U.S. interests suffer from lack of Syrian strategy

President Trump faces a highly complex challenge in dealing with the situation in Syria that goes well beyond his administration's response to a reported chemical attack by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The Trump administration needs a long-term strategy. It has none.

The convoluted, multidimensional conflict in Syria would present a difficult foreign policy test for any administration, never mind for one that is in a state of continuing chaos, led by a president who sends conflicting signals by both his rhetoric and his staff choices.

The president ran as an America first isolationist, saying the country must focus on problems here at home rather than trying to fix problems globally. Yet he named as his new national security advisor John Bolton, a neocon who has strongly advocated using U.S. military might to influence global events.

Just a week ago the president, when asked about Syria, told reporters at a Washington news conference, “I want to get out … I want to restart building our nation.”

There was a déjà vu of “Mission Accomplished” in Trump’s statements. His administration’s strategy to give military leaders on the ground freer rein to work with local forces in attacking Islamic State fighters in Iraq and eastern Syria proved successful. Yet it would be a mistake to consider the job done and withdraw, in the process strengthening Russia’s and Iran’s hands in the Middle East.

On the same day Trump was telling reporters that he wanted to “bring our troops back home,” the administration’s point person for the anti-ISIS campaign, Brett McGurk, was sending the opposite message at a foreign policy forum.

“We want to keep eyes on the prize — on ISIS — because ISIS is not finished,” he said.

These sort of mixed signals may keep enemies confused, but unfortunately the same confusion holds true for allies. It is tough to build alliances if friends don’t know what the plan is. And the ability to build alliances will prove critical in the months ahead as the world deals with the trip-wire turmoil that has resulted from the seven-year Syrian civil war.

The potential for the war to spill out of Syria is quite real.

Turkish forces have clashed with the Kurdish Syrian rebels who proved critical in leading the U.S. coordinated attacks on ISIS in eastern Syria. In February, responding to warnings from the U.S. military about a Turkish offensive aimed at the Kurds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his nation’s parliament, “It’s quite clear that those who say they will respond aggressively if we strike have never had an Ottoman slap.”

Earlier this month Erdogan met in Ankara, Turkey with Iranian President Hassan Rouhami and Russian President Vladimir Putin to coordinate their interests in Syria. Turkey is a NATO member, but not acting like it.

Russia, through its air power, and Iran, using its military proxy, Hezbollah, have enabled the Assad regime to stay in power.

Meanwhile Israel, concerned that Iran will establish a military front in Syria that threatens its nation, has begun launching fighter jet attacks into Syrian territory controlled by Assad and his enablers, raising the potential for a direct confrontation that could spin into war.

With his cooperation with Iran and overtures to Turkey, Putin is helping expand the influence of the United States’ greatest nemesis in the region, Iran, while weakening NATO. Trump has offered no strategic response, but instead hints of withdrawal.

As for a response to the use of chemical weapons on civilians in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, killing 43, Trump could order another cruise missile attack. That might make President Trump look strong, but is unlikely to be effective.

A year ago, in response to a prior sarin-gas attack, the U.S. military fired 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield, after warning Russia to keep its people clear. The airfield was soon back in service.

Real progress would come from forcing Putin to a bargaining table. A U.S. signal that it will stand fast with the rebel forces that drove out ISIS could lead to a diplomatic play to partition Syria, with U.S. friendly forces establishing a government in the eastern region.

That might mean Assad staying in power in the remaining part of his truncated country, but such a deal could also involve Putin evicting Hezbollah back to Lebanon.

It’s complicated. Turkey’s belligerence towards the Kurds adds to the level of difficulty. But currently there is an absence of strategy and if Trump continues down that road it assures the U.S. will play no role in what happens next, while sending a signal to the world that the U.S. is ceding influence to Putin's Russia.

 

 

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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