The Perils of the United States Strategy in Syria
Abhilash Prasann

In March, at least four hundred United States (US) troops were deployed to Syria without congressional approval.i The stated US objective is to join the offensive against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Raqqa. There are unofficial reports that the number of US in Syria will increase. This was in stark contrast to the Obama administration’s disinclination to deploy troops in Syria. The move further complicates a multisided battlefield where each side has clashing ideas about what a post ISIS and post-civil war Syria will look like. Along with Russian presence, this was precisely why the previous admission dithered on the idea of committing troops. Therefore, it is important to analyse the deployment of U.S troops in Syria and its possible implications.

It should be noted that US Special Forces and advisors have been in Syria since the Obama administration authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to arm and train the rebels. Recently, in Manjib, they have made their presence felt in order to enforce the fragile peace between Turks and Kurds. 1 However, in Raqqa, the mandate of the US marines seems to support the Kurdish troops, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and battle ISIS. They are also to coordinate air strikes. The Obama administration had capped future deployment on Iraq and Syria at 5,000 and 500 respectively.2 Something which the Trump administration might do away with, especially if it wants to fully go ahead with its plan to seize Raqqa. Pentagon has made it clear that their plan might call for further increase in the troops. 3

Given their history of engagements in protracted conflicts, the Americans know the pitfalls of committing troops in such situations. As President Assad pointed out in a television interview, the US has ended up committing more troops than initially planned and has suffered major losses as a consequence in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown how militias or insurgencies start from the rubbles of Western military action. The bigger problem arises when ISIS loses its hold on territories. In the past two weeks, US planes have carried out airstrikes which have killed more than 200 civilians drawing criticism from all quarters.4 US soldiers are likely to be involved in a direct fight; US artillery division has already drawn fire. The potential for a misunderstanding leading to exchange of fire between Russians or Assad and the U.S cannot be ruled out - a scenario which could potentially worsen the civil war.
In a war where each side has divergent interests, there appears to be a rare convergence of interest when it comes to defeating ISIS. Assad, Russia, Iran and its proxies, Kurds and the US seem to be working to take back territories held by the Islamic State. However, those like Jabhat Fateh al Sham, not directly involved in fighting the ISIS, have no affiliation with them either, which has left the ISIS friendless.

If there is a post ISIS US strategy for the region, then it inevitably ties up with a strategy for post-civil war Syria solution. The US and Russia have both backed the Kurdish Yekineyen Parastina Gel (YPG) against the Islamic State. The US has actively given YPF arms to take on Assad as well very much against its ally, Turkey’s frequent protests. Iran has long used Hezbollah as a proxy who are also on the ground defending the Assad regime. The US can potentially bring their Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, who have funded various Sunni militias against the Assad Regime, to heel. The Russians have shown they have some leverage with Assad when they convinced him to give up his chemical weapons stockpile in 2014 which was a long standing US demand.5 The de facto control these major powers exercise over certain territories, offers room for any cessation of hostilities between them to be enforced effectively. 6 In such a scenario, if we can assume that the US intends to bring a stop to the bloodshed, it would require co-operation and coordination between Russia, US and Iran on a scale rarely seen before. These three powers can roughly hold to account the many militias and armies at play. Only their clashing interests have prevented them from doing so.

Russia, Assad, US and the Iranian backed Hezbollah did coordinate to deliver the city of Palmyra. 7 A ceasefire was brokered by Russia and the US in September 2016 as well although it did not hold completely. The Trump administration will have to play hardball with Russia in relation to Assad and develop a working relationship with Iran to coordinate their actions; two things it has seemed unwilling to do consistently. 8 Any deal between the three must come with strings attached to deter any actions that undermine talks. The Russians have been keen to cooperate with the US on counter terrorism, something which Trump strongly feels US should do.9 This affords to the US, leverage and incentive to induce Russian agreement by offering to coordinate on counter terrorism matters.10

Iran for its part, has been heavily invested in Syria for a long time. Hezbollah has been Assad’s most important partner on the ground and has helped keep him in power. They have been Assad’s ally long before the civil war broke out. As a result, they do have significant influence with the Syrian government along with geopolitical considerations to ensure his regime’s survival. They are unlikely to give up on their core interests or be side-lined when the time comes to discuss a post-civil war Syria solution. The political solution may or may not entail Assad overseeing a transfer of power or transition in government. For the US, what it must require is a working relationship with Iran. Even with the full co-operation of Russia, Iran can simply not be wished away by the Trump administration if they want a long term solution.

The Syrian civil war seems immune to war fatigue. Every time one side gets the upper hand, the foreign backers of the other sides increase funding to overturn that.11 In the absence of an international mediation leading to a political solution, other multi-sided civil wars end when overwhelming violence or loss of support leads to one side gaining to a clear cut victory12. This usually comes at tremendous cost in terms of human lives. Any clear cut victory will make the supporters of the other side or the minorities feel threatened. Security, often becomes the bone of contention after a long and brutal civil war because of lack of trust on both sides. However, a fragile peace where everyone retains their arms might also lead to a relapse in fighting. In such a situation, it might be best for international mediation or peacekeeping forces to be present to enforce the peace and not foreign powers who are viewed with suspicion.

US leadership might yet prove consequential. The Astana talks, although designed to side-line the US led Geneva talks, could offer a platform if a negotiated solution seems likely. Nonetheless, US must exercise caution with regards to troops. Any calls for extra deployment must be ignored or looked at cautiously. However, the past effect of US actions in the Middle East in civil war situations leaves much to be sceptical about.

Endnotes

1. “With a Show of Stars and Stripes, US Forces Try to Keep Warring Allies Apart”, Washington Post, March 08, 2017

2. “US likely to send as many as 1000 ground troops into Syria ahead of offensive, officials say”, Washington Post, March 15, 2017

3. “Pentagon Plan For Raqqa Calls for Significant Increase in Ground Forces”, Washington Post, March 04, 2017

4. “Military reports – March 2017”, Airwars, April 1, 2017

5. “The Obama Doctrine”, The Atlantic, April 2016

6. “Can Trump End the War in Syria?”, Foreign Policy, March 29, 2017

7. “Hezbollah, Russia and the US help Syria retake Palmyra”, Washington Post, March 02, 2017

8. “Russia and US Reach Tentative Agreement for Syria Ceasefire”, The Guardian, September 10, 2017

9. “Can Trump End War in Syria?”, Foreign Policy, March 29, 2017

10. “Hezbollah, Russia and the US help Syria retake Palmyra”, Washington Post, March 02, 2017

11. “Syria Paradox: Why the War Only Ever Seems to Get Worse”, The New York Times, August 26, 2016

12. “Escaping the Civil War Trap in the Middle East”, The Washington Quarterly, July 2015

i. “U.S is sending 400 more troops to Syria”. New York Times, March 09, 2017.


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