US Strategy in Syria Has Failed
By Staff, Foreign Affairs
During his four years in office, US President Donald Trump repeatedly promised to get the United States out of the nation-building business. Long-term US efforts to reconstruct and stabilize post-conflict societies, he argued, were misguided and doomed to fail. And for the most part, Trump delivered: he cut troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he scaled back democracy-promotion funding by nearly $1 billion during his time in office.
But the Trump administration departed from its no-nation-building policy to pursue one long-shot effort – in Syria. The United States tried to use military force and financial pressure to compel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to accept major constitutional reforms and a Kurdish autonomous zone in the country’s northeast. Under US supervision, that region developed into a semi-state with its own army, the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF], and an entrenched bureaucracy – dominated by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units [YPG] and its political arm, the Democratic Union Party [PYD].
After six years and roughly $2.6 billion, this statelet is America’s baby, raised under US military protection and shielded from hostile neighbors. Unable to support itself, the autonomous zone will remain dependent on US resources for the foreseeable future. An open-ended commitment of this kind is not what the United States needs, however. Syria has never been a major US national security issue, and American interests there have always been limited to preventing the conflict from threatening Washington’s more important concerns elsewhere. Current US policy does little to accomplish that central goal. It has also not secured political reform in Damascus, restored stability to the country, and dealt with the remnants of the Wahhabi Daesh [Arabic acronym for “ISIS” / “ISIL”]. President Joe Biden would do well to change tack – withdrawing the hundreds of US soldiers currently deployed to Syria and relying on Russia and Turkey to contain Daesh.
Ostensibly, US strategy in northeastern Syria is designed to mop up the last vestiges of Daesh, denying the group a safe haven from which to launch attacks. American support for the SDF, and its Kurdish YPG core, is supposed to help these groups contain ISIS with minimal outside help and without the need for a full-scale US deployment.
Although politically appealing, this strategy is deeply flawed. Arab residents have protested the SDF’s alleged administrative corruption, heavy-handed counterterrorist operations, and conscription practices. In such an environment, fraught with ethnic tensions and tribal disputes, Daesh can operate with the tacit acceptance of local communities and recruit from their disaffected ranks.
US strategy has another, more fundamental defect: Daesh is not contained to the areas under US and SDF control. The terrorist group also operates in a zone loosely controlled by the Syria and its allies. If the goal is to prevent Daesh from reconstituting itself or using Syria as a launching pad for attacks elsewhere, then limiting US deployments to the country’s eastern quarter doesn’t solve that problem.
The current US approach also lacks an achievable endgame. Without US diplomatic and military cover, the YPG and SDF would likely face a two- or three-front war against both Turkey and the Syrian government that would draw their fighters away from the battle against Daesh.
Given these flaws in Trump’s Syria policy, the new administration needs a different approach – one that successfully contains Daesh without committing the US military to another forever war. Instead of maintaining the current US strategy, the Biden team, with its newfound emphasis on diplomacy, should rely more heavily on Russia and Turkey. Unpleasant as it sounds, acknowledging these two countries’ interests in Syria might produce better results.
Ultimately, the Biden administration needs to be realistic about the United States’ ability to extract political concessions in Syria. US officials, myself included, long sought reforms from Assad’s government – with little success. For its part, the Trump administration tried using financial sanctions and control over Syria’s oil fields to compel Damascus to change its behavior. The Syrian government hardly budged. Damascus excels at stringing along negotiations, and the UN talks in Geneva that Washington has pinned its hopes on are stalemated. For Assad and his clique, the conflict is a zero-sum game in which demands for reform or autonomy inevitably lead to instability, challenges to their control, or unwelcome calls for accountability.
Biden could, of course, maintain the Trump administration’s strategy. But doing so would mean wasting billions of dollars while exacerbating intercommunal tensions and failing to contain Daesh. The United States has limited objectives in Syria that should cost Washington far less; whatever cash it wants to spend should go to the enormous refugee problem. Better to let Russia and Turkey secure their national interests by taking on the anti-Daesh burden. Ultimately, such bargains are the essence of diplomacy –working on specific problems, even with unsavory partners, to achieve limited but mutual goals.