Does Tillerson’s New Syria Policy Make Any Sense?

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Stanford University “ Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria ” depict a major improvement in the American approach to the crisis in Syria, one consistent in many respects with recommendations offered here over the past five years.

Officially gone is President Barack Obama’s disastrously erroneous view—opposed by many officials in his administration—that Iran would have to be appeased in Syria to obtain Tehran’s signature to a nuclear deal.

In its place is something immeasurably better, but something requiring sustained heavy lifting by an undermanned diplomatic team and several upgrades in some critical areas.

Tillerson enumerated five objectives (“key end states”) of American policy in Syria:

1.   ISIS and al Qaeda suffering “an enduring defeat.”

2.   A “stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership.”

3.   Diminished Iranian influence in Syria.

4.   Conditions suitable for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their homes.

5.   A Syria “free of weapons of mass destruction.”

According to Tillerson, “The Trump administration is implementing a new strategy to achieve these end states. This process largely entails increased diplomatic action on the heels of our ongoing military successes. Our diplomatic efforts will be characterized by stabilization initiatives and a new emphasis on the political solution to the Syrian conflict.”

It is worth noting that this will be a heavy and sustained diplomatic lift, one requiring a fully fleshed out team—including an ambassador in Ankara.

GettyImages-906375794 Syrian government forces in the village of Obeid, in the southern part of Aleppo province, January 18, 2018, as they advance towards the Abu Duhur military airport in the ongoing offensive against opposition fighters. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty

The five objectives are closely interrelated and reflect a common denominator: the impossibility of achieving any of them so long as a crime family and its entourage play a political role in Syria.

As Tillerson aptly noted, “The nature of the Assad regime, like that of its sponsor Iran, is malignant. It has promoted state terror. It has empowered groups that kill American soldiers, such as al-Qaeda. It has backed Hezbollah and Hamas.”

Indeed, “ISIS originally emerged from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group Assad had covertly backed. Evidence suggests Assad also abetted ISIS by releasing known terrorists from Syrian prisons and turning a blind eye to ISIS’s growth.”

Critically, Tillerson put his finger on the Syrian crisis’ center of gravity. “The catastrophic state of affairs [in Syria] is directly related to the continued lack of security and legitimate governance in Syria itself. Assad has gassed his own people, he has barrel bombed entire villages and urban neighborhoods, and repeatedly undermined any chance for a peaceful resolution of political differences.”

It is safe to say that any inclination to try to build a bridge to the Assad regime that may have existed during the 2016 presidential campaign or early in the Trump administration is gone. It is gone because this administration—just as its predecessor—recognizes that the regime and the Islamist extremism it inspires are two sides of the same coin.

What, therefore, does the administration propose to do to implement its strategy and accomplish its objectives?

As noted above, Tillerson cited two general diplomatic approaches: the stabilization of Syrian territory liberated from ISIS by the anti-ISIS coalition; and “a new emphasis on the political solution to the Syrian conflict.”

An article posted yesterday in SyriaSource addresses the stabilization of Syria east of the Euphrates River.

The decision of the Trump administration not to declare victory over ISIS and liquidate the American presence in eastern Syria is critically important. To turn the area over to the Assad regime and lawless militias commanded by Iranian officers would erase three years of effort to defeat Islamist extremism in eastern Syria. It would do so by recreating the vacuum of political illegitimacy filled by ISIS in the first place.

But the decision to help stabilize eastern Syria requires two upgrades if its chances of success are to be improved markedly: sustained effort to secure some measure of Turkish cooperation; and a central governance role for the mainstream Syrian opposition.

The first may be a bridge too far, depending on Ankara’s pragmatism and flexibility. The second is obvious. The opposition contains many members who are natives of the region in question, and it has done serious thinking about the stabilization issue.

In terms of peace diplomacy, Tillerson usefully emphasized the centrality of the United Nations-supervised Geneva process, which will take up its work in Vienna later this month. Perhaps less usefully, he continued the administration’s practice of according a central role to Russia.

He correctly alluded to Russian cooperation in bringing a measure of stability to southwestern Syria.

However, he went on to say, “The Assad regime clearly looks to Russia as a guarantor of its security. Russia therefore has a meaningful role to play in persuading the Assad regime to engage constructively in the Geneva process.”

To be sure, a writer who urges the administration not to give up on seeking cooperation with Ankara will not counsel ignoring Moscow. But there should be no illusions about the extent of Russia’s leverage on the Assad regime, about its willingness to use whatever leverage it might have, or on the readiness of Assad to share—much less yield—political power.

It may not be a matter of consensus within Russian officialdom or the Russian people in general, but whether it is North Korea, Ukraine, or Syria, President Vladimir Putin wishes only ill for the United States and the American people. For better or worse, if one seeks to employ the leverage of others to oblige a criminal enterprise in Damascus to negotiate in good faith, Tehran is a more appropriate address than Moscow.

American leverage for the sake of Syrian peace, reconciliation, and reconstruction may derive in part from a continued presence in eastern Syria. But its fulcrum is located inside something addressed all-too-narrowly by the secretary of state: the protection of Syrian civilians.

In terms of civilian protection, Mr. Tillerson restricted himself in large measure to the inadmissibility of chemical warfare. Indeed, the Trump administration’s decision to destroy 20 percent of Assad’s air force in retaliation for the regime’s April 2017 sarin attack upheld decency in a manner 180 degrees out from the previous administration’s “red line” disgrace.

But chemicals have accounted for a tiny percentage of the abomination that has been visited upon the people of Syria, and it may well be that the regime and Russia plan for Idlib city and province the same sort of mass murder campaign they inflicted on Aleppo.

Would such an exercise in state terror be unopposed by Washington, so long as it is implemented in a chemical-free manner? If it is, an important tool for leverage will have been cast aside.

Finally: as the director of a Middle East Center that has worked hard for years to try to influence the direction of American policy toward Syria, there are important elements of Secretary Tillerson’s remarks that yield a heretofore absent sense of accomplishment.

His words on reconstruction—“The United States, the EU, and regional partners will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under the control of the Assad regime”—reflects the findings and recommendations of an ongoing Hariri Center project on Syrian reconstruction.

Much of the wording of Mr. Tillerson’s statement reflects arguments advanced for years in this blog. There is so much that remains to be done, particularly in terms of protecting Syrian civilians. But what Mr. Tillerson has articulated is more than good enough as a starting point for a policy reflecting American values and upholding American interests.

Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Join the Discussion