- The Trump administration is shifting to a more expansive plan for Syria that involves not just the defeat of ISIS, but rolling back Iranian influence and preventing Bashar al-Assad from consolidating power.
- The strategy envisions an indefinite military and diplomatic presence in Syria, contrary to President Donald Trump’s previous inclination to withdraw U.S. troops after defeating ISIS.
- As part of the shift in priorities, Washington appears willing to use military force to retaliate against Assad for chemical and conventional attacks alike.
President Donald Trump supports an indefinite U.S. military presence in Syria as part of a strategy that encompasses far more than the destruction of the Islamic State, according to the Department of State’s top envoy for Syria.
The plan envisions a long-term commitment not only to the “enduring defeat” of ISIS, but also to preventing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from consolidating power in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, Ambassador James Jeffrey said Thursday.
It further aims to eject Assad’s Iranian allies from Syria altogether, according to Jeffrey, who is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s handpicked “representative for Syria engagement.”
“The new policy is we’re no longer pulling out by the end of the year,” he told reporters in Washington, referring to the 2,200 U.S. troops deployed to eastern Syria in support of a multi-national coalition to defeat ISIS. Instead, they will remain in support of a combined military and diplomatic effort to limit Iranian and Russian influence over post-war reconstruction.
“That means we are not in a hurry,” Jeffrey said, adding that he was “confident” Trump supports what he called a “more active approach” in Syria.
In fact, the Syria strategy described by Jeffrey has been under consideration within the Trump administration for months, but it never gained traction largely because of Trump’s reluctance to deepen U.S. involvement there.
The open-ended, hands-on approach was first articulated by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January. In a speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Tillerson outlined five “end states” Washington wanted to achieve, among them rolling back the Iranian presence and ushering in a “stable, unified, independent Syria” led by someone other than Assad.
But months later, Trump asserted publicly and in discussions with his national security team he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria “very soon.” In one meeting in April, he told chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford to complete the anti-ISIS mission in Syria within six months, even if military commanders thought the timetable was too short. (RELATED: National Security Bureaucracy Unites In Opposition To Trump’s Syria Position)
Trump’s initial preference for winding down the intervention in Syria was in keeping with his instinct for limiting U.S. military commitments abroad. When he first took office, Trump was heavily inclined to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, but Pentagon officials eventually convinced him to reverse his position and order the deployment of an additional 3,000 troops.
That process appears to be repeating itself with respect to the administration’s Syria policy. Influential Iran hawks on Trump’s national security staff — notably Pompeo, National Security Advisor John Bolton and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley — have told the president that a precipitous withdrawal from Syria would harm U.S. interests.
As the Trump administration looks to deepen U.S. involvement in Syria, Assad’s forces are preparing for a major battle in Idlib province, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country. The province is home to about 3 million people, more than half of whom were already displaced by fighting elsewhere. (RELATED: Trump Hits Syria’s Fuel Network With Sanctions As Assad Prepares Idlib Assault)
At least 70,000 rebel fighters — many of them hard-core Islamic militants — are also concentrated in Idlib, meaning a large-scale offensive there could easily turn into the bloodiest battle of the seven-year civil war. International observers fear the fighting will cause a humanitarian catastrophe as desperate civilians flood into neighboring countries.
Thus far, Washington has only directly attacked Syrian forces after determining that Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons against civilians in rebel-held areas. In both cases, the response involved limited cruise missile strikes on Syrian facilities tied to the regime’s chemical weapons program. (RELATED: US And Allies Put On A Good Show In Syria, But Did They Launch $100 Million Worth Of Missiles For Nothing?)
In a sign the administration’s bar for intervention is getting lower, top U.S. foreign policy officials have warned Assad that continued attacks in Idlib could trigger a U.S. military response. Assad can expect “dire consequences” if he fails to heed Washington’s warnings, Haley said at the UN on Friday.
The forceful warnings are “new language” meant to signal the U.S. will not tolerate “an attack. Period,” Jeffrey said. Whereas the Trump administration had previously limited its red line for retaliation to the use of chemical weapons, it will now consider responding to conventional attacks.
“Any offensive is to us objectionable as a reckless escalation,” he said. “You add to that, if you use chemical weapons, or create refugee flows or attack innocent civilians … the consequences of that are that we will shift our positions and use all of our tools to make it clear that we’ll have to find ways to achieve our goals that are less reliant on the goodwill of the Russians.”
Washington’s expanding mission in Syria could put it on a collision course with Russia and Iran, since both countries are deeply embedded with Syrian forces. The risk of getting into another Middle East war — potentially against a nuclear-armed Russia — is not worth whatever security benefits come from reducing Moscow and Tehran’s power in Syria, according to foreign policy scholar Daniel Larison.
“An open-ended military presence in Syria “exposes American soldiers to unacceptable risks for the sake of unachievable goals that have nothing to do with U.S. security,” Larison wrote in The American Conservative on Friday. “It potentially risks escalation with one or more foreign governments, one of which is a nuclear-armed major power, and it prolongs a military presence in another country’s territory in flagrant violation of both U.S. and international law.”
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