Home / Articles / The Idlib Model: Securing American Counter-Terrorism Interests in Syria
The United States is struggling to define its Syria policy and is not yet fully grappling with how the battlefield has changed since Turkey’s invasion in October 2019. With so few troops on the ground, Washington does not have the tools to perform the same type of advise-and-assist mission that worked so well during the battle against the Islamic State along the Turkish-Syrian border and in the Euphrates River Valley. The old mechanism to deter Russian actions far north of the Euphrates River, too, has broken down, and, now, the United States no longer de-facto controls the skies over northeastern Syria. The Syrian regime now controls points along the border where the United States was once deployed; the Russians moved into Manbij, a town that Washington and Ankara once squabbled over; and the Turkish military is boxed into an agreed upon ceasefire zone between Tel Abyad and Kobane, the two towns that proved the viability of the U.S. strategy in Syria in 2015.
Oddly, the slimmed-down American approach may provide the next administration, whether it be Joe Biden or Donald Trump, with a template to engage with Moscow. The concept was pursued during the Obama administration: a mechanism to target a joint list of United Nations-designated terrorist groups. During the Obama administration, this mechanism was dubbed the Joint Implementation Group (JIG) and was an outgrowth of negotiations between former Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The proposal, at the time, was controversial because it entailed the sharing of data with Russia, which was legally tenuous, and signed the Department of Defense up for a mission it was deeply skeptical of.
The United States and Russia also struggled to concretely define who was a terrorist and where they were located, given the nature of the anti-Assad insurgency in Idlib and the reality that U.S.-backed groups were enmeshed in a broader insurgent milieu that was dominated by a former al Qaeda affiliate. Washington wanted to control Russian airstrikes, forcing them into a process that only targeted a sliver of the broader anti-Assad opposition, while Moscow thought the entire opposition was loyal to al Qaeda and bombed accordingly. The two sides could not overcome their differences in 2017, but the dynamics have changed in 2020, and, looking forward, there may be an opportunity to pursue a slimmed down mechanism that would allow for the United States to continue its counter-terrorism mission in the country, which both Trump and Biden have indicated they will support. This mechanism need not reinvent the wheel and instead just codify an arrangement that allows for American overflight over Idlib to strike extremists.
The Trump administration has handled Syria poorly, owing to the disconnect between the President and his advisors on the purpose of U.S. forces in the country and the State Department’s Special Envoy adopting a maximalist position that leaves no room for political compromise with Moscow on the future of the Syrian state. While it may be satisfying to some to talk tough and levy sanctions on Damascus for its human rights atrocities, the reality is that United States has not deterred regime action, and the Assad regime has the backing it needs to win the war. On the other side of the conflict, the anti-Assad opposition is divided, weak, and subordinate to extremists that exert actual authority in Idlib, where Moscow and Ankara have agreed to a tenuous ceasefire that is almost certain to eventually breakdown. It is almost inevitable that Idlib will eventually return to some semblance of regime control.
For some in Washington, Turkey’s use of force to punish the regime for its offensive in late April and March is seen as a victory because of the losses that Turkish drones imposed on regime armor and equipment. Serious analysis of that brief skirmish reveals that Ankara suffered 60 casualties in regime and Russian air and artillery strikes, and had to settle for a ceasefire that cemented Russian and regime control over the country’s two main highways. At best, the battle was a draw, but the reality is Ankara agreed to ceasefire terms that left some of its troops besieged in Idlib. The fighting in Idlib also revealed that Ankara would not target Russian aircraft, which proved decisive in stemming regime losses (due to Turkish drone strikes) and ensure that the regime achieved its military objectives.
If one accepts that the opposition cannot win, then the political imperative should be to manage defeat and to ensure that a set of narrowly defined U.S. interests can be achieved. With so few troops in the country, the United States has shifted its goal from taking territory to hunting for terrorists. The tools to do this, specialized U.S. Special Operations Forces deployed in Syria and unmanned drones, were two critical enablers of combat operations against the Islamic State.
However, for close to a year, American drones did not overfly Idlib, owing to the terms of a 2017 Turkish-Russian de-escalation agreement. After this agreement was reached, U.S. drones that had been hunting for al Qaeda-linked targets stopped flying in Idlib and were used exclusively against the Islamic State. With the caliphate defeated, those same drones are now hunting for the group’s leadership, many of whom appear to have smuggled themselves to Idlib. The Trump administration has—quietly—reached an understanding with Russia to begin flight over Idlib again, most likely after specialized U.S. SOF conducted the raid to kill Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The understanding, per this author’s interviews, was commiserate on some general principles, such as U.S. aircraft not over flying Russian bases and hinges on a very simple premise: Russia is unlikely to object to U.S. overflight if it is aimed at fighting extremists.
Whatever the specifics, the agreement is what a slimmed down, counter-terrorism policy in Syria is destined to look like—and could serve as a template for future U.S. action in the country and for ongoing talks with Moscow. If Trump wins re-election, then it is unlikely that he will sanction any increase in U.S. forces in Syria. The same is true for a Biden administration, which would have to consider increasing U.S. forces to do much of anything, other than continue to conduct patrols in partnership with the Syrian Kurds. In the absence of more U.S. forces, it is all but certain that Russia will expand its footprint in Syria. The next administration may have to consider augmenting U.S. troops in Syria if it were to want to do more than just conduct drone strikes. A Trump administration is almost certain to resist any such action, while a Biden presidency would face political constraints and may choose not to increase the numbers of troops deployed in the country.
It also likely that during the next U.S. administration, Idlib will fall to the regime, leaving the U.S. partner force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, to choose between reconciling with the regime or risking a clash with the regime and the Russian Aerospace Forces. Russian leadership has already begun to pressure SDF leader General Mazlum Abdi to break his partnership with the United States and to deepen talks with Damascus. This pressure will only grow stronger in the coming years, and, eventually, the SDF will have to capitulate to the regime or face a protracted conflict that the United States may not be able to control or manage.
The United States has an interest in ensuring that the SDF wrests the most concessions from Damascus as possible, even if Assad has shown little willingness to compromise. For this reason, the United States should broach this topic with Moscow. To do so, Washington must go into the talks with the clear-eyed understanding that winning Russian political support will entail formalizing regime control over the border and having a mechanism to have some sort of regime presence in cities that the SDF now controls. As part of these talks, the United States should push for a continued counter-terrorism mission for U.S. forces, using the tools that are now being used to target extremists in Idlib. These forces could be moved to Iraq or Jordan, or remain in Syria, and fly in accordance with a broader agreement with Moscow on the necessity of targeting UN-designated terrorist groups. This proposal would mimic elements of the JIG, but strip out any need to share targeting information and basically formalize the purported understanding that the two sides have to fly over Idlib for counter-terrorism missions.
The United States has not had an effective Syria policy since the fall of caliphate. The Trump administration has a schizophrenic policy, wherein elements of the administration have hemmed closely to the Obama-era emphasis on coercion and sanctions to try to force regime capitulation, even while Donald Trump has pushed for a near total withdrawal of U.S. forces. The United States has too few forces in Syria to deter Russian or regime action, but still retains the right type of tools to pursue a narrow counter-terrorism strategy. This strategy has bipartisan support and is likely to shape U.S. thinking about the conflict beyond 2021—regardless of the winner in the November election. This creates an opportunity to engage with Russia on an issue it once valued, a vague U.S.-Russian commitment to target extremists, but in a way that shields the United States from sharing information or cooperating directly with Russian forces. This template is something worth considering, given that U.S. forces are not likely to ever be increased. The United States does retain some small interests in Syria, and they can be used to generate political leverage, but only if U.S. goals are slimmed down and built around things that can be achieved.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.