Redefining the Syrian Predicament to a Trump Administration

A seismic change is taking place in the United States while important foreign policy issues confront its ascendant political leadership. From a resurgent Russia to a dangerous Chinese grab of international waters in the South China Sea, and from the troubled Middle East to uncertainties facing Europe, the new Trump administration – as heir to America’s leadership legacy – will have to hit the ground running on January 20, 2017. Among the insanely complicated challenges it will have to untangle and help resolve is the Syrian civil war and tragedy that has caused internal destruction and invited foreign actors to interfere and intervene in the heart of the modern Levant.

Syria the Unimportant?

President-elect Donald Trump made it clear during his improbable presidential campaign that the United States should just cede Syria to Russia and Iran and allow them to help its president destroy whatever opposition he faces. Incorrectly, and ignorantly, he claimed that the trio was fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, to the contrary, the evidence is that the brunt of Russia’s, Iran’s, Lebanon Hezbollah’s, and the Iranian-led Afghan Shia’s military action has been against the moderate opposition.

In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa.
In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa.

Candidate Mr. Trump also opined that Syria does not constitute an American strategic interest. This claim has actually been bandied about not only by Obama administration officials. Some Republican politicians and members of the foreign policy community in the American capital also adhere to this view. Neither claim – that Russia and its allies’ attacks have been directed entirely against ISIS and that Syria is of no strategic interest to the United States – was or is true. Mr. Trump’s analyses and assessments are therefore not only perilously flawed; in light of the facts, they are downright dangerous, the exact opposite of accurate, and, as such, constitute serious threats to American and American allies’ national security and related interests.

What Must Come

The first imperative the new administration will have to examine about Syria, come next January, should therefore be Mr. Trump’s claims regarding Syria. Some of the more misleading claims admittedly carry a grain of accuracy and for that reason are seductive, but at the end of the day they are half-baked and hardly the grounds for making sound and effective policy regarding the country. These include the assertion that Syria lacks sufficient hydrocarbon resources to make it a pivotal ring within the international economic chain that American global hegemony cherishes, a perception that is buttressed by the fact that, with the advent of shale oil, the United States’ need for offshore sources of energy has decreased dramatically. A second perception that adds to the confusion is grounded in the fact that, notwithstanding Syria’s having long maintained the peace on Israel’s north-eastern border, and despite its having administered the American-approved Syrian condominium over Lebanon during and after the latter’s civil war, no Damascus government has ever been a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Yet a third deceptive line of reasoning is that Syria’s traditional alignment with Moscow right up to the end of the Cold War and continuing until the present has kept it outside the pale of the U.S. strategic entente in the Middle East. Finally, a more recent variant of the series of dismissive arguments regarding Syria is that America’s involvement in Iraq does not necessarily mean that the United States should, willy-nilly, involve itself in conflicts in the area, especially given the shrinking defense budget and thin popular tolerance for wars. What is at risk regarding all of these viewpoints, however, is that they will likely be the basis, as indeed they have already been, for justifying the claim at the heart of the lukewarm – dare one say neglectful? – American involvement in the tragic catastrophe of the Syrian debacle.

Debunking the Dominant Wisdom

However seemingly incisive these and other artificially mind-boggling formulations of phrase and sentence compilations in support of this or that point about Syria may appear to be, the watchwords are this: beware, be careful, be mindful. Be aware that the realities in Syria and its environs are far different than what Mr. Trump would have the American people believe. Indeed, be aware that what is called for instead is a counter-argument that more clearly elucidates the range of important strategic priorities for the United States in the waning days of the Obama administration and the early period of a Trump presidency. From continuing the necessary and purposeful battle against ISIS to bringing greater security, peace and sustained stability to Arabia, the Gulf, and elsewhere in the Arab East, on one hand, and from facing the Russian and Iranian challenges to ending the slaughter of civilians in Syria, on the other, the Trump administration must understand the hidden costs of not seeing the country as it actually is: namely, an essential national security concern.

The ISIS Fight

By definition, Washington’s commitment to the ongoing confrontation with ISIS in Iraq and Syria – its air operations, its training of local fighters, its intelligence gathering and dissemination, its cyber warfare, etc. – should hardly be seen as less than an obligation to defeating what is nothing less than a national security and a multinational threat. Yet, it is unfathomable to separate the dangers of the apocalyptic organization from the geographic firmament on which it operates. Indeed, U.S. post-conflict planning to prevent ISIS’ resurgence in Syria is its own evidence of how essential the country is for American strategic posturing.

Guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill alongside aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during flight operations supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, operations in Iraq and Syria, maritime security operations, and theater security cooperation efforts in the Arabian Gulf. Photo: U.S. Navy.
Guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill alongside aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during flight operations supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, operations in Iraq and Syria, maritime security operations, and theater security cooperation efforts in the Arabian Gulf. Photo: U.S. Navy.

Additionally, what happens in Syria does and must reverberate in other parts of the Levant that are important to the United States. As Iraq fights to reconstitute its state and institutions, Lebanon struggles to revive the ones it had, but lost, and only now holds out the possibility of their being regained, and Jordan strives to maintain its stability, Syria’s chaos can be both potential spoiler and assumed exporter of volatility. By looking at Syria as a fulcrum of unwanted and undesirable circumstances, events, and realities, a new Trump administration will arguably do well to devote more attention and treasure to it. Doing any less would otherwise be a waste of time and a continuation of thus far hapless policies leading to more bloodshed, insecurity, and an unnecessary loss of strategic relevance in the Arab world and beyond.

Facing Up to Russia

Incrementally, but surely and almost on cue, Russia has responded to the American feeling of trepidation about playing a decisive role in Syria. It has done so since the start of the revolt in the country in 2011 by exploiting all the opportunities to affirm its presence in the country and its influence in Damascus. First came the rushed Russian military and advisory assistance, then the use of UN Security Council vetoes against resolutions condemning the Syrian regime’s atrocities, then the consolation prize to Washington on Syria’s chemical weapons after the ‘red line’ fiasco, all to be followed by the full-fledged military intervention against the opposition. Russia also accompanied this stream of strategically played cards with tactical steps to expand, create, and formalize its military presence in Syria that in reality extends Russia’s geopolitical reach from the Crimean Peninsula, which it succeeded in re-annexing, to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

If the outgoing Obama administration did not understand Russia’s actions as a challenge to American interests in the Middle East, and if the incoming Trump presidency does not see them as eroding America’s credibility and prestige with its Arab allies, then there is something inherently and fundamentally absent in U.S. strategic thinking.

If the outgoing Obama administration did not understand Russia’s actions as a challenge to American interests in the Middle East, and if the incoming Trump presidency does not see them as eroding America’s credibility and prestige with its Arab allies, then there is something inherently and fundamentally absent in U.S. strategic thinking. To passively think that Russian policy in Syria will simply collapse of its own weight because it is in a quagmire, or to naively hope that President Vladimir Putin will of his own volition avoid immersing himself further in the Middle East is to signal a weakness in the regional pax Americana.

Although candidate Trump had admiration for Putin as a ‘strong leader,’ the new administration must advise President Trump that the Russian challenge in Syria and the wider area must be effectively countered and matched by decisive action in Syria and elsewhere to convince the Kremlin that its strategic bullying and imperializing will not stand and that its overreach and aggression have entailed exorbitant costs and undesirable repercussions.

Standing Up to the Mullahs

Along with facing up to the Russian challenge, the incoming administration is called upon, indeed required, to check Iranian and Iran-aligned adventurism in Syria and the wider region. Syria and Lebanon already constitute the far western recesses of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hegemonic designs in the service of a pax Iranica. It is not so hard to see that the strong commitment of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi Shiite militias as well as Afghan Shia to the Aleppo battlefield is expressly meant to assure the long-term preservation of the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon corridor. That this design risks placing the fate of over sixty million Arabs in the hands of the conservative Iranian clergy in addition to jeopardizing the stability and economic wellbeing of Jordan and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula as well as the national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity of Syria should not escape the thinking of current and future strategic planners in Washington.

Children collect firewood amid damage and debris at a site hit by airstrikes in the al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria November 17, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail.
Children collect firewood amid damage and debris at a site hit by airstrikes in the al-Shaar neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria November 17, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Abdalrhman Ismail.

It should therefore not be surprising that, quite apart from what may yet happen to ISIS in northern Iraq where the battle is in important ways different and in other ways similar, various Arab strategists are hedging their bets about the post-ISIS period in northern Syria. While all want ISIS eliminated, some question the wisdom of abandoning the other Islamist formations in the Syrian opposition, including Jabhat Fath as-Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. These armed factions, along with the would-be demobilized CIA-trained anti-ISIS fighters, if they wanted to join, are seen as necessary strategic elements that could execute a holding action against Iran’s quest for contiguous geopolitical if not also geographic territory from Tehran to the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Other strategists think of devising contingency, alternative, and more concrete plans to set up a canton or state – depending on circumstances – with a Sunni Arab and/or Sunni Arab-Kurdish majority. Such an entity would extend from the eastern parts of Syria to Iraq’s Sunni-majority west and northwest up to Mosul. In either scenario, the United States would find itself on the sidelines, would discover that Iran was checked only locally, and would regret not having much influence over whatever outcome such scenarios, should one or the other come to pass, would produce.

Protecting Civilians

Finally, the moral argument of an American commitment to Syria as a national security issue derives from the human toll of the Syria debacle. Of twenty-two million Syrians, about 300,000 have been killed, seven million are internally displaced, 5 million live as refugees in neighboring countries, one million are refugees or asylum seekers in the European Union –the total constituting more than half the Syria population, a human tragedy unrivalled in modern times – and countless others have disappeared in security prisons. Of the external refugees, two and a half million Syrians are in Turkey, 1.5 million are in Lebanon, 700,000 are in Jordan, 250,000 are in Iraq, and 130,000 are in Egypt. As all surrounding countries have stretched inadequate budgets to accommodate Syria’s children in their schools, untold numbers yet have no access to institutionalized learning, which in itself portends a devastated future social and economic landscape.

If the strictly hard strategic arguments to pay concerted attention to Syria are insufficient to create a different response from Washington, then perhaps the human tragedy of massive killing and displacement should. Otherwise, pontifications about trampled human dignity, lamentations over violated human rights, and accusations of committed war crimes and crimes against humanity will remain, at best, but empty rhetoric and meaningless gestures. At worst, they will constitute a humanitarian insult, one not witnessed since the Zionist project’s colonialist and forcible emptying of Palestine’s Arab Christians and Muslims.

Here perhaps as nowhere else, nativist arguments winning out in the recent presidential election should not be confused with refraining from, overriding, disregarding, or sidelining the morally galvanizing principle of “responsibility to protect.” As recently as the 1990s, the United States, in Rwanda and Burundi and to a lesser extent in Bosnia and Serbia, has been down this road before. Neither should Americans’ reluctance to once again get involved in the quick sands of the Middle East be conflated with an unwillingness to do what is necessary to ameliorate the tragedies of helpless civilians.

If the strictly hard strategic arguments to pay concerted attention to Syria are insufficient to create a different response from Washington, then perhaps the human tragedy of massive killing and displacement should.

In this light, of the 70,000 refugees admitted into the United States last year, fewer than 3,000 were from Syria, whereas Germany admitted 890,000, many of whom were from Syria. In addition, Canada, a country with a population one tenth that of the United States, took in seven times more than allowed in by the Obama administration. Indeed, America’s leadership ought not merely to be persuaded by cold strategic calculations of material interests but also, and importantly, by a commitment to decency and abhorrence of perfidious politics and behavior.

Conclusion

As America sets its sights on what is admittedly uncharted and untested populist tendencies in the new Trump administration, it cannot continue to ignore the predicament engulfing the Syrian people. If history is any guide, effectively led Americans have always found that they are ready to transcend material interests and immediate gains for the common international benefit. While it remains for strategic thinking in Washington to understand Syria as an essential national security issue for the United States, perhaps the tragic thought that the Syrian debacle will be on the future president’s desk every morning for a very long time can assist in that regard.

Author: Imad Harb

Dr. Imad Harb is Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. He served as a senior researcher in strategic studies at the Abu Dhabi, UAE-based Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) from 2006 to 2013. Prior to joining ECSSR, Dr. Harb served as a senior program officer for education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). He also taught political science, international relations, and Middle East politics at San Francisco State University and the University of Utah, and conversational Arabic at The Middle East Institute, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland.