Home / Articles / U.S. Strategy in Syria is Dangerously Adrift
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.
After years of aerial bombardment by coalition forces and intense ground battles fought by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS) has been ousted from every inch of territory in Syria. Although analysts are right to caution that this does not mean the threat from ISIS has been eliminated altogether, the collapse of the physical ISIS caliphate nonetheless marks a significant military accomplishment and transition point for U.S. strategy in Syria. U.S. policymakers cannot afford to rest easy. Transforming this military victory into a durable and successful political outcome in Syria calls for a fundamental re-assessment of where U.S. strategy and been and where it needs to go. Unfortunately, America’s broader strategy for Syria has lacked clear attainable political objectives and has suffered from the absence of a longer-term vision for the future of Syria.
The absence of a feasible American strategy that looks beyond the narrow issue of ISIS undermines U.S. regional leadership, places remaining U.S. troops in Syria at unnecessary risk for undefined goals, and will likely only prolong the suffering of the Syrian people. This article briefly traces the evolution of America’s strategy since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, highlights the primary shortcomings of current U.S. strategy, and offers recommendations for needed adjustments in America’s approach to the vexing set of security challenges emerging from Syria.
What is Strategy?
The Oxford Dictionary defines strategy as “a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term objective.” However, strategy has a more particular meaning when applied within the context of national security, foreign affairs, or military operations. Past and contemporary military theorists have a strong tendency to adapt a rather narrow view of strategy as relating solely or principally to the employment of military force. Channeling their inner Carl Von Clausewitz, they often conceive of strategy as “nothing without battle. . . . Just as tactics is the employment of military forces in battle, so strategy is the employment of battles . . . to achieve the object of war.”
However, contemporary security challenges—transnational threats posed by climate change, the spread of infectious diseases, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, growing economic inequalities, and the empowerment of transnational non-state criminal and terrorist groups—require a more holistic view of strategy. The 20th century British military strategist Liddell Hart gets us much closer to an appreciation for the requirements of modern-day strategies that require harnessing all instruments of national power in forging global solutions to global problems. He argues that the role of grand strategy “is to co-ordinate and direct all of the resources of a nation, or band of nations, toward the attainment of the political object of war.”
With this broader definition of strategy in mind, we can move forward to assess recent American strategies in Syria.
U.S. Syria Strategy under President Obama
The most difficult but arguably the most significant challenge in forging a coherent and effective strategy is to clearly define one or more primary objectives that are attainable within the constraints of the resources being dedicated to its achievement (matching ends with means). Strategies that fail to achieve this balance risk confusion, collapse, and ultimately failure.
U.S. strategy for Syria under President Obama initially aimed at the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In December 2015, President Obama said “I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop bloodletting and for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a non-sectarian way. . . . He has lost legitimacy in the eyes of a large majority of the country.” Setting aside for a moment whether such an expansive objective was wholly unrealistic from the start, President Obama’s strategy was doomed to fail as he never attempted to marshal the requisite resources essential for achieving such an ambitious and far-reaching goal. In fact, prior to this statement, the President himself had regularly and routinely ruled out a combat role for American soldiers on the ground in Syria. Moreover, President Obama severely restricted the quantity and quality of the arms being provided to Syrian oppositions groups fearing the likely prospect that some of those advanced weapons would find their way into the hands of Islamic extremist groups intent on attacking Americans. Russia’s aggressive military intervention in late 2015 began to reverse the battlefield momentum of the disparate conglomeration of opposition groups whose presence potentially threatened Assad’s position in Damascus. Bolstered by Moscow’s aerial campaign, the Syrian Armed Forces supported by Iran, Hizbollah, and various Shi’a military groups wrested control of vast swaths of territory including Syria’s most populous city of Aleppo in late 2016. These military victories by Assad and his allied forces have effectively put an end to any realistic expectation of forced regime change in Syria in the foreseeable future.
However, President Obama did offer a more achievable strategy to address the threat posed by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In a speech to the nation in September 2014, the President identified a more narrow and achievable strategic objective to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIS through a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.” The strategy rested on four pillars that involved the support of a broad coalition of countries. The military components consisted of both coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets and building partnerships with Iraqi security forces and Kurdish militia on the ground. The strategy also emphasized intelligence cooperation with a broad array of regional and global partners, an information campaign aimed at discrediting ISIS propaganda and ideology, and humanitarian assistance to vulnerable civilian communities. In short, it was a strategy with limited and realistic aims that sought to harness all instruments of national power in cooperation with a broad coalition of partner countries both inside and outside the region. It was also a strategy that was demonstrably successful in reducing the amount of territory controlled by ISIS by a third in 2016, thus setting the scene for the actual physical defeat of the ISIS caliphate that we are witnessing today.
U.S. Syria Strategy under President Trump
Despite bluster to the contrary, President Trump’s strategy in Syria during his first year in office closely paralleled that of his predecessor. It had a narrow strategic objective focused on the defeat of ISIS. Militarily, it placed a heavy emphasis on coalition airpower strikes in partnership with Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground while severely limiting the ground commitment of American troops. This approach has yielded tremendous battlefield successes that have virtually eliminated ISIS control over any meaningful territory in both Syria and Iraq. Buoyed by these military triumphs and the crumbling of the ISIS caliphate, President Trump has repeatedly declared victory in Syria and in December of last year declared an end to the mission, ordering a complete withdrawal of American troops. President Trump was not wrong to conclude that the military component of his anti-ISIS strategy in Syria had largely achieved its expressed strategic objective, that his anti-ISIS strategy had consequently reached a critical inflection point, and that a new approach was therefore called for.
Since this unexpected announcement of U.S. withdrawal, however, his administration’s strategy has been dangerously adrift, struggling to define clear objectives and failing to design a plan for sensibly employing the nation’s instruments of power to achieve these goals. In essence, the intellectual process of strategy formulation has been operating in reverse. Instead of identifying achievable objectives at the outset and then formulating a sensible plan for orchestrating diplomatic, informational, military and economic power to accomplish these objectives, senior U.S. officials have been reverse engineering a strategic justification for maintaining a U.S. military presence in Syria while steadfastly refusing to consider the employment of economic or humanitarian assistance, or other non-military instruments of power.
Indeed, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have adopted a kitchen-sink approach, throwing out a wide-range of new strategic objectives to justify continued U.S. military presence in Syria. Bolton and Pompeo have at different times insisted that U.S. military forces in Syria would be needed indefinitely to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, to protect the Syrian Kurdish militia who have fought alongside U.S. forces, and to oust Iranian-backed forces from Syria. Meanwhile, rather than conducting a fresh strategic analysis of what diplomatic, military, or economic investments would be required to accomplish each of these objectives, the administration has fixated on the number of U.S. troops that will remain regardless. President Trump (after pledging a complete withdrawal of the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in December) has now said that 400 U.S. troops will remain; Wall Street Journal reporting suggests the number will be closer to 1,000, while some independent analysts suggest that the number is likely closer to 2,500.
Recommendations for Forging a Feasible Syria Strategy Going Forward
The imminent collapse of the ISIS caliphate marks an important transition in the course of the conflict and compels a fundamental strategic reassessment of U.S. strategy in Syria. What would such a discussion entail?
The most urgent task for U.S. policymakers is to organize a thorough discussion aimed at identifying realistic objectives for U.S. strategy. The broad outlines of such a debate might proceed along the following lines. First, the determined political and military backing of the Assad regime in Damascus by Moscow and Tehran, coupled with the significant advances by the Syrian Armed Forces, have virtually ensured that Assad will retain a dominant role for the foreseeable future. This effectively rules out any reasonable prospect for forced regime change. Consequently, any political transition in Damascus will be accomplished through deft international diplomacy rather that American military action.
This diplomatic process will require engaging key international stakeholders including Russia, Turkey, Israel, and Iran to determine what trade-offs might be possible in meeting the minimum security interests of each. With the potential exceptions of Iran and Assad himself, all major parties arguably have a long-term stake in restoring stability to Syria though the process of a legitimate political transition in Damascus. The U.S., Russia and Israel alike share the goal of minimizing the terrorist threat posed by various global jihadi groups active in Syria. The U.S. and Israel share an interest in minimizing the presence of Iranian-supported Shi’a militia along Israel’s northern border (steps which Moscow has already supported). Meanwhile, Russia will insist on maintaining a cooperative relationship with leadership in Damascus (not necessarily in the personage of Bashar al-Assad) in order to guarantee Moscow’s access to valuable Syrian naval and air bases. Turkey will take steps to forestall the emergence of any independent Kurdish entity along its borders. Iran will seek to maintain some level of influence in Damascus in order to facilitate its military support to Hizbollah which it views as an essential deterrent to Israeli military strikes. The challenge for U.S. and international diplomacy will be to identify where these interests overlap, where they clearly diverge, and where potential trade-offs might be usefully made.
Yet some areas of potential convergence seems readily apparent. For instance, easing U.S. demands for immediate regime change in Damascus could be leveraged with both Damascus and Moscow to press for concrete actions by all parties to continue the fight against radical Islamic terrorists groups. A U.S. commitment to end to U.S. military support to Syrian Kurdish militia might provide sufficient incentive for Ankara to exert additional pressures on Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to reduce the presence of Iranian-backed Shia’ militia groups. Additionally, Washington could usefully hold out the prospect of U.S. financial and political support for reconstruction projects to invest all major regional and international stakeholders in a meaningful and successful long-term political transition in Damascus.
Second, in the interest of restoring security and stability in Syria, the U.S. should encourage Kurdish leaders who advocate for reconciliation with Damascus. Such a stand would be welcomed in Damascus, Moscow and Ankara alike and could be exploited as a source of important U.S. diplomatic leverage in those capitals. U.S. pledges by senior USG officials to protect Syrian Kurdish militia against Syrian or Turkish reprisals are simply a recipe for an endless and ultimately counterproductive American military commitment. Doing so poses a genuine risk of a direct U.S. military confrontation with Turkey – a NATO ally – who considers these same militias direct appendages of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorist group. This would pit a few hundred isolated U.S. military troops deployed thousands of miles from home against the full might of the large professional and modern Turkish armed forces, operating just across the Syrian border. Moreover, it is hard to imagine an outcome more satisfying to Russian President Putin, who is bent on sowing discord and mistrust within the West’s most effective military alliance. Finally, providing a blank check of U.S. military support to the Kurds will only delay their inevitable reconciliation with the central government in Damascus since every state in the region (with perhaps the sole and half-hearted exception of Israel) is virulently opposed to an independent Kurdish state.
Third, the goal of ousting Iran from Syria is the height of hubris and magical thinking. Syria has been Iran’s sole regional ally since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Iran’s relationship with Bashar Al-Assad, like that with his father Hafiz al-Assad, is considered by leaders in Tehran to be an essential component of the country’s national security strategy. Syria serves an important gateway for Iranian military and financial support of Hizbollah in southern Lebanon, which provides Tehran its major source of leverage over Israel. Iran will simply not be cowered into forsaking this indispensable strategic relationship by the presence of a few hundred American soldiers. Additionally, the claim that a U.S. garrison is required at Al-Tanf (near the intersection of the Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi border) to prevent the emergence of an Iranian ground corridor to Lebanon is nonsense. The Iranians have long been supplying Hizbollah through the Damascus airport. Moreover, another major land route connecting Tehran and Beirut passes through Deir Ezzor, Syria, further to the north, and it already serves the same function. Finally, this fear of an Iranian land bridge conveniently ignores the geographic fact that either route must pass through some two hundred miles of sovereign Iraqi territory. There are plenty of opportunities to interdict Iranian ground shipments to Hizbollah that don’t rely on a small vulnerable U.S. military outpost at At-Tanf.
Fourth, the aim of ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS in Syria requires a new strategy that transitions away from an emphasis on military means and begins to leverage diplomatic acumen, intensified intelligence and law enforcement efforts, and smart economic investments in the rebuilding of Syria. The physical destruction of the ISIS caliphate is concrete evidence that military force has largely accomplished what it can reasonably be expected to achieve. As ISIS moves underground, other U.S. and coalition instruments of power must be brought to bear to prevent its reemergence.
A foresighted U.S. strategy would aim at ameliorating the desperate conditions that all too often have created conditions conducive to the emergence and growth of terrorist movements. In this regard, it is worth recalling that historical studies indicate that one of the greatest factors contributing to the rise of terrorist groups is an occupation by unwanted foreign military forces. Thus Hizbollah was founded largely in reaction to Israel’s military occupation of southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. Hamas was founded in the late 1980s as a response to continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Osama Bin Laden was chiefly inspired to act against the United States in response to the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq was founded in the wake of America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The trend is clear. Consequently, U.S. policymakers should seriously consider this dangerous trajectory when weighing the short-term benefits of a continued U.S. military presence in Syria against the longer-term risk of inspiring yet another generation of terrorists.
The preeminent goal of U.S. strategy should be to create conditions essential for the restoration of stability in Syria. After all, it is continued instability and the absence of strong legitimate government structures that results in a lawless environment favorable to the rise of violent non-state actors, whether they be gangs, militias, or terrorist groups. It is also the instability in Syria that has generated the flow of millions of refugees to Europe and neighboring countries that perhaps represents the most immediate threat to Western interests in Syria. It is these refugee flows that fuel the spread of white nationalist movements throughout the West, threaten delicate sectarian balances in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now account for 20% of its population, and impose tremendous financial burdens on allied countries like Turkey and Jordan, which are hosting millions of displaced Syrians.
Promoting the conditions necessary for the restoration of stability in Syria will require addressing the political and economic grievances of Syrians in the wake of a prolonged and disastrous civil war. This will pose a range of difficult and complex challenges that are most effectively addressed by non-military instruments of power. U.S. diplomacy will need to engage a broad array of international, regional, and non-state actors to press for political, economic, and security arrangements between Damascus and all elements of Syrian society. It will require advancing programs aimed at promoting a genuine process of societal reconciliation, as was the case with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the collapse of the Apartheid.
These political efforts will need to be backed by substantive international economic and financial investments in Syria’s reconstruction. A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in mid-2017 estimated that the “Syrian economy is set back by at least three decades.” International estimates of the reconstruction bill range from hundreds of billions of dollars to as much as $1 trillion. No single state or international organization alone can possibly bear this burden alone. Syria’s chief backers in Moscow and Tehran are struggling under U.S. sanctions and President Trump has ordered an end to U.S. stabilization assistance to Syria. China has certainly expressed an interest in participating in Syria’s reconstruction but its pledges of tens of billions of dollars will fall far short of what Syria requires. It is obvious that a broad coalition of countries and international organizations will need to be assembled to address these daunting and urgent economic needs.
Unfortunately, these diplomatic and economic efforts will undoubtedly require some level of engagement with officials in President Assad’s regime who are either directly or indirectly complicit in horrific war crimes. It will require that the United States seek the cooperation of Russia and Iran whose military contributions enabled Assad’s brutal repression that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions from their homes. These engagements will be distasteful, to say the least, if not morally repugnant.
Nonetheless, the alternative to addressing these root causes of instability in Syria is equally unattractive. Failure here will almost assuredly condemn the Syrian people to a perpetual cycle of violence, war, destruction, and suffering.
The re-emergence of ISIS elements in Iraq today—and the failure of leaders in Baghdad to address the larger political and economic grievances of an alienated Sunni population—is a clear warning to U.S. policymakers of the need for a comprehensive U.S. strategy that peers beyond the narrow confines of recent military victories against terrorist groups.
The lessons here for U.S. strategy are clear. An open-ended commitment of American troops on the ground in Syria is not a viable solution to the complex security challenges posed by Syria’s civil war. The destruction of the physical caliphate of ISIS should mark a clear transition of American strategy away from reliance on military force and toward a broader and longer-range strategy aimed at fostering the stability needed to restore the hopes, prosperity, and well-being of the Syrian people.