U.S. tries to nail down priorities in Syria as civilian carnage continues

The brutal siege of eastern Ghouta continues as the U.N. fails to enforce a ceasefire.

Members of the Syrian government forces stand at the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus neighbouring the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region on February 27, 2018 during an operation that would allow some of the nearly 400,000 people living in the rebel-held area to leave the battered enclave through safe corridors. (CREDIT: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the Syrian government forces stand at the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus neighbouring the rebel-held Eastern Ghouta region on February 27, 2018 during an operation that would allow some of the nearly 400,000 people living in the rebel-held area to leave the battered enclave through safe corridors. (CREDIT: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

The past few weeks have been especially deadly for civilians in Syria, with Russian-backed regime forces pummeling the rebel-held enclave of eastern Ghouta.

On Tuesday, a five-hour ceasefire ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin — after a 30-day one ordered by the U.N. Security Council over the weekend failed — was marked by shelling from Syrian government forces. None of the previous ceasefires have held.

Also on Tuesday, with the help of Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians set up a route for civilians to flee eastern Ghouta, where over 500 people have been killed in the past week. But according to the Associated Press, none of the estimated 400,000 besieged residents have managed to leave just yet, with photos of the government checkpoints showing no signs of civilians crossing. U.N. and aid workers say that the corridors are not set up to let in aid and allow residents to evacuate the embattled area.

It’s against this backdrop that the United States is trying to maintain some sort of purchase in the country and the international community struggles to find a way to minimize civilian deaths, which have been mounting at a horrific pace since the start of the conflict nearly seven years ago.

The pendulum theory

Testifying before a Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing earlier this month, Mara Karlin, Associate Professor of the Practice of Strategic Studies School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and Force Development), asked the following list of questions:

The U.S. military’s mission in Syria has been alternately described by senior U.S. officials as “presence” and focused on bringing “stability” — dangerously vague terms. Is it wholly focused only on finishing the fight against ISIS? How much will it go after al Qaeda, which has quietly built a substantial following in Idlib province? To what extent is it there to push back on Iran? To fight the Assad regime? To train, equip, and advise violent non-state actors as they seek to do so? What about the Russians?…We need clarity…Whom is the U.S. military willing to fight? Whom is it willing to kill? And for whom is it willing to put American lives on the line?

To understand U.S. strategy in Syria, Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for a New American Security working in the Middle East Security Program, points to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s January 17 speech at Stanford University. In that speech, he focused on stability (in preventing the rise of an ISIS 2.0), regime change, and a reduction in the role of Iran in Syria as primary U.S. goals.

“If you cut through all the rhetoric, what this means is that the Trump team doesn’t trust Assad, Russia, or Iran to be able to hold any territory that’s taken from ISIS or to really be able to reconquer Syria,” said Heras. What Tillerson’s speech did was tie U.S. presence to Assad’s presence — as long as he’s in power, U.S. troops (around 2,000 today) will remain in Syria. In other words, territory taken from the self-proclaimed Islamic State by the United States will remain under U.S. control until Assad steps down.

And while Russia, Iran, and even Turkey are playing larger military roles in Syria, Heras says what the United States wants in Syria “really does matter,” calling it a game of “high risk, high reward.”

“For starters, the United States’ zone of influence in Syria is about one-third of the country’s territory. It’s about one-fifth of the country’s pre-war population, some would say as high as one-fourth. Most of the oil facilities, dams — so hydroelectric power — and some of the best agricultural land, are controlled by local U.S. partners,” he said. “The Trump team is sitting on top of Assad’s best oil right now. And the economy of Assad-controlled areas is weak.”

Heras told ThinkProgress that the Trump administration is banking on the “pendulum theory,” or the shifting momentum between Assad and his allies and the opposition. As the pendulum swinging away from Assad, said Heras, the United States could possibly come to an agreement with the Russians, who would be looking to cut a deal.

“They argue that President Putin can’t afford — financially, and in terms of the wear-and-tear on Russian planes — and doesn’t have enough men to deal with a surge in the fighting,” he said. Likewise, the Trump administration calculus holds that the Iranian-backed Shia militia in Syria is “actually a paper tiger” and that Assad’s military forces are limited and exhausted.

But what if the pendulum theory is wrong?

“If the pendulum doesn’t swing away from Assad, all it does is continue to entrench the United States in Syria without an exit strategy. It continues to put pressure on the humanitarian condition of millions of Syrians, and it doesn’t move Assad away from his throne in Damascus,” said Heras.

What’s likely to actually happen

The United States has a lot of very fine lines to walk before it can get to the swinging pendulum (if it exists). The United States would have to find a way to mitigate Iranian influence in a region where it has traditionally failed to do so. It would also have to keep the Syrian Kurds as allies while maintaining relation with its NATO ally Turkey, currently bombing the Syrian Kurds.

“The ability of the U.S. to bring stability to Syria is extremely debatable,” said Bulent Aliriza, director and senior associate of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, adding that the international community won’t be able to do much to save civilian lives in Syria.

Aliriza calls the conflict “a very cynical chess game” played by five countries — Iran, Russia, the United States, Israel and Turkey — within the borders of a sixth country.

U.S. involvement in Syria started with supporting the opposition, then on fighting radical groups — specifically, ISIS — and then to taking back territory from the group.

The goal of countering any possible post-ISIS insurgency, he said, is an understandable one, given U.S. experience in Iraq — where al Qaeda sprung up after the U.S. invasion — but beyond that, Aliriza doubts the extent to which the United States can succeed in countering Russian and Iranian influence, or even affect regime change.

“The Russians have a much more important role than the U.S. in Syria. Why? Because they have skin in the game in a way that the U.S. doesn’t,” said Aliriza. Pushing back against Russia — or, more specifically, the Russian goal of keeping Assad in power — will be a tricky feat for Trump, who has said he’d like to cooperate with Putin on a solution in Syria.

“There’s no longer any doubt over Assad’s survival. The only question is to what extent will he be able to restore his authority — with Russian and let’s not forget, Iranian help,” he said. “He has defeated the moderate opposition. What’s left of the opposition has become radicalized…he won’t restore authority like he had over the country prior to 2012 and he will need a lot of assistance.”

But countering Iranian influence, he said, is “easier said that done.”

“We’re talking about a possible readjustment of the post-ISIS policy of the U.S. to counter Iran, but frankly, very little flesh has been put on it. And Israel… has done more to counter the Iranian influence there than the U.S. has,” said Aliriza.

The Trump administration’s goal of being tough on Iran is changing the goals in Syria. The administration of President Barack Obama wasn’t as concerned with that, focusing more on normalizing relations with Iran, notably with the signing of the 2015 nuclear agreement that Trump is now trying to undo.

“One wonders whether the administration has calculated the consequences of a decision on its part to treat Syria, and maybe even Lebanon, as new theaters in its growing escalation and possible confrontation with Iran,” said Aliriza.

The U.S. ability to exert influence in Syria really depends on the Syrian Kurds, who are now focused on a fight with Turkey, which does not bode well.

These complicated, possibly unattainable goals, fade in an out of focus. That there are no clear answers troubled Kariln as she testified in that subcommittee hearing back on February 6: “Simply put, if the U.S. military’s mission and rules of engagement in Syria are unclear to those of us who spend our professional lives cogitating on these issues, we all should be profoundly concerned.”