Were knocking the hell out of ISIS. Well be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.
So spoke the president of the United States in Richfield, Ohio on Thursday at a rally that was supposed to be about infrastructure but wound up being about Roseanne, the quintessential Trump voter, and why the Democrats, who have lately been winning elections in places they couldnt win before, are still losers.
If a rhetorical rivulet in a stream of consciousness can be said to have a design, then this line was designed to appeal to the Rust Belt working man as a reminder that President Trump is still the Donald and the Donald won the election on a platform of making America, not the Middle East, great again.
Only dont tell Commander-in-Chief Trump that. As it happens, the White House actually has got a long-term plan for Syria, according to past and present administration officials, which is to say that the plan is for the U.S. to stay put, indefinitely.
What we may be looking at is an effort by the ever-transactional Trump to get others to foot the bill. He has bruited that idea before and at his press conference on Tuesday, evidently referring to his recent meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump was quite specific: Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision, and I said, Well, you know if you want us to stay, maybe youre gonna have to pay.
But what does staying mean?
It was the unceremoniously Twitter-terminated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who, back in January, outlined the contours of Americas post-ISIS strategy, even though neither Tillerson nor the mostly irrelevant State Department formulated it; rather, the White House, led by the National Security Council, did. And Donald Trump signed off on it, rendering his remark in Cleveland either a spontaneous about-face on months of government planning or a demagogic improvisation you might call fake policy, or his idea of artful dealing.
Any way you cut it, the policy is a complicated one, and not the sort of thing Trump likes trying to explain to his base or, for that matter, having explained to him.
According to Tillerson, who outlined the original strategy at Stanford Universitys Hoover Institution, there are five objectives:
1) ISIS and al-Qaeda must suffer an enduring defeat and Syria must never again become a platform for transnational terror organization that targets U.S. citizens;
2) Syrias seven year-long civil war must draw to a close through a brokered diplomatic settlement;
3) Irans influence in Syria must be diminished and its dreams of a northern archdenied;
4) The conditions should be created to allow Syrian refugees and internally displaced people to return to their homes;
5) Syria must be free of weapons of mass destruction.
Tillerson emphasized the well-documented atrocities committed by the Assad regime, as well as its decade-long connivance with or facilitation of the many incarnations of ISIS the very terrorist organization the U.S. had to intervene in Syria to defeat. As a consequence, U.S. reconciliation with Damascus is now impossible.
Fears that the United States had intended to cede the territory it liberated from the caliphate back to the regime that enabled the reification of that grim project in the first place have proved unfounded. If Washington pursues the the carefully wrought policy hammered out over the last year, as opposed to Trumps off the cuff version, it will embark upon a far more ambitious project to create a de facto American protectorate in eastern Syria encompassing a sizable part of the Turkey-Syria border and the entirety of the Syria-Iraq border. And to do this, U.S. troops will remain in Syria indefinitely.
The end-game of this approach, as one senior U.S. official explained to us, is to keep Assad isolated diplomatically and paralyzed economically, confined to a precarious rump state, which will eventually prove prohibitively expensive for him to maintain and increasingly burdensome for his two state patrons, Iran and Russia, to underwrite.
As the original White House thinking went, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are not in Syria for charity. Both are looking to capitalize on the success of their client-state rescue mission. Putin seeks a permanent military presence in the Levant, a regime that can once again be self-financing instead kept afloat by foreign loans and oil shipments. Meanwhile, Khamenei and his powerful expeditionary military commander Qassem Soleimani want a direct line of communication for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its manifold Shia proxies, the northern arch to which Tillerson alluded, sometimes also known as an Iranian land-bridge meant to stretch from Tehran all the way to the Mediterranean coastline. The mullahs expansionism exercises Israel, Turkey and the Gulf Arab states far more than the proliferation of Sunni jihadism in Syria, which is viewed as far more containable and a non-existential threat to them.
The officials who originally crafted Trumps policy, which he may now be trashing, wanted to ensure that the victory against terror in Syria remains a permanent one, unlike in Iraq where the U.S. withdrawal in 2011 enabled jihadists to snatch stunning victories in 2014 from what should have been a strategic defeat. It also seeks to block Moscow and Tehran from recouping their long-sought spoils, reflecting the Pentagons new defense doctrine, which has de-prioritized the global war on terror and emphasizes twentieth-century-style great power struggle as Americas foremost security challenge.
Thus, the detailed Syria policy marked an ironic coda to a 15-year-old campaign against a single foe. Where the George W. Bush administration ventured into Iraq to create an American sphere of influence, only to discover itself fighting a war of counterinsurgency, the Trump administration has inherited a war of counterinsurgency, which it now seeks to parlay into an American sphere of influence albeit absent the dreaded nation-building or messiness of an Iraq-style occupation.
Does such a policy stand a chance under favorable geopolitical and domestic circumstances, let alone the current ones? Even if it is allowed to continue, vital psychological elements will be hugely undermined by the confusion Trump has created.
Just by announcing an indefinite U.S. troop deployment to Syria the administration had created unique momentum for building lasting trust and security relationships with the Sunni Arab tribes of the Euphrates River Valley, the bellwether constituency without whose support no occupying state or non-state power stands a chance.
Syrias tribes can best be understood as confederations of families spread across a wide geographical area which form clan-based networks and practice consensus politics. Nationwide they account for 30 percent of the Syrias population but inhabit more than 60 percent of its territory, including the most oil-rich region. The tribes have their highest concentrations in four provinces, Deraa, Deir Ezzor, Hasaka, and Raqqa, the last three of which will be incorporated into this budding American protectorate. In every one of the four provinces tribes constitute around 90 percent of the population, meaning they will be the human capital that America will have to invest in most heavily.
Tribes are famously conservative, cautious, and fickle. They deal with whichever power is seen to be both the dominant one and the most amenable to their long-term interests. Thus for centuries they have been crucial to colonial or native governments in rallying local support (or hostility), establishing credibility (or hatred) for civil and military administrations and, more recently, acting as either a bulwark against (or accelerant for) jihadist infiltration of their communities.
ISIS understood this anthropological reality all too well. Tribal alliances are not static, however, as demonstrated by the swift shift of Raqqas fealty from Assad in 2011 to the Syrian opposition in 2013 to ISIS in 2014, and now to the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. For this reason, Assad has begun making his own overtures to the Jazira, east of the tableland of desert towns, villages and cities east of the Euphrates River Valley.
In October 2017, the regime began to court and co-opt the tribes of Deir Ezzor with offers that included local autonomy for self-policing an attempt to address the reluctance by tribal families to send their children off to join the badly attrited and incompetent Syrian army. Similar to the Iranian bankrolled and armed militias, which are technically beholden to the Syrian Defense Ministry but given enormous tactical latitude, tribal militias would, in theory, look after their own with little or no interference from Damascus, provided they stayed politically subservient to it.
It was a shrewd move. Three well-placed tribal sources we spoke to who are currently working with the Syrian Democratic Forces said they found such a deal attractive and would be amenable to joining with the regime if it actually came to pass.
But that was before America displayed a willingness to hang around, these same sources have told us, saying theyd much prefer to cut a deal with Washington than with Damascus. One U.S. military commander described this phenomenon as tribal afterglow following the fall of ISIS in (much of) eastern Syria. Yet such sentiments will prove fleeting if the relationship isnt nurtured beyond the near term through a combination of diplomacy and military support, or if the president signals, as he did in Ohio, that are bets are off. We have seen no indications that the White House has got a coherent plan, even in the original design, for how to keep the tribes of the Jazira on board.
At a minimum, the Pentagon and State Department will need to establish their own tribal outreach mechanisms similar to those it employed in Iraq during the sahwa, or Awakening, which codified at the national level what local U.S. brigade commanders in the Sunni triangle witnessed of tribal caprices and opportunities. The Abu Risha tribe of Anbar province, for instance, went from facilitating the anti-American insurgency one week to partnering with the Americans to hunt down and kill the insurgents the next not out of some romanticized sense of nobility but out of brute pragmatism. The Abu Risha came to judge the foreign jihadists an overweening and too-vicious partner. What gains were made from sahwa, solidified through the Petraeus-led U.S. troop surge, were then squandered owing to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malikis refusal to integrate the tribal militias into the Iraqi security establishment, as hed promised, and the U.S. inability to force Maliki to make good on that promise.
In Syria, the good news is that there is no shaky sovereign power in the Jazira with which the U.S. must negotiate. The legitimate local civil authorities which Tillerson referenced in his speech will be, and already are, localized governing councils without a central government to answer to. The bad news is that the longevity of a Syrian sahwa will necessarily be determined by American actors who will have a host of other problems to contend with, not least of which is a teetering alliance with a crucial NATO ally.
If there was a fatal flaw in the Trump administrations original plan it was in the demography and power structure of the Syrian Democratic Forces, as Americas chief counterinsurgent allies are known. The SDFs leadership consists of loyalists of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, and its military branch, the Peoples Protection Units known at the YPG. These are the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, long designated by the United States as a Marxist oriented terrorist organization owing to its 40-year campaign against the Turkish state. Many veteran PKK militants from Turkey and northern Iraq are in the YPG ranks, overseeing military checkpoints and occupying key command-and-control positions with Americas ostensibly Syrian proxy army. One of these, Abdi Ferhad ahin, has got a $1 million bounty on his head, but that did not stop him from being photographed in northeast Syria under a U.S. military escort last year.
The Pentagon has consistently misrepresented the composition and allegiance of its figleafed ground force because the PKK has proved the most effective at fighting ISIS and at partnering with U.S. air and ground power. Counterterrorism at least aimed at Sunni Arab terrorists trumped geopolitics at the expense of further worsening Washingtons alliance with Ankara.
Nor is the PYDs ideology a mixture of Marxism, Kurdish separatism, intersectional feminism the ideal recipe for a peacekeeping mission in one of the most religiously conservative Arab neighborhoods in the region. PYD propagandists have labeled their political opponents ISIS sympathizers or collaborators, including, notoriously, members of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, a grassroots activist corps whose members have been murdered by ISIS.
U.S. policymakers concede, sotto voce, that a Jazira protectorate cannot succeed without U.S.-Turkish reconciliation on the PKK issue. And yet so far, the White House has resorted to pallid verbal reassurances about Turkeys security concerns while laying down hard facts on the ground that, at least in the eyes of Turkey, further exacerbate those concerns; and this at a time of already dizzying anti-Americanism as peddled by the Erdogan government.
Half-hearted attempts at Anatolian assuagement have made America look duplicitous, weak, or both. When the Pentagon back-handedly announced that these ranks would be drawn from to create a new SDF border guard, Ankara decided to launch Operation Olive Branch, an air-and-land invasion of the PYD-controlled city of Afrin in Aleppo province, which lies well west of the U.S.-administered demesne. This direct intervention, Turkeys first against non-ISIS targets in Syria, drew upon Islamist and Free Syrian Army rebels as a ground force and was designed to rob the PKK affiliate of control of one crucial stretch of the Syrian-Turkish borderland. It was awkwardly met with the acquiescence of both Washington and Moscow; Washington out of a desire to appease; Moscow as a way to maintain its transactional relationship with Turkey and embarrass Washington by highlighting the self-cannibalizing nature of Americas intervention in Syria.
Afrin has since become a rallying cry for Syrian Kurds, with SDF militants pouring across the Euphrates River against Pentagon orders to join their embattled confederates against the invasion of a U.S. ally, much to the delight of ISIS, which now has fewer counterinsurgents to contend with in the Jazira. The PYD in Afrin, meanwhile, became so desperate to retain control of the city, it asked for and received Assad regime military support, albeit in insufficient amounts to halt Turkeys advance. In other words, a U.S. ally went to war with a U.S. enemy against a U.S. ally.
Afrin is now fallen to Erdogan, and although this military operation had no direct bearing on the coalitions efforts east of the Euphrates, the consequence on U.S. interests has been threefold.
First, it has made the Kurds furious and reopened old wounds of American betrayal, a vulnerability ISIS is sure to appreciate and attempt to capitalize upon.
Second, the White House has now begun considering withdrawing the PYD militias from the city of Manbij and turning it into a joint U.S.-Turkish settlement. This would, in effect, grant Ankara control over the so-called Manbij pocket, once a significant stronghold of ISIS in Aleppo province. But the Pentagon, especially Special Operations Command, is fiercely protective of the PYD for the valor its fighters displayed in the fight against ISIS.
Finally, for Sunni Arabs, whose cooperation is the sine qua non for deciding the success or failure of the U.S. Jazira strategy, this episode has become yet another journey through the looking glass of strategic incoherence. The worlds only superpower not only doesnt back its friends in the region but shrugs when those friends make common cause with its enemies. Tribal afterglow is quickly becoming a cold realization of what a long-term relationship with the U.S. might look like once other countries horn in on it.
Boiling the Baathist Frog
How will the anti-Assad component of this strategy work, if it work at all? The original White House policy assumed that because Assad has mortgaged to Russia and Iran vital or useful Syriathe parts of the country he really cant do without, including Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and the coastal provinceshe will therefore rule his rump state from a position of weakness, not strength. And the U.S. can make him even weaker.
This largely depends on just how far the U.S. is willing to go to expel Assad from the Jazira.
There are some signs that despite a dramatic upswing in the Syrian economy, following from the regimes battlefield victories, there are palpable tensions between the Assadists and the Russians, who dont want to bankroll Syrias energy consumption and war machine indefinitely
The mad dash to recover out of reach resources in the Jazira has led Damascus and Moscow to test American resolve. A daring and remarkably stupid attempt by pro-regime forces in February, including an unknown number of Wagner unit Russian mercenaries, was staged to antagonize the SDF and U.S. Special Forces near the Conoco oil fields around Deir Ezzor. The result was a U.S. retaliatory strike which, for the first time since the war began, killed Russians.
The Kremlin has been characteristically coy about the matter, given that it denies having deployed mercenaries to Syria in the first place, Wagner being simply a collection of patriotic volunteers. In point of fact, the Syrian state-owned General Petroleum Corp. has promised the financier of Wagner a 25 percent cut of all oil-and-gas fields recaptured from ISISpresumably, even those recaptured by the SDF.
As long as the U.S. allies hold onto those fields they give Washington economic leverage against the regime that it didnt have prior to the 2014 intervention, when sanctions and diplomatic pressure were meant to strangle Assad into submission, but failed.
So if the tyrant cant create a self-sustaining economy from the severed remains of its state, then who will finance his fiefdom? Russia and Iran, forever? Or, as one U.S. official put it to us, What happens when Syrian soldiers arent being paid on time, or at all? Will they continue to turn up on the front-lines out of patriotism or a desire to protect Shia shrines?, which is why Iran claims it has sent troops and militias into the fray.
This policy of slowly boiling the Baathist frog will include denying any Western aid to regime-held areas. Or trying to anyway, because the track record for keeping humanitarian necessities out of the hands of those who made them necessary in the first place has been abysmal.
Not only is the European Union at odds with the U.S. position and willing to offer Assad reconstruction money in exchange for peace talks, but U.N. relief aid that has been earmarked for opposition territory has been systematically stolen by the regime, which even boasts about it on social
According to one study, over $1 billion worth of food, medicine and supplies were siphoned off in 2015 alone. Primarily this is because the U.N. operates in Syria with the permission of the regime, which, mafia-like, takes what it likes from the snaking convoys of trucks passing through its checkpoints.
Unless the U.S. plans to airdrop all aid to opposition zones, it will have to agree on ground routes via Turkey, which brings us back to our earlier problem of satisfying Erdogans demands regarding the PYD.
Broadly, what Washington is really proposing to do is a hard power Pepsi challenge for refugees and the internally displaced. On the left, a beggared and corrupted dictatorship kept on life-support by a terror-sponsoring Shia theocracy and a heavily sanctioned Russia. On the right, an internationally supported free Syria and NGO haven protected by Apache helicopters and AC-130s. Take your pick.
Should We Stay or Should We Go?
The risks of permanent U.S. presence in the Jazira are many and obvious. For starters, American forces and installations will now be juicy targets for ISIS. But U.S. patrols in SDF-occupied territory in northern Syria have (so far) proven to be safer than U.S. troop patrols ever were in Ramadi or Fallujah. This owes not only to the SDFs ability at least so far to outperform the pre-2014 Iraqi Security Forces in forestalling the emergence of a new insurgency, but also to the fractional size of U.S. troops in Syria: 2,000 as against 150,000 in Iraq in the middle of the last decade. Which begs the question of just how big the American footprint will be in the Jazira, and what other coalition countries will sign on to the order of battle.
There is every likelihood, if the original White House plan is maintained, that the number of Americans deployed will grow as the last vestiges of ISIS are routed, new recruits are added to the ranks of the SDF, and existing installations are expanded. The actual number of personnel, including non-combat support and intelligence analysts and operatives, may never be disclosed publicly.
The Trump administration has also not yet discussed whether or not U.S. military advisors will continue to be stationed in Iraq after Inherent Resolve is concluded an ambiguity not even vaguely addressed in Trumps riff in Ohio or his Tuesday press conference. Anyway, such a decision would require the Abadi governments approval, which is to say a careful navigation of the vagaries of Iraqi politics. In theory, if U.S. forces occupied positions on either side of the Iraq-Syria border, then patrolling a key border crossing and responding to imminent threats along it become that much easier. But this brings us back to what constitutes a threat.
Part and parcel with Qassem Soleimanis land-bridge initiative is the use of Iraqi Shia militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which have long been fighting in Syria on behalf of the regime. Some of these militias, including Asaib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteous) and the Hezbollah Brigades, have been the objective recipients of U.S. air cover in Iraq in their battles against ISIS. In Syria, they have mainly taken on the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army and more amenable challengers to Assads reign, including those backed by the U.S.
It has been a long-standing fear of American policy-planners that any effort to contain or deter Iranian expansionism in one country will be met with retaliation in the other. If the U.S., say, bombs a Hezbollah garrison in Deir Ezzor, will the PMFs in Anbar train their artillery on U.S. personnel stationed at al-Asad airbase? So far, this fear has not been borne out: U.S. warplanes destroying Hezbollah convoys near al-Tanf have not imperiled U.S. soldiers in Iraq. However, the PMF are now part of the Iraqi state and are forming their own political blocs in the upcoming Iraqi elections. They will therefore soon be in a position to affect U.S. deployments in Iraq without resorting to violence.
America went to war against ISIS under the legal cover of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which allowed U.S. forces to hunt down al-Qaeda anywhere in the world in retaliation for 9/11. The Trump administration would probably resort to AUMF to rationalize a continued U.S. military presence in Syria since ensuring ISISs demise is one of the main reasons for it. But it is not the only reason and, as recent U.S. battles with non-ISIS forces including Russian mercenaries and Iranian militias have shown, American troops may easily be put in harms way for reasons having absolutely nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or the razing of the Twin Towers. The administration should be transparent about this fact now rather than obfuscatory later, particularly given Trumps inimitable bluntness when it comes to American military commitments overseas.
A case can made for keeping U.S. troops in Syria to deter Iranian expansionism because the latter bears directly on the radicalization of Sunni Muslims who, seeing no other alternative to the Khomeinist yoke, opt for Sunni extremist groups such as ISIS, and threatens the interests of regional allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
During his well-publicized tour of the U.S. last week, including his all-smiles meeting with the president at the White House, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, We believe American troops should stay for at least the mid-term, if not the long-term. MBS, as hes popularly known, was clearly more concerned about ceding hardwon terrain to Khamenei, a man he recently described as worse than Hitler. Leaving aside such hyperbole and also MBSs over-reliance on the significance of his well-cultivated relationship with Jared Kushner, Riyadhs strategic interests have never before so closely aligned with those of traditional U.S. allies in the region and, at least according to the new Pentagon defense doctrine, with that of America.
A perhaps more compelling argument for staying put is that the U.S. did not spend billions of dollars destroying a terrorist network on behalf of a genocidal dictator who allowed that organization to proliferate and conquer a third of his country in the first place. If the U.S. is no longer in the business of humanitarian intervention, then neither should it be a charity for rescuing despots who incubate terrorism and then beg for help extinguishing it.
Congressional approval isnt the only legal hurdle to surmount. How will the U.S. legitimize autonomy for the Jazira without international recognition? There are 62 countries party in some form or another to the anti-ISIS coalition. What will the final-status of this protectorate be? Will it be granted diplomatic recognition, and badly needed reconstruction funds by some or all of these 62 countries, even as the U.S. has stated that it has no intention of funding the equally urgent reconstruction of ruined cities in Iraq?
More problematic for American designs is how a viable political system for governance at the local and centralized levels will be established. Not only will Washington have to oversee the diminishment of PYD influence in the SDFassuming the PYD consents to give up that influence, which it gained through bloody sacrificebut it will also have to reconcile Kurdish and Arab ambitions in a landlocked statelet surrounded on all sides by hostile forces.
We have been told by multiple U.S. military sources that the Pentagon fears that the PYD, disillusioned over Afrin, might strike a deal with the Assad regime or de-prioritize areas such as Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. A new drive to recruit more Arabs into the SDF in these provinces is afoot, but so is a string of ominous assassinations in SDF-held territories. This is a sign either of a small ISIS resurgence or worse: the beginning of factionalism and atomization among U.S. proxies. An even greater threat to protectorate designs than Assad, Iran and Russia may well be internal disputes among those intended to maintain the protectorate.
Northeastern Syria is the most oil-rich part of the country, but it is also has the poorest population. And livelihoods have been destroyed after years of insurgency and war. Many residents of the Jazira ended up joining ISIS because, as they told us, the coalition bombed the factories or facilities that had employed them and they simply had no other means of income. In its heyday, ISIS paid its fighters generously.
Boots and Eyes and Ears the Ground
While the hazards of the current strategy are obvious, there are also noticeable national security benefits, starting with an enhanced intelligence-gathering capability, with listening posts, allied fusion centers, U.S. forward operating bases and airfields stationed right in the briar patch of Abu Bakr al Baghdadis ISIS minions and destined to make life very unpleasant for them. As the ISIS militants are squeegeed southward into the desert badlands of Deir Ezzor and Anbar, these outposts will become crucial to monitoring the movement and repositioning of the jihadists, and also interdicting Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps plans to establish a direct land corridor from Iraq to Syria.
The U.S. is in effect superimposing itself onto the principal border-gateway for transnational jihadism outside of the AfPak theater, making it very much harder for ISIS to catch its breath, much less stage a comeback. Just as during the occupation of Iraq, the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) mounted raids into eastern Syrian territory to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives, so too will this traffic now go in reverse: from their bases in the Jazira, U.S. commandos and the CIA can pursue ISIS into Iraq.
Nor will they be alone in keeping watch on the Jazira. Jordan and Israel are next door, and the latter has shown a consistent willingness to respond kinetically in Syria whenever its interests are threatened. Witness the Israeli Air Forces raid on Assads air defense systems following the downing of an Israeli F-16.
As much as Washington has every reason to fear escalation with Tehran and Moscow, Tehran and Moscow have even greater reasons to fear escalation with Washington. Their direct military interventions in Syria had enraged the Sunni Arab ummah by abetting the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the century, making them more susceptible to terror attacks. And they have given squabbling U.S. allies a clear common post-ISIS goal: how to roll back or limit their influence in the region.
As one U.S. official put it, It will be exceedingly difficult to try to accomplish our goals in Syria if were on a different page from our regional allies, namely Turkey, the Gulf states, Jordan, and Israel. If they are all orientated in the same direction, there is no power in the world that could challenge what the U.S. hopes to do in the northern Middle East.
One reason to take seriously the idea of an American protectorate in the Jazira is that America will not be solely responsible for it, nor will it only serve American interests. Such a project would provide refuge for millions of Kurds and Arabs from sarin gas, barrel bombs, MiG missiles and sectarian death squads of either Sunni or Shia persuasion, while also creating the necessary if not sufficient preconditions for allowing the original impulses of the anti-Assad revolution to find succor under the Stars and Stripes. These would not be negligible achievements.