ISIS may no longer control substantial territory in Syria, but the civil war is far from over. In the last month, nearly all parties to the civil war have been involved in escalatory attacks, while Syrian President Bashar Assad has pummeled civilians in Eastern Ghouta. In late January, Turkey launched military operations against Syrian Kurds in the northern Syrian region of Afrin. U.S. Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonHillicon Valley — Blinken unveils new cyber bureau at State Blinken formally announces new State Department cyber bureau Hillicon Valley — TikTok, Snapchat seek to distance themselves from Facebook MORE noted these actions have “detracted from our fight to defeat Islamic State in eastern Syria.”
U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish elements from the Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly joined the fight in Afrin to fend off Turkey, which makes no distinction between those Kurdish forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party terrorist group. Assad, taking advantage of the discord within the Defeat ISIS Coalition ranks over the Kurdish issue, reached an agreement with the Kurds and will allegedly deploy Syrian troops alongside Iranian-backed militias to aid the Kurds in northern Syria against Turkish forces.
Gravely, U.S.-Russia tensions came to a head after reports that “several dozen” Russians were killed in a U.S. counterattack in the eastern region of Deir Ezzor. An influential Russian oligarch, who was indicted last week by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerAn unquestioning press promotes Rep. Adam Schiff's book based on Russia fiction Senate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG MORE for running an information warfare campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, reportedly orchestrated an attack by Russian mercenaries on U.S. forces and their Syrian partners, in consultation with the Kremlin and Assad. This incident was the first such fatal direct confrontation between the United States and Russia since Russia intervened Syria in 2015, and the “deadliest” since the end of the Cold War.
These escalatory moves are clear indicators that parties to the conflict are testing the lines of control and threshold for counteraction, a clear manifestation of the global competitive security environment the United States now finds itself in and is seeking to confront. U.S. policy choices in Syria have never been easy. Now, as the Defeat ISIS Coalition shifts to a local governance and civilian-led stabilization approach, overlapping tensions and interests of competitors, adversaries and allies in Syria pose further challenges to U.S. interests in consolidating hard-fought gains by local U.S. partners and U.S. forces.
U.S. strategy in Syria hinges on leveraging relative strength from the periphery to the center to pressure Assad to negotiate a political outcome to the conflict. If the United States is placing its bets on eastern Syria, it must work by, with and through local partners to build economic and political resilience from the periphery and put pressure on the center. This will require credible, representative local governance and security that reflects the complexion of the ethnic makeup the communities, and development projects focused on irrigation and oil refining that reduce the area’s reliance on Syria’s center for economic viability.
The lynchpin in this approach is striking a deal with Turkey to enable resources to flow to eastern Syria from Iraq and northern Syria, and to keep U.S. partners focused on the stabilization tasks at hand. As deeply troubled as an ally Turkey is, local U.S. partners will not be able to viably build the level of resilience and leverage in eastern Syria to affect the political outcomes absent better coalition access and relations with Turkey. The United States and its allies should consider a range of confidence-building measures with Turkey, such as border security cooperation, buffer zone extension, intelligence sharing, and interdiction vis-à-vis Kurdistan Workers Party financing and operations in order to further U.S. stabilization goals.
Another key element of the U.S. strategy in Syria is to strengthen the resilience of the country’s neighbors, so they can absorb the economic, political and security shocks of the ongoing war through robust humanitarian, economic and security assistance. This tack will be vital to sustain access and influence in eastern Syrian and pressure on the country’s center. It should be coordinated, financed and led by regional and European allies and partners.
However, even if the United States adopts these approaches, it is uncertain whether it will muster enough leverage to convince Assad and his patrons to negotiate a political outcome to the conflict in Syria. Moreover, the primary U.S. statecraft tools needed to accomplish these efforts are diplomacy and development, which are the very areas from which the Trump administration is cutting resources.
The United States has a fundamental choice to make on whether to place Syria as a focal point in its strategic competition with Russia and Iran, which currently have the upper hand and are willing to put more skin in the game in the country. To do so, the United States will have to create leverage where it currently has little, and where the fundamental driver of the Syrian conflict, which is poor governance, looms large.
If the Trump administration chooses a narrower or under-resourced approach to Syria instead, as its predecessor did, one thing is certain. The Syrian conflict has proven to be uncontainable and cascading in ways detrimental to U.S. interests that few could have predicted when it began seven years ago.
Melissa Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @NatSecDalton. Hijab Shah is a research associate in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @HijabShah.