Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?  Options for the U.S. Presence in Syria

Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  U.S. Force Posture in Syria following the strategic defeat of the Islamic State (IS).

Date Originally Written:  February 23, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  February 26, 2018.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author writes from the perspective of a seasoned regional analyst focusing on the Middle East.

Background:  The U.S. military battle against IS is nearing completion in both Iraq and Syria.  An intensified U.S. air campaign in support of local ground forces has effectively (and literally) destroyed the physical infrastructure of the so-called IS “caliphate” that at its peak occupied a territorial expanse roughly equivalent to that of Great Britain, extended its brutal authority over 11 million people, and gave it access to annual economic resources estimated at $1 billion[1].  In Iraq, a combination of U.S.-equipped and trained Iraqi security forces fighting alongside a variety of Shi’ia militia groups (some backed by Iran) allowed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to declare victory over IS in early December 2017.  In Syria, Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces enabled by U.S. special operations forces and an aggressive coalition bombing campaign liberated the IS caliphate’s self-proclaimed capital at Raqqa last fall and IS is now largely restricted to the Idlib province.

Significance:  The combined coalition military advances in both Iraq and Syria represent the strategic defeat of IS as a terrorist organization capable of holding territory in the Middle East.  These visible defeats strike at the heart of IS’s claim to leadership of the global jihadist movement.  The destruction of the ‘caliphate’ leaves IS a much diminished and impoverished organization.  Nonetheless, these significant battlefield victories do not entirely eliminate the IS threat as it remains capable of inspiring (if not planning) attacks that threaten regional instability and target Western interests.  In Iraq, a continued U.S. military presence codified through traditional security assistance programs in coordination with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad is virtually a foregone conclusion.  However, Syria presents a different strategic calculus for U.S. policymakers as they weigh options at a time when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appears to be consolidating his control with the active support of his allies in Moscow and Tehran.

Option #1:  Establish a long-term U.S. military presence in Syria.  U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced in mid-January 2018 that the U.S. “will maintain a military presence in Syria” for an indefinite period of time[2].  In doing so, Tillerson committed the U.S. to achieving an expansive set of strategic objectives that include: ensuring the defeat of IS and al-Qa’ida; diminishing the influence of Iran; facilitating the return of Syrian refugees; advancing a United Nations (UN)-led political resolution to the crisis; and guaranteeing that Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

Risk:  The continued presence of the U.S. military in Syria is opposed to one extent or another by virtually every other important actor in Syria including the internationally recognized government of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Iran, and even North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally Turkey.  The proximate defeat of IS and the failure of the U.S. Congress to explicitly authorize U.S. military operations in Syria seriously erodes the international and domestic legal basis for this presence.  More importantly, the actual risk of direct military conflict between the U.S. and any one of these outside actors or their local proxies is real and growing.  In early February 2018, the U.S. conducted defensive strikes killing hundreds of Syrian troops and dozens of Russian contractors.  Meanwhile, the U.S. announcement that it was creating a Kurdish security border force in northern Syria prompted the ongoing Turkish incursion into Afrin that is now threatening a direct military confrontation between a NATO ally and both the Syrian Army and U.S-backed Kurdish militias.  Lastly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has directly threatened the U.S. with a punitive ‘Ottoman slap’ if the U.S. doesn’t end its support for Kurdish elements or abandon its positions further east in Manbij[3].

Gain:  Russian and Iranian military support to Assad have given him the decisive advantage in the civil war restoring his control over the majority of Syria’s population and key economic centers.  Given this existing reality, an indefinite U.S. military presence in eastern Syria may well be the only concrete leverage that the U.S. has to influence the behavior of the other actors in this crisis.  To accomplish the wide-ranging goals of U.S. strategy as articulated by Tillerson, however, this presence will likely need to maintained or even expanded for the foreseeable future.

Option #2:  Withdraw U.S. military forces from Syria.  The U.S. could use the recent battlefield victories against IS as a justification to declare ‘mission accomplished’ and begin a phased and conditions-based withdrawal of forces from Syria.

Risk:  As Tillerson himself argued, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria could create a security vacuum which IS and other Islamist terrorist groups would exploit to regain a foothold in eastern Syria.  Moreover, with the UN Geneva peace process moribund, the absence of a physical U.S. presence on the ground will leave policymakers with precious little direct leverage to influence the ultimate political or military outcomes in Syria.  This approach also feeds the perception of declining U.S. regional influence and could bolster the reputation of Russia and Iran as reliable partners.

Gain:  U.S. policymakers could use a phased withdrawal as diplomatic leverage to press for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria to include Russia, Iran, and their paramilitary proxies (e.g., Hizbollah, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps).  The scale and timing of the U.S. withdrawal could be explicitly tied to the departure of these other foreign forces, as well as to progress in defeating the remnants of IS.  This would accomplish the two most critical U.S. strategic objectives outlined by Tillerson:  the defeat of IS; and reducing the influence of Iran.  Additionally, such a phased withdrawal would relieve the U.S. of the substantial costs of reconstruction in Syria which is estimated to easily exceed $250 billion[4].  Finally, the prospect of an imminent U.S. military withdrawal would increase pressure on Kurdish elements to come to a workable compromise with both Damascus and Ankara and thereby bolster prospects for a durable political outcome in Syria that enhances regional stability.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] John Feffer, “The Fall of the House of ISIS,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 25, 2017.  Available at: http://fpif.org/fall-house-isis/.

[2] Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, “Remarks on the Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria,” Hoover Institute at Stanford University, January 17, 2018.

[3] Bethan McKernan, “Turkish President Erdogan offers US ‘Ottoman Slap’ ahead of Rex Tillerson’s visit to Turkey,” The Independent, February 15, 2018.

[4] UN estimate quoted by Somini Sengupta, “Help Assad or Leave Cities in Ruins?  The Politics of Rebuilding Syria,” The New York Times, December 3, 2017.

Dr. Christopher Bolan Islamic State Variants Option Papers Syria U.S. Army War College Violent Extremism

U.S. Options for Regime Change in Syria

Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  Regime change in Syria.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  April 13, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a retired U.S. military officer whose writings and teaching focus on national security issues related to the Middle East.

Background:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s apparent chemical weapons attack on April 4, 2017 that killed scores of innocent civilians prompted U.S. cruise missile strikes targeting a Syrian airfield from which the attacks were launched.  U.S. President Donald Trump said these strikes were designed primarily to “prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons[1].”  While the decision to strike has been widely supported by leaders of both political parties in Washington D.C., international reaction has been predictably mixed.  Traditional U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East have been broadly supportive, while supporters of the Assad regime including Russia and Iran have condemned the strikes as a “violation of international law[2].”

Significance:  Beyond the narrow justification of these strikes as being necessary to reinforce an eroding international norm against the use of chemical weapons, this U.S. military intervention has resurfaced questions concerning the ultimate strategy that the Trump Administration is pursuing in Syria.  Before the strikes, senior administration officials including Secretary of State (SecState) Rex Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Halley suggested that U.S. policy would abandon even the pretense of President Barack Obama’s objective of ousting Assad from power in Damascus[3].  However, in the aftermath of the strikes, the Trump Administration signaled an apparent about-face as National Security Advisor (NSA) Herbert Raymond “H. R.” McMaster declared that U.S. policy in Syria would “simultaneously” pursue the twin goals of destroying the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and removing Assad[4].  While the fight against ISIS is making significant progress, the administration has not yet articulated a detailed strategy for pursuing the ouster of Assad.  There are two broad options available:

Option #1:  Coercive Diplomacy.  This option seeks to capitalize on the demonstration of U.S. resolve in the wake of the chemical attacks and missile strikes to push all parties to a negotiated solution that would ultimately result in the removal of Assad.  NSA McMaster and SecState Tillerson have suggested that this might indeed be the Trump Administration’s preferred course of action[5].  Additionally, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz is emblematic of this approach and has made the case that “peace is impossible with Mr. Assad in power” and also called on President Trump to lead a “broad diplomatic effort to end the country’s bloodshed[6].”

Risk:  This diplomatic approach is essentially a reprise of President Obama’s strategy to engage Russia to use its substantial influence in Damascus to coerce Assad into relinquishing his position.  Years of a failed Geneva process along these lines are a strong indication that prospects for success are minimal.  Moreover, Russia is either complicit or has been turning a blind eye to Assad’s brutal repression and flagrant attacks on civilians that undoubtedly constitute war crimes.  This blind eye poses a moral hazard to any negotiated agreement involving Moscow.  The real risks and costs for the U.S. will only manifest themselves when prospects for success are greatest.  Presently, there is simply no viable political opposition able to assume power in a deeply divided Syrian society.  As the tragic histories of Iraq and Afghanistan suggest, a strong international presence underpinned by U.S. combat forces and bolstered by U.S. intelligence and logistics support will be required to avoid the eruption of civil war until broader political reconciliation takes hold.  Finally, the reconstruction costs for Syria alone exceed $200 billion[7] – a portion of which will likely be borne by the U.S. Treasury.

Gain:  Option #1 seeks to make maximum diplomatic advantage of a limited U.S. military strike.  It requires little investment beyond organizing a broad diplomatic effort to press all parties to arrive at a negotiated solution.  It is possible that Assad’s use of chemical weapons will serve as an affront to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was a primary party along with President Obama to the agreement that removed tons of chemical weapons from Syria and avoided a U.S. military strike in 2013.  SecState Tillerson’s long experience negotiating with Russia could equip him to successfully exploit this opportunity to leverage Russian support for ousting Assad.

Option #2:  Limited Military Escalation.  Long-time advocates of deeper U.S. military engagement have been trumpeting the recent U.S. missile attacks as an opportunity to escalate a U.S. military campaign to unseat Assad.  Options here range from resurrecting an earlier Central Intelligence Agency / Department of Defense program to arm-and-equip carefully vetted Syrian opposition groups, to establishing no-fly zones or safe areas for the protection of civilians, to conducting an air campaign to destroy Assad’s air force.

Risk:  These military options have been repeatedly debated and dismissed by senior U.S. officials because of the risks inherent in these approaches.  The previous program to arm-and-equip Syrian opposition groups ended in abject failure.  A program designed to raise a force of 15,000 fighters at a cost of $500 million netted only a handful of recruits that were quickly captured by Al-Qa’ida-linked elements as soon as they crossed into Syria[8].  Former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey noted that no-fly zones and safe areas would require the commitment of “thousands of U.S. ground troops” and would cost billions each month to maintain[9].  Finally, a military campaign taking out Assad’s air force would expose U.S. pilots to an advanced and integrated Syrian air defense system that has recently been upgraded by Russia.   Any such military campaign would almost inevitably result in Russian and Iranian casualties, risking escalation and retaliation against U.S. interests regionally and globally.

Gain:  The potential rewards for this high risk approach would be correspondingly rich if this increased military pressure ultimately yielded a negotiated resolution removing Assad from power.  The successful application of American military power would reassure U.S. allies and potentially bolster U.S. deterrence against potential adversaries including Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] Office of the Press Secretary, “Statement by President Trump on Syria,” Washington, DC: The White House, April 6, 2017, available from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/06/statement-president-trump-syria.

[2]  Gregor Aisch, Yonette Joseph, and Anjali Singhvi, “Which Countries Support and Which Oppose the U.S. Missile Strikes in Syria,” The New York Times, April 9, 2011.

[3]  Steve Holland, “White House backs Haley, Tillerson on Syria’s Assad,” Reuters, March 31, 2017, available from www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-usa-idUSKBN1722US

[4]  Mahita Gajanan, “National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster:  U.S. Wants to Eliminate ‘Murderous Regime’ in Syria,” Time, April 10, 2017.

[5]  Ibid and Josh Lederman, “Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Issues Warning About Syria:  ‘We Cannot Let This Happen Again’,” Time, April 11, 2017.

[6]  Paul Wolfowitz, “What Comes After the Syria Strikes: With American credibility restored, Trump should lead a diplomatic effort to replace Assad,” The Wall Street Journal, April 10, 2017.

[7]  David W. Lesch and James Gelvin, “Assad Has Won in Syria.  But Syria Hardly Exists,” The New York Times, January 11, 2017.

[8]  Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015.

[9]  General Martin E. Dempsey, Letter to Senator Levin on the U.S. Military and the Syrian Conflict, July 19, 2013.  Available at:  http://www.cfr.org/syria/general-dempseys-letter-senator-levin-us-military-syrian-conflict-july-2013/p31198.

 

Civil War Dr. Christopher Bolan Leadership Change Option Papers Syria United States Weapons of Mass Destruction

Syria Options: Military & Political Pressure

Dr. Christopher Bolan has served in Jordan, Tunisia, and Egypt and worked as a Middle East foreign policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney.  He presently teaches and researches national security issues at the U.S. Army War College.  He can be found on Twitter @DrChrisBolan.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


National Security Situation:  The Syrian Civil War.

Date Originally Written:  December 9, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  December 22, 2016.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author is a retired military member whose writings and teaching focus on national security issues related to the Middle East.

Background:  The civil war in Syria was sparked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign of repression in reaction to what were initially peaceful protests.  The humanitarian costs of this civil war have been staggering: hundreds of thousands dead, over 11 million Syrians internally displaced or living in make-shift refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, and more than 300,000 seeking refuge in Europe.  Islamist terrorist groups including the Islamic State, Al-Qa’ida, and others have seized huge swaths of territory and greatly expanded their resource base and capabilities.  Meanwhile, both Russia and Iran have exploited this opportunity to expand their regional influence by offering extensive military support to Assad.  As of this writing, Syrian forces backed by Russian aircraft appear poised to regain control of Aleppo–potentially a key turning point establishing a military balance of power heavily favorable to Assad and his supporters.

Significance:  From the beginning of this crisis, national security professionals have disagreed over the relative importance of these developments for U.S. interests[1].  However, the most immediate impact on U.S. interests derives from prospects that: (1) ungoverned spaces and chaos in Syria will serve as a continued base for jihadi terrorists willing to attack targets in Europe and the U.S.; and (2) continued refugees flows could destabilize U.S. regional allies in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.  Only an end to the civil war though a negotiated political transition can accomplish both of these objectives.

Option #1:  The first option relies on applying military pressure to create an internal balance of power that incentivizes Assad to negotiate a transition of power.  U.S. actions thus far have attempted to accomplish this by training and equipping Syrian opposition groups.  This project has been an abject failure as one program costing nearly half a billion dollars only yielded a few dozen trained fighters who were quickly routed once they entered Syria[2].  Several additional military options include the establishment of no-fly zones or safe areas as advocated by former Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and Director of Central Intelligence General Petraeus which would provide safe-havens for these groups to be supplied, trained, and equipped.  Still others have suggested that an American air campaign targeting Syrian military forces could sufficiently weaken Assad to help restore a balance of power more conducive to negotiations.

Risk:  These military options have been repeatedly debated and dismissed by the Obama administration because of the risks inherent in these approaches.  Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Army General Dempsey in a 2013 letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee estimated that these operations would cost billions of dollars per month, pose a significant threat to U.S. aircraft and pilots threatened by Syria’s extensive air defense system, require the commitment of “thousands of U.S. ground troops”, and “could inadvertently empower extremists” in the event state institutions collapsed[3].  This approach also inherently raises the specter of direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian or Iranian forces.  Even if direct confrontation were to be avoided, Russia and Iran would almost certainly seek to match or exceed U.S. commitments, creating pressures toward continual escalation.  Beyond Syria, Moscow and Tehran would almost certainly seek to punish any U.S. successes in Syria by ramping up pressures in Ukraine, Europe, or elsewhere in the Middle East.  Finally, the recent successes of Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces in restoring government control of Aleppo mean that reversing this momentum will require a monumental and sustained U.S. military investment over time with minimal prospects for success.

Gain:  The potential rewards of this high risk approach would be correspondingly rich.  Beyond securing an end to the civil war, the U.S. would earn increased credibility and renewed influence with the Syrian opposition and their Arab Gulf partners.  Globally the U.S. would have demonstrated an ability to reverse the tide of expanding Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Option #2:  The second option would be to seize the opportunity provided by recent Syrian advances on Aleppo to renew a push for a political settlement ending the civil war as advocated recently by retired U.S. Diplomat Peter Galbraith[4].  This would require that the U.S. use its influence to convince both the opposition groups and the Arab Gulf states supporting them to abandon an immediate insistence that Assad relinquish his power in Damascus.  It would also likely require the participation of Iran to ensure its support to this deal.

Risk:  Here too prospects for success are not great as the history of the negotiations in Geneva attests.  Moreover, this approach essentially rewards the brutality of the Assad regime and will bolster Russian and Iranian influence in the region.

Gain:  This approach avoids the many risks associated with the military approaches discussed in Option #1.  Additionally, only a political transition in Damascus acceptable to a vast majority of Syrians can address the sense of grievance and discontent fueling the rise of radical terrorist groups.  As terrorism expert Dan Byman recently wrote, “As long as these wars rage, the problems they generate will not stay confined to the Middle East[5].”

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  For a wonderful example, see this debate between two foreign policy heavyweights:  Zbigniew Brzezenki, “Syria:  Intervention Will Only Make It Worse,” Time, May 8, 2013 and John McCain, “Syria: Intervention Is In Our Interest,” Time, May 8, 2013.

[2]  Michael D. Shear, Helene Cooper, and Eric Schmitt, “Obama Administration Ends Efforts to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS,” The New York Times, October 9, 2015.

[3]  General Martin E. Dempsey, Letter to Senator Levin on the U.S. Military and the Syrian Conflict, July 19, 2013.  Available at:  http://www.cfr.org/syria/general-dempseys-letter-senator-levin-us-military-syrian-conflict-july-2013/p31198.

[4]  Peter W. Galbraith, “How the War Ends in Syria,” The New York Times, December 6, 2016.

[5]  Daniel L. Byman, “How War Drives Terrorism,” The Brookings Institution, June 23, 2016.  Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/markaz/2016/06/23/how-war-drives-terrorism/.

Civil War Dr. Christopher Bolan Option Papers Syria United States