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US Syria strategy is riddled with contradictions

The first US secretary of state to visit Damascus was John Foster Dulles in 1953. Dulles and his brother Allen, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency, were avid anti-communists and they waged relentless war against regimes that dared lean towards Moscow. Damascus back then was nowhere near the Soviet camp; it was about to pass from the military dictatorship of Adib Shishakli to a democratic political system based on an elected parliament. However, in the four years of Syrian democracy, from 1954 until 1958, it was pressure from the US and its allies Turkey and Israel that pushed Syria into the arms of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and eventually Moscow. After relations were restored in 1974, every US secretary of state from Henry Kissinger had to fight many diplomatic duels in Damascus. Rex Tillerson, even though he is unlikely to visit the Syrian capital anytime soon, will struggle more than any other American diplomat before him to forge a workable Syria policy. His success is far from guaranteed.
In mid-January, a week before Trump celebrated his first year in office, Tillerson made a speech at Stanford University highlighting key aspects of the new US strategy in Syria. But a closer look at the process he described reveals that the new American approach is fraught with contradictions. It seeks to maintain dialogue with Russia, but wants to curtail the influence of Russia’s crucial partner in Syria: Iran. Another paradoxical position is the US wishing to see refugees return home, while holding the reconstruction process hostage to political developments. Last, but not least, the US has still not figured out a way to reconcile Kurdish aspirations and Turkish anxieties. 
In his speech, Tillerson heralded the near, but not yet complete, defeat of Daesh. This great feat was made possible by the cease-fire agreements Trump and Putin reached in Hamburg in July 2017, which allowed US and Russian-backed forces to pincer the terrorist group, eradicating most of its fighters. Tillerson recognized the need to continue engaging Russia diplomatically in order to maintain both cease-fires along the Euphrates and the de-escalation zone in southern Syria. Yet the secretary of state, and behind him the American national security establishment, is bent on rolling back what they see as an expanding Iranian sphere of influence in the region. The new Trump strategy in Syria identifies Iranian influence as a key threat to US interests and allies. Tillerson, however, gave few details on how the US would go about combating this.

Facing an increasingly complex situation, America’s open-ended commitment to seeing peace process through is bound to present Washington with a plethora of challenges in the near future.

Fadi Esber

The US, with boots on the ground in northeastern Syria, cannot employ a military option without seriously endangering the cease-fire agreements with Russia. The Americans, therefore, are attempting to achieve their goals via diplomatic means. They have already disregarded, to say the least, the outcomes of the Sochi conference that took place last week. Sochi was born out of the Astana process, which brought together Russia and Iran, alongside Turkey. Instead the US is throwing its lot behind the UN-led Geneva process, to the extent of linking its military presence in Syria to a political solution along the lines of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Yet Sochi and Geneva are now almost inseparable. A committee selected by the conference, facilitated by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, will discuss constitutional reforms that will later be referred to the negotiating parties in Geneva. The US still has no clear position on how to solve this contradiction.
Tillerson recognized the need for “stabilization initiatives” in Syria that would encourage the return of refugees. Meanwhile, the US and the EU have linked sanctions relief and reconstruction funds to a political resolution to the conflict. Tillerson acknowledged that the Syrian government controls “half the country” — this half includes all major urban centers and the majority of the population. And, as the many rounds of Geneva talks have proved, political processes could drag on for quite some time. Therefore, holding Syria’s economic progress hostage to the political process might seriously hinder these stabilization efforts, and would sow the seeds of future instability. A new and innovative formula is needed, especially since Tillerson affirmed repeatedly that the US will not engage in “nation-building,” leaving that job to the Syrians and perhaps other powers. 
Toward the end of his speech, Tillerson emphasized the role Turkey plays in the anti-Daesh coalition. He maintained that the US will continue to work with Turkey on Idlib and “PKK terrorists.” A few sentences later, he praised the sacrifices of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). On the ground, however, the US is completely torn between its two allies. 
In Afrin, Turkish forces are becoming mired in a military intervention targeting elements of the Kurdish-led SDF. The SDF’s beleaguered Afrin troops are now being boosted by reinforcements from other areas controlled by the group, where Kurdish fighters work shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers. In Idlib, the Astana formula dominates and the United States has no input on the situation there. As for SDF-held areas in northeastern Syria that were recently cleared of Daesh forces, Tillerson argued that “ungoverned spaces” are a breeding ground for terrorists. The US, however, has not found a proper “governing” formula for those territories, where Arabs are uneasy about Kurdish dominance. Tillerson, once more, did not provide a nuanced approach for reconciling these tensions. The simple explanation, perhaps, is that the Trump administration has not yet figured out a solution.
From Dulles to Kissinger and now Tillerson, Syria has presented the US with many strategic and tactical challenges. Today, American forces are fighting on Syrian soil for the first time in history. Tillerson vowed not to repeat the mistakes of Iraq, but he was not talking about the 2003 invasion, rather the “premature” 2011 withdrawal. Yet, in light of an increasingly complex situation and a strategy fraught with contradictions, such an open-ended commitment is bound to present the US administration with a plethora of challenges in the near future. 
Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.