether or not it is willing to trade off regions of control.

The United States is not alone. Turkey has actively worked to demarbleize opposition groups, and the upcoming peace talks in Astana are an example of its efforts. The Turkish government has reached out to local civil society and non-militant groups to attend these talks in addition to opposition political leaders, though no one expressed confidence in the potential of success of these efforts.

Turkey’s intentions are questionable. The growing power of Erdogan and his willingness to make territorial concessions to the Assad regime are worrisome to US interests and values. Successful implementation of US strategy in Syria requires long term commitment as well as clear limits on the expenditure of US blood and treasure. While the US must wholeheartedly commit to the effort, it cannot do so alone, nor can it dictate the outcome.

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