Sunday, September 9, 2018

Behind the Latest U.S. Policy Zag in Syria

Michael R. Gordon, The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 2018 7:00 a.m. ET

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Tehran on Friday, with the Turkish president, to discuss the future of Syria’s Idlib province.
Image from article, with caption: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met in Tehran on Friday, with the Turkish president, to discuss the future of Syria’s Idlib province.

Syria and its allies are preparing for an offensive to retake Idlib province, where smoke rose from a village after an airstrike on Friday.

In the spring, President Trump had an easy answer on how to deal with the carnage in Syria. The president vowed to quickly wrap up the fight against Islamic State and bring the troops out “very soon.”

The message, which Mr. Trump delivered at a rally in Ohio, was a popular one for a political base that has embraced Mr. Trump’s “America First” message.

Now, with a climactic battle looming for Syria’s plan with Russia and Iran to retake rebel-held Idlib province, Mr. Trump is making a course correction—in tune with national-security officials determined to push back against longstanding adversaries.

The administration is keeping 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, imposing sanctions on businessmen close to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and plunging more deeply into diplomacy.

The principal objectives are to roll back Iran’s role in Syria and ensure that Islamic State can’t make a comeback, U.S. officials say.

Ousting Mr. Assad, who has succeeded in strengthening his hold on power over two U.S. administrations, is no longer a U.S. priority, senior officials acknowledge. But U.S. officials are still trying to foster a more inclusive political arrangement inside Syria while breathing new life into the nearly moribund international negotiations over the country’s future.

“They clearly have a new energy focused on Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security.

The U.S. has made numerous policy and tactical twists as the Obama and Trump administrations struggled to stop the carnage in Syria, all the while carefully metering the degree of American involvement.

The questions now, experts say, are whether the latest moves represent the emergence of a regional strategy, whether they can shape events in a country that has bedeviled U.S. policy makers—and, importantly, whether Mr. Trump will stick with the new approach.

The Trump administration’s evolving strategy has three main components.

On the military front, the administration’s new emphasis on delivering Islamic State an “enduring defeat” will extend the deployment of U.S. troops at least into next year, U.S. officials said.

The legal mandate for keeping U.S. troops in Syria is still linked to support of Kurdish and Arab fighters who are trying to finish off Islamic State. But the move has implications for the diplomatic wrangling over the country’s future as extending the U.S. mission against Islamic State will also prolong the presence of U.S. forces and their Syrian allies in oil-rich areas of eastern Syria that the Assad regime is eager to control.

While the White House hasn’t said precisely how long U.S. forces will stay or how many troops may be needed, delivering a lasting defeat to extremists will require more than taking back the remainder of Islamic State-controlled territory, U.S. officials said. It also requires ensuring that the group can’t make a comeback, as al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State’s forerunner, did less than two years after the Obama administration withdrew troops from that country at the end of 2011.

This means that the U.S. or any international partners it might recruit will need to train local security forces and maintain a modicum of stability as basic serves are restored in Raqqa and other newly reclaimed territory—programs that will be financed by the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, among other allies. Any credible strategy to keep the boot on Islamic State’s neck, military experts say, would also require maintaining the capability to carry out counterterrorism raids in the region.

On the diplomatic front, the Trump administration has sought to reassure nervous allies that the U.S. intends to be active in the deliberations over Syria’s future, isn’t rushing to disengage militarily and is prepared to impose costs if the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies proceed with the Idlib offensive.

That message was delivered earlier this month on a trip to Israel, Jordan and Turkey by James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador who has been named as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s new special envoy for Syria, and Joel Rayburn, who moved to the State Department from the White House National Security Council.

The administration hasn’t said publicly what actions it might take if the Idlib offensive goes ahead, even without the use of chemical weapons. But it sent a signal on Thursday of what might be in store by imposing sanctions on several Syrians and Lebanese citizens who have supported Mr. Assad, including Muhammad al-Qatirij, whom the Treasury Department said is facilitating fuel shipments to the Assad regime from Islamic State-controlled territory.

There have been other signals as well: On Friday, the U.S. Central Command announced the start of a live-fire exercise involving more than 100 Marines in southern Syria near the al Tanf base, which is occupied by a small U.S. force. Iran and Russia have demanded the Americans vacate the base, near the border with Jordan and Iraq.

Finally, Mr. Trump’s forays into public diplomacy [JB emphasis] have changed, at least for now. Instead of trumpeting the imminent departure of U.S. troops earlier this month, he urged Mr. Assad not to “recklessly attack” Idlib.

“The Trump administration has taken a long time to become a cohesive and efficient body, when it comes to considering complex and consequential issues like Syria,” said Charles Lister of the nonpartisan Middle East Institute.

“The new U.S. posture is a good idea—but only if backed up by a credible package of points of leverage,” Mr. Lister continued. “Nevertheless, we all need to bear in mind the unpredictability of President Trump, whose gut instinct will continue to encourage a withdrawal.”

For now, Mr. Trump appears to be persuaded that withdrawing from Syria quickly could play into his adversaries’ hands. Maintaining the president’s backing for his new Syria strategy may be its proponents’ biggest test.

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