US Syria policy leaves many questions unanswered

US Syria policy leaves many questions unanswered

It is fair to say that US policy in Syria has become less clear as the defeat of Daesh nears completion. Some critics have called it confused or contradictory, leading Turkey, a traditional ally, to rage against that policy, charting a path of its own that is more in coordination with Russia than with the US. Turkey’s attacks on US-allied forces, of which the massive attack on Afrin this past week has been the most recent, have been recurrent. The search for peace, led by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura, has been complicated by the apparent absence of a clear US policy.
It is probably for that reason that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a lengthy policy talk at Stanford University last Wednesday in the presence of two former US secretaries of state, George Shultz and Condoleezza Rice. On Friday, the State Department issued a detailed explication of that talk. 
Unfortunately, the newly restated policy still raises serious questions. The most important element of US policy relates to its military presence in Syria. Its goal, according to US officials, is “ensuring the enduring defeat of (Daesh).” Since Daesh is still present, the military campaign is not over and there is still heavy fighting around the Euphrates River. Beyond the Euphrates, Daesh elements in northern Syria and northern Iraq have avoided the fighting. Instead, they have moved out of the combat area, perhaps to regroup and reappear later. The US believes those elements are still a lethal force that has the potential to disrupt any attempts at stabilization, particularly any political transformation and transition in Syria. As such, the US sees that the enduring defeat of a dispersed Daesh presence is an absolute requirement in Syria, as in Iraq, for any future progress.
The US solution to this part is clear — a limited, semi-permanent military presence in some areas of Syria. 
A second element of the US policy — regarding political transition in Syria — is less clear. That is a process managed under UN auspices in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and the so-called Geneva I formula, which calls for a transitional authority to govern Syria while future elections are organized to choose a new president and parliament. The US is committed to that process, linking it now to its fight against Daesh. It believes that “without a transformation or transition in the models of governance in Syria, Syria becomes predictably a source of generation of future radicalism, future threat, future challenge.” The US fears dispersed Daesh elements could regroup under that name or some other name and Syria would be a source of violence, extremism and radicalization, threatening Syria’s stability, its neighbors and Europe.

Washington’s five priorities for the stabilization of war-torn nation leave many gaps and must be explained further, particularly when it comes to the role of Syria’s moderate opposition.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Despite widespread skepticism that the US is only paying lip service to the UN process, US officials say their support for the UN is very real. They are frustrated with Russia, but still hope that Moscow could help in moving the Syrian regime to serious engagement with the opposition in Geneva to see a political transition take place. It is not clear how they plan to persuade Russia to play that role.
The third element of US Syrian policy is stabilization, which requires continued US military presence, at least in the north and northeast. US officials are careful to explain that it is not nation-building, not Iraq in 2003. Instead it is basic stuff, such as demining and the removal of other ordnances, and basic restoration of essential services that would allow populations both inside and outside Syria to return to their homes. The idea is that such stabilization is required for political transition.
The fourth element is countering Iran’s malign activities in Syria and through it to Hezbollah and Lebanon. The US believes that Iran is playing a destructive role there and it does not accept Tehran’s claim to be a “guarantor” of ceasefires, when in fact Iran presents an enduring challenge to Syria’s stability and that of its neighbors, and as such to US interests. More clarifications are needed on how the US plans to counter those malign activities.
The fifth element is the “border security force.” US officials now downplay any talk about such a force, and say it was a “misstatement.” Nevertheless, the US is providing assistance, development and training to internal security forces and elements drawn from all of the ethnic populations of the north and northeast of Syria. They link those efforts with the US military presence required to ensure security for the stabilization efforts. They are hoping to provide a stable platform in the north for positive engagement by all ethnic groups — Kurdish, Arab and others — in the political process the UN is leading in Geneva. However, with the emphasis on Kurdish populations and forces, questions are raised about those efforts, especially the stability of such coalitions and whether they could indeed lead to progress in Geneva.
The US insists it has no “strategic intent” to go beyond these parameters and does not see any threat against Turkey in the training of internal security elements. The Americans do not consider Syria’s Kurds as an extension of the PKK, which they still consider a terrorist organization. Turkey is not convinced as it continues to pummel areas under the control of US-allied forces.
What is glaringly missing from the US policy is the role of the moderate opposition of Syria, which has unified its positions on almost all issues, including those related to the transition, and can be legitimately considered to be the most representative actor to speak on behalf of Syrians. But the US statements of last week only mentioned them in passing. 
While Tillerson’s talk and subsequent explanations are welcome, more discussions about the US policy with its friends and allies in the region are needed.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is a columnist for Arab News. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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