Frederic C. Hof
American airstrikes on a pro-Assad regime, Iranian-backed militia on May 18 and a Defense Department press briefing the following day provided clues of how the campaign to liberate eastern Syria – especially the Euphrates River Valley (which includes the cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor) – from Daesh (ISIS) is shaping up. A key takeaway from the strikes and the briefing may be summed up by Special Envoy Brett McGurk’s assurance to reporters that, post-Daesh, “nobody wants the Syrian regime to come back ... no return of the regime.”
President Trump has come a long way from candidate Trump in this regard. As a candidate, he alluded to the possibility of working with Russia and the Assad regime against Daesh. As president, he discovered not only that Iran would complete an unlikely and unholy trio of actors with whom to collaborate, but that Assad and his external supporters were leaving Daesh alone and targeting civilian residents of rebel-held areas instead.
The regime chemical attack of April 4, 2017, and Russia’s advance knowledge of it drove home the point: Assad’s addiction to terrorizing civilians paves the way for other murdering extremists to take root. Indeed, the addiction is the essence of the regime’s survival strategy.
The U.S. airstrikes interdicted a pro-regime militia moving in the direction of American-trained Syrian forces at Al-Tanf, a Syrian outpost near the tri-border area with Jordan and Iraq. Although Al-Tanf is well-removed from the Euphrates River Valley, a point was made: Regime forces and their auxiliaries would not be welcomed to eastern Syria. Per Defense Secretary James Mattis, the airstrikes were prompted by “offensive movement ... inside an established and agreed-upon de-confliction zone” by an “Iranian-directed” force. Mattis added an observation that provoked no follow-on curiosity from the press: “We believe they moved into that zone against the advice of the Russians ... it looks like the Russians tried to dissuade them.”
This writer suggested months ago that the litmus test for cooperation with Russia in Syria would be Moscow’s attitude toward the restoration of the Assad regime in territories liberated from Daesh. Were Russia to insist on such a restoration, the prospects for cooperation would be nil. Moscow is, in this regard, on the horns of a policy dilemma.
On the one hand, Bashar Assad is President Vladimir Putin’s poster child for the tale of Russia defeating an American regime-change scheme, thereby saving a state from destruction and restoring Russia as a great power. This has been a huge political asset for Putin domestically.
On the other hand, Russians who know Syria well understand that Assad – now completely in the service of Iran – is pure poison for Syrian unity, reconstruction, and statehood itself. How to square this circle – marginalize a corrosively incompetent regime while not appearing to promote regime change – is the riddle facing Moscow’s Syria hands. Keeping he who created the vacuum filled by Daesh in the first place out of liberated areas would be a key indicator of Putin’s intent.
Taking from Daesh its Syrian “capital” – Raqqa – remains the near-term priority of the American-led anti-Daesh coalition and its Kurdish YPG-dominated ground force: the Syrian Democratic Forces. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Dunford alluded to the likely next target – Deir al-Zor – “as a specific area that requires de-confliction” with the Russians. This is because a unit of Assad’s army is in the vicinity. Ideally that unit would stand down when an assault on Deir al-Zor commences. Once officers loyal to the regime are returned to regime-controlled areas, Syrian Army personnel in the unit might perform some stabilization functions in conjunction with the SDF.
No questions were posed about the status of SDF training and capabilities for combat in urban areas. This is an important matter, particularly if Daesh operatives elect to defend vigorously, take hostages and use civilians as shields. Here the dilemma falls on the United States.
On the one hand, using militiamen to execute some of the most complex operations in land warfare can produce, albeit with the best of intentions, frightening numbers of civilian deaths and injuries. On the other hand, restricting Americans to advisory roles can hold down American casualties.
The fear here is that Syrian civilians may be again on the verge of paying yet another prohibitive price for Obama administration decisions, in this case the refusal to build a professional ground force coalition of the willing to liberate eastern Syria from Daesh as early as possible in 2016. Regrettably the Trump administration inherited this perilous legacy without complaint. Now it relies on good fortune to spare Syrian civilians and uphold the reputation of the United States. Some of the press briefing addressed post-combat stabilization and a potential role for Turkey in it. Close coordination with Ankara was promised by McGurk: particularly “in the post-Raqqa phase.” There was no allusion at all to employing the mainstream Syrian opposition as a middle way between Turkey and a Syrian ground force dominated by Kurds regarded by Ankara as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
In December 2012, the United States and its “friends of the Syrian people” partners recognized the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Why not work with the SNC, the High Negotiations Committee, and the Syrian Interim Government to establish a free Syrian administration based in liberated Deir al-Zor? Why not recognize this administration as the legitimate government of the Syrian Arab Republic? Surely the Obama administration’s stubborn insistence on recognizing the mass-murdering Assad as the president of Syria – a sop to Iran to keep it on board with nuclear negotiations and an agreement – need not be perpetuated.
American policy in eastern Syria seems to be moving in the right direction. Ideally the protection of civilians and the recognition of an alternative to Assad will not be missing pieces. If they are, a complex puzzle will remain unsolved and the defeat of Daesh will prove to be something far less than a clear-cut victory.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. This commentary is published by permission from the Atlantic Council and can be accessed at: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/securing-eastern-syria.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 02, 2017, on page 7.