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When President-elect Donald Trump enters office on Jan. 20, the bloody war in Syria against the Assad regime will be nearing its sixth year. What should Trump do about one of the most intractable problems he will face as president?
We asked several analysts and here’s what they said:
Upon taking office, the Trump administration will have no greater challenge than Syria. Having haunted the Obama administration, the new president will have an opportunity to start over. Identifying America’s key national interests at stake in Syria, militarily destroying the so-called Islamic State, and stabilizing the region will all be paramount.
Based on his campaign rhetoric and the recently leaked defense priorities for his administration, focusing on the military defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) is Trump’s stated near-term objective in Syria and is achievable in the short-term. Defeating IS would be a convenient way to reset relations with Russia — notably absent from the defense priorities document — along with other key regional allies such as Turkey. But it won’t address the longer-term challenges facing the region. Nor does it solve the historic local rivalries dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in which minorities of Sunnis and Allawis have ruled over Shiite and Sunni powers respectively in Iraq and Syria. As a result, the broader regional rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia or Turkey must be considered in understanding how every action will cause a counter-move and reaction.
The Trump administration will be given wide latitude in Syria and the Middle East upon taking office as regional allies and adversaries react to the new President’s policies. Helping to mobilize America’s transatlantic allies and refocus its Middle Eastern allies on a more stable region that does not produce refugees and terrorists is an important first step, difficult as it may be.
Getting Syria right may not be the easiest foreign policy challenge to start with, but it will undoubtedly have some of farthest-reaching ramifications that are easier dealt with now rather than ignoring them as the current administration has learned the hard way. As the current administration has learned the hard way, ignoring or tolerating Syria does not solve the problem. Let us hope that the president-elect takes a principled and informed approach to set a tone for his leadership on the global stage.
The Trump administration will be confronted with a complex, difficult and incendiary Syrian refugee situation. The brutal war in Syria has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and has forced millions of Syrians to leave their homes, their communities and their country. Make no mistake: The Syrians are not leaving because they want a “better life” or to “see the world.” They have left because they are desperate. Because they cannot survive at home.
Almost 5 million refugees are now living in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Over a million Syrian refugees have made their way to Europe where most are waiting for decisions on their asylum applications. Another 6 million Syrians (at least) have been displaced within the borders of their country where they are likely more vulnerable than refugees because they are closer to the violence. This means that half of Syria’s pre-war population has been displaced.
None of the front-line countries wants Syrian refugees. They have all responded generously, welcoming desperate people arriving on their borders. They have all paid a price for that generosity. And they have all mostly closed their borders. Just as Jews were trapped inside Nazi Germany because no country would take them, Syrians are now trapped inside the hellhole of their country.
As long as the war continues, the refugees cannot — should not — be returned. And the scale of destruction and the wounds of the bitter war mean that even after a peace agreement is negotiated, it is likely to take years before refugees can return “voluntarily and in safety and dignity.”
Setting up safe zones inside Syria may seem like an attractive alternative — to protect desperate civilians closer to home and to relieve pressures on host countries. But safe zones are not the answer. Who will protect them if the Assad regime or militant factions decide to attack? As I argued two years ago, establishing safe zones is a Pandora’s box.
There is no shortcut. The No. 1 priority should be to negotiate a peace agreement, begin the long and painful task of rebuilding the country and initiate a reconciliation process — including bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice. I hope with all my heart that President Trump can find a political solution that brings peace and justice to the country. Failing that, I hope (but am not holding my breath) that he will launch an ambitious plan to resettle Syrian refugees throughout the world. Without bold leadership on either front, then the only answer is to continue to support the host countries, to raise still more funds to care for the refugees, and to muddle along as we have been doing these past six painful years.
Children run from what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad near the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus on May 6, 2015. Photo by Bassam Khabieh/Reuters
The Syria crisis has been like a cancer diagnosed at stage 1 which, while doctors debate whether to prescribe an aspirin, metathesizes to stage 4. President-elect Trump first must do no harm. Syrian President Assad has become the Islamic State’s greatest recruiting tool; he cannot bring stability. Nor does he want to. Prior to 2014, Assad’s air force has a monopoly over Syrian air space but did not once bomb Raqqa, the Islamic State capital. The 2011 torture and murder of 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb paralleled the U.S. civil rights-era lynching of Emmett Till, right down to post-mortem photographs of his body. To tell Syrians to accept Assad is akin to telling Till’s family to get over it.
Nor should Trump trust his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan supports the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate, and prioritizes targeting Kurds over the Islamic State. Trump should demand Erdogan change his visa policies: There is a correlation between foreign fighter citizenship and countries which receive visas on demand in Istanbul’s airport. If Turkey required visas in advance for those under 40, the foreign fighters flow would slow to a trickle.
Airpower hasn’t failed; it hasn’t been employed effectively. U.S. planes strike Syria on average seven times per day: that is an order of magnitude lower than in Bosnia and Afghanistan, and 100 times less than in Iraq and represents only four minutes of aircraft carrier launch time.
Trump should shrink the tumor. Special Forces should target the irredeemable. Trump should provide Kurds with military support and demand Iraqi Kurdistan lift its blockade. He should work with Jordan rather than Turkey to create and expand a safe haven. Iran should have no free pass in the war zone. Syria is now a generational problem. Its future is federal. Trump should embrace the benign and shrink the malignant.
The United States has no good options in Syria, and all of the bad options pose significant risks. It has already lost most of its diplomatic influence over the fate of Western Syria, with the fall of Aleppo. Assad, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah’s influence and military power are now dominant over an area with around 70 percent of Syria’s remaining population and economy. It is too late to create no-fly and safe zones or to confront Russia militarily.
The Arab rebels actually fighting in the East have minimal ties to the United States, which they see as weak to the point of near betrayal. What’s more, Islamist extremist elements are the strongest fighters. The U.S. backs two weak moderate Arab rebel groups, but can’t put advanced weapons or money into the main body of rebels out of the fear this will back terrorism. America’s strongest support comes from Syrian Kurds, who present major problems in dealing with a Turkey over which the U.S. has steadily less influence. Defeating ISIS may bring some gains but it may simply make the civil war worse, and disperse its fighters to conduct terror attacks or to join other Syrian Islamic extremist groups.
So what can the United States do? It badly needs to rebuild its alliances with its Arab partners like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco and the Gulf states — which could help contain the violence in Syria, but it won’t end it. The U.S. can strengthen its military role in Iraq, try to limit the role of Iran, and push for Iraqi national unity — but this won’t help Syria. It can push hard against Iran’s efforts to expand its role, provide missile defense to the Gulf states, and increase its role in challenging Iran’s asymmetric forces in the Gulf.
But as for Syria, U.S. humanitarian aid will serve a good cause but not alter the balance of power. Highlighting Russia’s role in war crimes and support of Iran can have a diplomatic affect outside of Syria, but little inside it. It can arm Syrian rebels, but doing so presents the serious risk of effective weapons falling into the wrong hands. In many ways, the United States’ best hope is that the situation grows so bad that Syria’s factions will change and seek some real solutions, but hope is perhaps the weakest option of all.
Forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad stand atop a damaged tank near Umayyad mosque, in the government-controlled area of Aleppo, during a media tour on Dec. 13. Photo by Omar Sanadiki/Reuters
President Bashar al-Assad does not have the manpower to retake the two-thirds of Syrian territory outside his control anytime soon. At the same time, Assad is not going anywhere absent a major military intervention by the U.S. and the West. This is essentially a redo of 1990s Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where the country was divided and unstable. This time around, however, Assad’s military is far weaker than Saddam’s, leading Iran to send more Shiite militiamen to help Assad blast his way back into power. President-elect Trump not only faces a divided Syria, but an unstable one in which U.S.-designated terrorist groups play a considerable role on every side.
To deal with this situation and put the pieces of Syria back together again, the Trump administration should:
1. Accept Syria is de facto partitioned and establish safe zones: The U.S. should deal with Syria’s component parts in order to alleviate humanitarian suffering, stem the flow of refugees, and combat terrorism. Establishing safe zones for Syrians in different opposition held areas bordering Turkey and Jordan would be the best way to build the areas that President-elect Trump says can help Syrians “have a chance.” Turkey’s establishment of a de facto safe zone north of Aleppo, with an understanding from Russia, is a new and potentially powerful opportunity to protect Syrians and serve as a military and political basis for uprooting ISIS down the Euphrates Valley. Kurdish areas and southern Syria are other options.
2. Negotiate hard with Moscow: The Trump administration should test Russia’s commitment to combat terrorism in Syria, restraining the Assad regime, and bringing about a workable political settlement by renegotiating the Joint Implementation Group agreement struck with Moscow last autumn. Key will be setting up clear dilemmas to determine Moscow’s intentions. And keeping Washington’s covert program going in order to be able to deliver key parts of the opposition in stabilization and attempts at national reunification.
3. Split Iran and Russia on Syria: Tehran and Moscow support the Assad regime with militia and airpower, respectively. But the question remains to what political end. The U.S. should negotiate with Russia on a sustainable Syrian settlement that will keep Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed Shia militia out of Syria. This will go a long way to fulfilling the Trump administration’s goal of getting a better outcome from the recent Iranian nuclear agreement and checking its regional expansion.
Larisa Epatko produced multimedia web features and broadcast reports with a focus on foreign affairs for the PBS NewsHour. She has reported in places such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Haiti, Sudan, Western Sahara, Guantanamo Bay, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Germany and Ireland.
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