Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with President Trump at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg on July 7. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)
Trump administration officials consistently point back to the Obama administration’s failed Syria policy to justify their approach, which includes teaming up with Russia, accepting the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad and abandoning many of the rebels America supported for years.
But although the Trump team inherited a terrible hand in Syria, the way it is playing it repeats the same fundamental mistakes made by President Barack Obama — and it will likely have the same negative results for the Syrian conflict, as well as for American interests.
Last week at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Mike Pompeo laid out what he sees as U.S. interests in Syria. He said the United States has two principal enemies there, the Islamic State and Iran. In addition to stopping Iran from establishing a zone of control that spans the region, the U.S. goal is “providing the conditions to have a more stable Middle East to keep America safe.”
President Trump has no choice but to work with Russia in Syria because Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry “invited” Putin into Syria in 2013 to work on a chemical weapons deal, according to Pompeo. But there’s still no real evidence that Russia wants to fight terrorism there, he said.
“We don’t have the same set of interests” in Syria as Russia, said Pompeo. What are the Russian goals in Syria? “They love a warm-water naval port and they love to stick it to America.”
Pompeo is right, but he’s not in charge of U.S. Syria policy. That portfolio belongs to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who made completely contradictory remarks in Hamburg this month, right after he and Trump met with Putin to arrange a cease-fire in Syria’s southwest.
“Russia has the same, I think, interests that we do in having Syria become a stable place, a unified place,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson’s top Middle East official, acting assistant secretary Stuart Jones, also spoke in Aspen and said the United States has effectively outsourced security in Syria to the Russians by having them police the cease-fire.
“This is a real test of the Russians’ ability to lead this process,” he said. “The solution is to put this on the Russians and, if that fails, it’s a problem.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. That’s almost the same exact formulation Kerry used when he was negotiating Syrian cease-fires with Russia in late 2015 and early 2016. Over and over, Kerry said Russia’s willingness to be a constructive partner in Syria must be tested. Over and over, Russia proudly failed that test by helping the Assad regime expand its control and continue its atrocities against civilians.
To be sure, Obama and Kerry made many mistakes. The U.S. effort to train and equip Syrian rebels was poorly executed and may have spurred the Russian military intervention in 2015. The Obama administration deprioritized the push to remove Assad after that and began working on cease-fires with Russia because that offered the best hope of stopping the slaughter.
Many argue that Trump has no choice but to continue that policy. As Jordan’s ambassador to Washington, Dina Kawar, said in Aspen, “What is the alternative?”
Perhaps there is none. But the Trump administration ought not to repeat Kerry’s chief mistake, which was to negotiate with Russia without leverage. That’s why Trump’s reported decision to cut off the CIA program to train and equip some Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad is so shortsighted. Trump is giving up what little leverage he has for nothing in return.
Trump also must not repeat the Obama administration’s second mistake, which was to allow Assad and Iran to expand their areas of control. Jones said that the regime and its partners are using the cease-fire in southwest Syria to free up resources to advance in southeast Syria, where the fight for the strategic region around Deir al-Zour is underway.
The Trump administration seems fine with allowing Iran and Assad to take over another large part of Syria. But the Sunni Arabs who live there will not be. “What are we going to do when these people coming back to their homes come under fire from Iranian militias?” asked Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Lastly, Trump should increase support to local Sunni Arab communities, if not with weapons than with support for local governance, education and basic services. Empowering local leaders is a prerequisite for any kind of long-term stability, and it will be crucial if and when a political process emerges.
The Trump administration is not responsible for past American mistakes in Syria, but it is responsible for what the United States does now. Rather than simply blaming Obama and Kerry for the mess, this administration should learn the lessons of that failure.