On 14 January, the US-led coalition in Syria announced it was working with allied Syrian factions to form a 30,000-strong military force, more than half of which will be made up of Kurds from militias such as the Democratic Syrian Forces, to deploy along the borders with Turkey in the north and with Iraq in the southeast near the Euphrates River.
Three days later, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made statements articulating the US strategy in Syria and the region. He mentioned issues that the US has not taken a clear position on in the past, changing expectations for Syria and the Middle East as a whole.
Tillerson said US forces would remain in Syria to fight the Islamic State (IS) group, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and Iran. It would “not make the mistakes of 2011 in Iraq” when the US withdrew and left the country open to Iranian hegemony and the expansion of Al-Qaeda, he said.
This was the first time that Washington has declared its interests in Syria and said it is prepared to defend them.
Tillerson added that 2,000 US military consultants would remain in Syria east of the Euphrates until the Syrian people had chosen a credible new government. He said “complete withdrawal” from Syria at this moment “will help Al-Assad continue torturing his people”.
Discussing US policy on Syria during a speech at Stanford University in California, Tillerson said Al-Assad’s departure as part of a UN peace process “would create the conditions for permanent peace” in Syria.
Although he did not state that the US would remove Al-Assad from power, he stressed that free-and-fair elections with the participation of all those who had fled the Syrian conflict would automatically lead to Al-Assad’s departure.
He accused Al-Assad of transforming Syria into a “lackey” of Iran and stressed that “Iran will not be allowed to accomplish its greater goal of taking control of the region.”
Tillerson’s statements are a result of pressure by the US Congress on the Trump administration to clarify US strategy on Syria, and the speech is the first official document on the issue.
Five principles have been enunciated and three messages sent. The US will remain in Syria to eliminate IS and other radical groups; it rejects the Iranian presence in Syria; it intends to achieve a real political transition in Syria without Al-Assad; it wants to see Syria clear of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs); and there must be the safe return of the displaced and the refugees.
The messages are to Russia, Iran and the international community. The US wants Russia to understand that it is not in control of Syria despite its heavy military presence on the ground. It wants Iran to understand that it is on notice and that Washington will not allow it to take control of Syria. It wants the world to understand that reconstruction cannot begin until comprehensive change in the country has been accomplished, including of the regime.
The new US strategy requires complex steps to pave the way for achieving these strategic goals. There is also a need for clarification on how Washington intends to oblige the Al-Assad regime to accept a political transition including free-and-fair elections.
Tillerson’s statements have thus raised more questions than answers, reflecting the ambiguous and hesitant policy followed by the US in Syria over the past seven years, without changing the balance of power or allowing for a political solution.
They reflect the US desire not to become militarily involved in Syria, but to continue to embroil other parties there. They rely on managing the regional and international balance without tipping the scale by direct pressure.
“These statements show US impulsiveness at a critical moment, when Moscow is preparing to host the Sochi Conference so [Russian President Vladimir] Putin can declare victory in Syria,” commented Syrian opposition figure Mishaal Al-Adawi.
“This new US position will naturally be followed by international and regional actors looking to their positions, as these had lost faith that the US would play any role in finding a solution or ending the catastrophe in Syria over the past seven years.”
“I believe this is a good opportunity for the Syrian political and military opposition to engage with the new efforts because they could restore political balance on the Syrian stage after a long US retreat,” Al-Adawi said.
Saeed Moqbel, also a member of the Syrian opposition, disagrees. “Six years ago the US said Al-Assad could not remain in power and that Iran was a source of terrorism in the region. However, it has not taken a single serious step against the Syrian regime to facilitate its downfall,” he said.
“The US has remained silent on Russian actions supporting the regime, and it did not bat an eyelid when the Syrian people were being slaughtered in their thousands every month. It has refused to arm the opposition, and sometimes it has even punished it. What has changed so that the Syrians would believe it this time?”
The new strategy was not welcomed by Turkey, since Ankara believes the US intends to establish a “terrorist army” on the border between Turkey and Syria that could irreparably damage Turkish-US relations.
The core of this army will come from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian arm of the Kurdish PKK Party that Turkey categorises as a terrorist organisation.
Washington has moved to quell Ankara’s concerns by allowing Turkish forces to destroy the Syrian city of Afrin, the largest stronghold of the Kurdish militias, despite US support for them.
The Pentagon says Washington is training local security forces in Syria “to bolster the security and safety of the refugees and to prevent IS from returning.”
Tillerson’s statements imply that Al-Assad’s days are numbered, seeing his regime as a destabilising factor in the region and an entry point for Iran. They also link the US presence in Syria with US domestic security, the policy of former US president George W Bush who declared he would fight terrorism outside the US before it reached its shores.
This resulted in the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and of Iraq in 2003. However, the US withdrawal from Iraq then resulted in bolstering the power of Iran and facilitating the building of a “Shiite Crescent” through Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.
Tillerson did not say that Al-Assad must step down as a precondition for talks on Syria in his presentation, only saying that “the transitional phase cannot be successful without Al-Assad’s departure.”
For many Syrians, these words are vague, and Tillerson’s calling on the opposition to “be patient on the issue of gradual constitutional reform” implies that Washington is not in any hurry to end the slaughter in Syria.
However, the new US policy includes ways of negotiating with Russia and the possibility of avoiding the kind of “fake peace” in Syria that the Russians are supporting. It also potentially launches a real political process, as well as making Syria the frontline for confronting Iran’s influence in the region.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly