A big element of US power is missing from Trump's Syria policy

Associated PressUS troops at a US military base at an undisclosed location in eastern Syria, November 11, 2019.
  • US troops are still in Syria, despite President Donald Trump’s high-profile announcement about their withdrawal.
  • By relying on the military for solutions to the crisis in Syria, the US is foreclosing what is likely its best option to achieve its goals: a diplomatic resolution, writes Defence Priorities fellow Shahed Ghoreishi is a fellow at Defence Priorities.
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Last month, there was a rare moment of bipartisan unity when President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal from northern Syria. Unfortunately, when there’s a bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington, it usually doesn’t bode very well for the rest of the world.

The withdrawal, which in reality was nothing more than a relocation, was labelled the “biggest mistake” of the Trump presidency by interventionist Sen. Lindsey Graham and even “the worst decision in decades” by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who also said the relocation puts the “homeland in danger,” alluding to 9/11.

Apparently, the endless wars and interventions of the last two decades were all preferable to this movement of a few dozen troops.

What’s missed in the uproar over the relocation is that non-military strategies would be much more effective in stabilizing Syria, protecting the Kurds, and allowing the United States to responsibly withdraw. The conversations in Washington over what to do in Syria and the Middle East as a whole are consistently driven by unelected officials in the Pentagon and the State Department.

Vague and inconsistently applied phrases like “re-establishing deterrence” and “credibility” are used to justify endless war, but the power of US diplomacy is rarely discussed.

U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement at the White House following reports that U.S. forces attacked Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northern Syria, in Washington, U.S., October 27, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua RobertsReutersPresident Donald Trump at the White House following reports that US forces attacked ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in northern Syria, October 27, 2019.

The focal point of the conversation surrounding Syria should not be how many troops we need for “deterrence” or where troops need to be placed.

Instead, we should be asking how the US can facilitate regional and local stakeholders taking the lead toward a responsible, if not perfect, end to the Syrian civil war. UN-led Syria peace talks have recently restarted, and the Syrian government met with opposition delegates in Geneva to work on a constitutional committee for when the civil war ends.

At the same time, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazlum Abdi, said he would negotiate with Russia and the Syrian government despite trusting neither. Iran, Turkey, and Russia have already spent years engaging in diplomacy regarding Syria in the Astana process.

But there’s one significant player conspicuously not involved in diplomacy: the United States.

Currently, Washington has little leverage in encouraging a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war – its commitment to an endless military presence with no clear goal has actually prolonged the violence and suffering.

The latest so-called mission is under the guise of protecting Syrian oil (from the Syrian government, not ISIS), but US military commanders are still out of the loop and do not have guidance regarding the rules of engagement and specific objectives.

By threatening Turkey, implementing a failing maximum pressure strategy against Iran, and showing an unwillingness to engage with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – though brutal and detestable, his regime has realistically all but won in Syria – the United States is only undermining the path to peace so Syria can begin to heal.

FILE - In this Saturday, Oct. 26. 2019 file photo, a U.S. military vehicle drives south of the northeastern city of Qamishli, likely heading to the oil-rich Deir el-Zour area where there are oil fields, or possibly to another base nearby, as it passes by a poster showing Syrain President Bashar Aassad. President Donald Trump's decision to dispatch new U.S. forces to eastern Syria to secure oil fields is being criticised by some experts as ill-defined and ambiguous. But the residents of the area, one of the country's most remote and richest regions, hope the U.S. focus on eastern Syria would bring an economic boon and eliminate what remains of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad, File)Associated PressA US military vehicle passes a poster of Syrian President Bashar Assad south of the city of Qamishli, in northeastern Syria, likely heading to the oil-rich Deir el-Zour area or to another base nearby, October 26. 2019

While stated goals in Syria have shifted, US troops have continued to serve one unstated goal: Deny Damascus full territorial control. This is not a real solution. Instead of threats, The Trump administration should have open diplomatic doors with all the regional stakeholders in Syria – plus Damascus.

Without productive negotiations, Washington’s current strategy will conflict with opposing forces who are looking to secure their own interests in Syria, which will only exacerbate the country’s civil war. So far, Washington has sidelined itself in the peace process by thinking it can still stop Assad. This is the exact opposite of sustaining genuine “influence” that the interventionists bemoan losing because of Trump’s recent troop repositioning.

With our limited leverage, we should accelerate the diplomatic process, which will shorten the suffering for the Syrian people. This is not only is the right thing to do. It’s also in our national interest, as it avoids another endless war. A stable, sovereign Syria that would result from a diplomatic agreement could also take the lead in keeping a decimated ISIS down and out.

Though some are falsely equating Trump’s incoherent and poorly executed plan with the failure of realism, the reality is we should implement an actual strategy of realpolitik, which calls for full, methodical withdrawal. Washington should not attempt to expand US influence for influence’s sake.

We can’t dictate events on the ground at an acceptable cost while refusing to speak with adversaries – all while leaving a few thousand troops in harm’s way with no clear mission and no plausible path to preventing Assad from finalising his victory. This strategy is a fairy tale we can’t even pretend to believe in.

Shahed Ghoreishi is a fellow at Defence Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @shahedghoreishi.

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