The Trump regime is dangerously erratic in the Syria theatre, often oscillating from no interventions to a long term presence in Syria. Certainty is required to assure that the region does not suffer the fallout of a failed US policy.
In the aftermath of the recent US-led strike against Bashar al Assad many are asking what the next steps are for the US in Syria.
This is completely understandable, as mixed messages on the future role of the US in Syria have been coming from the Trump administration for weeks now. One day the US is leaving “very soon”, the next day we are told the US is committed to Syria for the foreseeable future. Then we are told that an Arab force might take over for the U.S.
In between all of this, there was a US led strike against the Assad regime in retaliation for using chemical weapons.
So what should US goals be in Syria?
As President Trump assembles a new national security team, there is little doubt that formulating America’s future policy in Syria is a top priority for the White House.
In part, President Trump was elected on a platform of untangling the US from military engagements in the Middle East. So the question is not if US troops should leave, but how and when they should leave Syria.
As the Trump administration develops its Syria strategy there are five achievable and realistic goals it should focus on.
First, US military presence in Syria needs to focus on counterterrorism objectives with the ultimate goal being to prevent ISIS (Daesh), or a similar terrorist group, from re-emerging.
The US should also work closely with allies to stop the flow of foreign fighters from Syria back to their home countries.
For the time being, this will require some level of US troops on the ground, but the US should avoid the temptation for nation building or regime change in Damascus.
Second, the US needs to realise that after seven years of bloody fighting there is nothing it can do to engineer an outcome to the Syrian Civil War that would be acceptable.
Instead, the US needs contain the war inside Syria’s borders and mitigate destabilising spillover effects of the war as we saw in Iraq in 2014. This will involve helping Syria’s neighbouring countries improve their security forces and capabilities while helping regional countries to manage the destabilising effect of refugees better.
Third, the US must get Arab countries to take more responsibility in Syria. Thankfully, there have been some positive messages about this coming from Arab capitals recently.
In many ways Turkey’s actions to secure its border with Syria is a good example to follow. Ankara saw a threat to its security, and it acted robustly. Conversely, many Arab countries sit idly by while Bashar al Assad’s Iranian masters undermine regional stability.
The US sells billions of dollars of military hardware to Arab countries and spends millions more on training their militaries. Syria is in their backyard, and aside from Turkey, Arab countries are most likely to face the long-term consequences of what is happening in there.
Fourth, the U.S. must continue to work with partners to deter the use of illegal chemical weapons by the Assad regime. While there is nothing the US or the international community can do to completely stop Assad from using these barbaric weapons, punitive strikes like the one seen in April 2017 and again a few weeks ago can have a deterrence effect.
Traditional relationship with Turkey
Finally, one of the biggest changes that should come from a new US approach to Syria is reestablishing America’s traditionally good relationship with Turkey. For more than 70 years, the US and Turkey have had a very close and productive relationship based on mutual interests and pragmatism.
Sadly, over the past few years this relationship has been strained. Perhaps the biggest strain has come from America’s support for the YPG.
While the YPG have proven to be useful in defeating Daesh (with the help of US airpower), it is inconceivable that the US can have an enduring relationship with an organisation that is part of the PKK - a group designated by the US State Department as a terrorist organisation.
Now that Daesh has been defeated on the battlefield, it's time for America to re-think this dubious relationship with the YPG. A new focus must be made on confidence building measures with Turkey to reestablish the traditional relationship that existed between Ankara and Washington.
A good place to start would be in Manbij - a city on the western side of the Euphrates which has been the focal point of much of the American-Turkish angst. As a goodwill gesture, the US should force the YPG to withdraw from the city (they should have never been there in the first place) and then establish a mechanism for joint patrols between US and Turkish forces.
There is no doubt that President Trump has rocked the boat on the international stage, especially by pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
However, in so many other areas of US foreign policy President Trump has proven decisive where President Obama dithered.
Whether it is confronting Russia, taking a tough line on Iran, or opening up unexpected opportunities with China and North Korea, in many ways President Trump has restored US leadership around the world.
Regrettably, President Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own red line in 2013 over the use of chemical weapons planted the seed for the recent attack in Douma. President Trump’s resoluteness will hopefully delay, if not prevent, the next use of chemical weapons by Assad.
President Trump’s calls for US troops to leave Syria is actually expressing a sentiment shared by most Americans - and certainly, the political base that got him elected. However, President Trump has to consider the interests of the nation as a whole and not just his political base.
If President Trump can achieve the five goals mentioned without American troops on the ground then the US should leave Syria tomorrow.
If not, then a continued US troop presence in Syria is in America’s interest.
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