Six months into his presidency, President Donald Trump has made several moves highlighting the administration’s thinking on the war in Syria. For example, his decision to empower the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) for the assault on Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa — and, perhaps, to clear the rest of the Euphrates River Valley, including Deir al-Zour — was followed last month by the shuttering of the CIA’s program to arm rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad. These military decisions were bracketed by negotiations with Russia to establish deconfliction zones, most notably in southwestern Syria along the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
Each of these moves bows to reality — in particular, Assad’s restoration and Russia’s newfound power in the Middle East. They also reflect American public opinion, which is weary of U.S. troop deployments into the region. And they demonstrate how, absent troops, the United States is tempted to rely on deeply flawed proxies like the YPG to defeat the Islamic State. Invariably, however, Trump’s choices also carry with them risks that emanate from our underlying reliance on Russia.
At its best, the U.S.-Russian deconfliction agreement for southwest Syria alleviates pressure on the city of Daraa and blocks Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops from the Jordanian and, to a lesser extent, Israeli borders. These are worthy goals. Worryingly, however, the agreement may also codify a separate trend — namely, the ceding of Syria’s central spine, running from Damascus to Aleppo, to Assad and his patrons in exchange for quiet in the south and cooperation in the east.
Sensing opportunity, Assad and his IRGC patrons are bound to intensify operations against the opposition in places like the Damascene outskirts, especially as the deterrent effect of the U.S. strike against the regime from April fades from memory. In such a scenario, the U.S. partnership with Russia in the south, intended to arrest the war, may be accompanied by a spike in bloodshed elsewhere.
Perhaps that is a price we are willing to accept — like Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968; some areas are deemed beyond the reach of American power. Even so, however, the deconfliction mechanism with Russia also relies on the ability and willingness of Moscow to police its partners in the south. Is that a bet we’re willing to place?
In the short run, maybe. So long as Assad and the IRGC are busy elsewhere, it’s likely that the deconfliction zone will remain relatively calm. Eventually, however, Assad and Iran will test it, especially in Daraa, the cradle of the Syrian revolution. Then, the United States will be in the unenviable position of calling on the good offices of Moscow to keep the Iranians off the Golan Heights and away from the Jordanian border. This will place the Russians before a choice: crack down on their allies or extend their security umbrella south. If past is prologue, Moscow will do little to stop them.
In north and northeast Syria, our strategy contains similar challenges. The unfortunate fact is that the Trump administration inherited only one proxy prepared to take on the Islamic State: the YPG. Alas, the YPG is part of a terror organization at war with our NATO ally, Turkey. Thus, the YPG is naturally in alignment with anti-Turkish actors, especially Russia and Iran, who see it as the perfect barrier to box Turkey out of Syria — and, thus, NATO out of the northern Middle East. For now, the YPG is happy to accept U.S. support as it expands across northern Syria, ostensibly to take on the Islamic State, but eventually it will pursue its own interests with Russian and Iranian backing. When it does, it’s possible to imagine the outbreak of a larger Turkish-Kurdish conflict in northern Syria.
At the same time, Assad and the IRGC will continue their campaign of ethnic cleansing, worsening the refugee crisis that has overwhelmed Europe. In its wake, Iran is completing a corridor from Tehran to Beirut, a link that will increase its political influence. Empowered, Iran could choose to escalate against U.S. allies in the Gulf at precisely the moment when Saudi Arabia is under pressure and in transition. To avoid such outcomes, Washington will again look to Moscow.
If the United States is to effectively enlist Russia, we must compete with it first. Paradoxically, steps that inhibit Russia’s designs and pressure its allies are the only way to force the Kremlin into genuine cooperation. The United States has made several positive moves in this direction, from the shoot-down of the Syrian Su-22 fighter jet in June to strikes near Tanf in southern Syria. In eastern Syria, it is prioritizing the integration of Sunni Arabs into a predominantly YPG force while insisting that areas liberated from the Islamic State are turned over to local Arabs rather than Kurdish commanders. Will this be enough? And can this strategy hold?
Trump has assembled an all-star National Security Council, led by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford. If any group of leaders recognizes the importance of leverage and the duplicity of the Russians, it is them. They understand that the days of large-scale U.S. interventions in the Middle East are over, barring a major emergency. But they also know that anti-American aggressors like Iran remain — and that Russia won’t say yes to us until we say no to them.
These instincts should lead to a policy of strategic competition in which our outreach to Russia is laced with a heavy dose of countermeasures. In particular, the United States must keep alive the Sunni Arab opposition on the ground and enforce clear red-lines against Assad and Iran. No doubt the Trump administration inherited an awful mess in Syria. But it must now turn Vladimir Putin’s contempt into respect by building-up points of strength and leverage in Syria. Only then can we work toward a settlement that meets America’s basic national security interests.