The Trump administration’s plan to manage the outcome of the Syrian civil war is not likely to be successful because Washington missed an opportunity to seize the initiative years ago, according to former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
In an interview with Defense News published Tuesday, Hagel said the U.S. has been reduced to a player in the ongoing war in Syria, with very little power to achieve strategic goals laid out by administration officials last month.
“I don’t think the United States is going to be anywhere near making that final decision,” Hagel said when asked about Washington’s stated goal of pushing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. “How could we? I mean, what capabilities, what leverage do we have?”
A former Republican senator, Hagel crossed the aisle to serve as former President Barack Obama’s third Pentagon chief from 2013-2015. He believes the U.S. lost most of its leverage in the Syria conflict when it declined to take military action against Assad in response to his use of chemical weapons in 2013.
Though Obama had said Assad’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line,” the administration did not retaliate even when Syrian forces carried out a sarin gas attack that killed hundreds of civilians. Hagel was deeply critical of Obama’s Syria strategy and wrote then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice a memo to that effect. Weeks later, he was pushed out of the Pentagon, the result of a campaign by top White House aides to “destroy” him, he says.
The Trump administration is constrained by the consequences of its predecessor’s Syria policy, Hagel told Defense News. As he sees it, Obama’s policy allowed Russia to easily expand its presence and military capacity in Syria, a development that is now irreversible short of a direct conflict with Russian forces.
“How is the United States going to influence the outcome of Syria? The Russians will,” Hagel said. “The Iranians, the Turks and Assad will, and of course remnants of ISIS are still there, [the] Nusra [Front], other smaller terrorist groups are still there. But I don’t know where the strategy is or what they think there is going to be in this administration to be able to influence the outcome of Syria.”
Last month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined the administration’s strategic vision for a post-Assad, post-ISIS Syria. The plan involves leaving a dedicated forces of thousands of U.S. troops to, among other goals, usher in a “stable, unified, independent Syria” and counter Iranian influence in the country. (RELATED: Trump’s Plan For Syria Is Probably Illegal And Just About Nobody Cares)
Standing the way are Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Assad himself, all of whom have interests in Syria that conflict with what the Trump administration aims to accomplish there. To take just one example, Turkey is now directly intervening in the Syrian war to defeat Kurdish militia, which have been Washington’s most crucial proxy force against ISIS in Syria.
Turkey sees the formation of a powerful Kurdish force just over its southern border as an existential threat, given the problems it has had with its own restive Kurdish minority. Washington’s dependence on Kurdish fighters means there is simply no way to reconcile Turkish and U.S. interests in Syria, Hagel says.
“Now, if a country says that that’s the No. 1 internal security interest, we’re not going to convince them otherwise,” he said.
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