The Way Forward in Syria May Not Be Quite So Simple

Russia’s successes in Syria so far produce not only advantages for its policy, but also some significant problems.  President Donald Trump’s deliberate unpredictability is a powerful asset here as well as it provides the United States with broad tactical flexibility in managing the triple challenges of Syria’s civil war, the fight against ISIS, and rebuilding the U.S. position in the region.

As the Trump Administration enters office in the United States, many in Washington—and Moscow—expect America’s president to seek a better relationship with Russia, in part to build stronger counter-terrorism cooperation. Syria’s almost six-year-old civil war, which has strained U.S.-Russia relations from its beginning despite a joint agreement to destroy the Syrian government’s chemical weapons stocks and repeated attempts to negotiate cease-fires and peace agreements, may be one of the earliest tests for any new effort at rebuilding a functional relationship between the United States and Russia. It could prove to be a more challenging test than some now expect.

Part of the problem lies in American perceptions of Russia’s policy in Syria after Mr. Trump’s election. In short, no small number of U.S. analysts and commentators believe that the Russian government has deliberately sought to exploit the Obama administration’s final months in office, and outgoing President Barack Obama’s obvious resistance to involving the United States more deeply in Syria, to establish new military and political realities far more favorable to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government. Even among those willing to explore cooperative approaches with Moscow, whom Russian officials should know well are in the minority in America’s political and foreign policy establishment, especially now, few if any welcome the assertion of Russian power in the fall of Aleppo. That Mr. Obama’s passivity enabled Russian conduct will for many be secondary to a strong reluctance to permit Russian leaders to define the terms of a Syrian settlement—especially in collaboration with Iran. Congressional Republicans are particularly likely to take this view.

General Staff Chief General Valery Gerasimov’s announcement that Russia is beginning to reduce Russia’s military forces in Syria does little to assuage these sentiments. First, many in Congress remember President Vladimir Putin’s March 2016 order to “begin withdrawing the main part” of Russian forces from Syria  and what has happened in the ten months since that time. Second, like Mr. Putin’s earlier statement, General Gerasimov’s remarks offer few details beyond his announcement that Russia’s aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, would be leaving. As the Admiral Kuznetsov’s combat capabilities proved somewhat mixed, this looks like an effort to portray necessity as virtue.

If President Trump follows through on his earlier expressions of skepticism toward Syria’s “moderate” opposition, which would certainly simplify efforts to cooperate with Russia, he may encounter significant domestic opposition, probably on a bipartisan basis. Nevertheless, ending the Obama administration’s rather limited assistance to opposition groups would likely not be as consequential as some may think, not only because U.S. support has been quite modest, but also because some U.S. partners would still provide weapons anyway. Qatar’s Foreign Minister has already asserted that his government would continueto arm rebel forces whether or not the U.S. does so, for example. Qatar and Saudi Arabia earlier sustained opposition fighters for quite some time before President Obama decided that the U.S. should supply arms too.

Notwithstanding what some U.S. backers of Syria’s rebels may hope, it is hard to see how continuing current American assistance can do much more than prolong a six-year-old civil war. After the fall of Aleppo, the opposition is at its weakest point since the opening of the conflict. Finding a settlement on something approaching their terms in any reasonable timeframe would require substantial direct U.S. military intervention that Trump seems unlikely to pursue and few Americans want. (According to a recent poll by the Charles Koch Institute and the Center for the National Interest, only 23% support deploying U.S. ground troops.) Indeed, because the rebels’ battlefield position has deteriorated so sharply, this task would likely take more effort, resources and time today than at any earlier point.

As President Donald Trump takes office, a Russian-brokered cease-fire in Syria holds only tenuously  and the U.S. military has begun preparations for airstrikes in support of Turkish operations in northern Syria . At the same time, media reports suggest that Moscow did not invite the Obama administration to January 23 peace talks in Astana, but have invited Trump administration officials.

Russian officials may hope that with assistance from Iran and Turkey, Moscow could facilitate a political settlement of some kind between Syria’s government and rebel forces before the Trump administration defines a clear Syria policy. Under the circumstances, this would presumably favor the Syrian government and preserve Bashar al-Assad’s role as president, at least for the near future. The strategic logic underlying this approach would be to present the new U.S. administration with a choice between fighting ISIS (and therefore helping Assad to re-establish control over Syria) or standing aside. Kremlin officials likely expect that a Trump administration would choose the more active option, which would in many respects follow the soon-to-be President’s campaign rhetoric.

Nevertheless, success for Russia in this approach depends on several factors beyond the Russian leadership’s control. Will Syria’s government and opposition forces successfully reach an agreement? Will both sides live up to the agreement afterward? Will opposition fighters accept any agreement their leaders may reach? Could some be tempted to desert moderate opposition units and join with more radical forces to continue the fight against Assad? Are Saudi Arabia, Qatar or others excluded from the Astana talks sufficiently determined to oust or damage Assad and weaken Iran’s influence in Syria that they would support more extreme groups in rejecting a settlement? The answers to these questions will have significant implications for Moscow—without even considering U.S. options.

In thinking about U.S. policy, Mr. Trump has made clear that he is less concerned about Assad’s fate or Syria’s opposition than with the ISIS threat to the United States. Nevertheless, a Trump administration would have several options in its approach to Syria and, for that matter, its approach to Russia and its role there. One is certainly to intensify U.S. strikes against ISIS while deepening tactical coordination with Russia and, implicitly and indirectly, with Syria’s government and even Iran. This may be the swiftest and most effective means to crush ISIS militarily. However, it could alarm many U.S. allies in the Middle East, who see Iran as their principal foe and view Assad’s Syria as an Iranian client.

An alternative American approach would pursue new cooperation with Russia as part of a wider effort to reassert a strong U.S. role in Middle East security affairs and to advance other U.S. interests, including repairing ties with traditional American allies in the region. Such a policy would rest upon recognition that despite Russia’s important military assistance to the Syrian regime, Washington has considerably greater military, economic and diplomatic leverage in the Middle East if U.S. leaders are prepared to assert it. Incoming President Donald Trump’s deliberate unpredictability is a powerful asset here as well as it provides the United States with broad tactical flexibility in managing the triple challenges of Syria’s civil war, the fight against ISIS, and rebuilding the U.S. position in the region. As a result, the United States can credibly offer both significant incentives—like the closer coordination and intensified strikes Moscow seeks against ISIS—and disincentives to work toward an outcome that demonstrates that Russia (not to mention Iran) is no longer alone in the driver’s seat. Should the Trump administration take this direction, Washington seems likely to find many willing partners.

From this perspective, Russia’s successes so far produce not only advantages for its policy, but also some significant problems. How long can Moscow and Tehran afford their current military operations both politically and financially? If there is a successful peace agreement, how much can they pay for “nation-building” in Syria sufficient to sustain a stable government over time without access to World Bank or International Monetary Fund loans or U.S. aid and investment? If Assad must resort to new brutality to maintain order in a devastated country, could frustrated citizens again take up arms? President Putin’s “fight them there or fight them here” (in Russia) strategy requires a settlement that keeps demobilized Syrian fighters within their own country. But Russia’s intervention in Syria—and particularly its participation in the fall of Aleppo—have made Russia a higher-priority target for both Syrian and international extremists, as demonstrated in the recent tragic killing of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey. How many ex-rebels will resent Russia’s role in their defeat? Time is on Washington’s side in dealing with most of these issues—at least to a much greater extent than time is on Moscow’s side. None of this precludes a new U.S.-Russian understanding on Syria and ISIS. But reaching such an understanding will require realism in Moscow as well as in Washington.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.