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The Status Quo in Syria Cannot Hold
First, two important bits of housekeeping (OK, public relations).
My latest op-ed for The Hill is online. It discusses, wait for it, Syria.
And I’ll be joining the NPR program 1A at 11am today for the weekly international news roundup. We’ll be discussing Syria, Ukraine, China, Afghanistan, and probably some other countries.
Now, on with this newsletter.
There’s Good News and Bad News Coming out of Syria.
The good news is that a U.S. raid resulted in the leader of ISIS blowing himself up. There are the usual questions yet to be answered—were all the 13 casualties, including children, a result of the suicide blast or were any killed by U.S. Special Forces? Were any exploitable materials (computers, documents) recovered that can lead to further action against ISIS?
What is concerning is that the operation took place in the same province of northwest Syria where a similar raid led to the death of the previous ISIS leader in 2019. Idlib province is held by Syrian opposition forces, some of whom are nasty people affiliated with al-Qaeda, and obviously ISIS. The U.S. counter-ISIS mission in Syria is based in the east of the country, which means that ISIS can shelter in places like Idlib where there is no presence of U.S. and partner forces. It’s not easy to defeat an adversary that can move around territory that you can’t access or lock down—it’s like how the Taliban used Pakistan for haven to avoid U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
However, even the part of Syria where U.S. forces operate is not locked down, as evidenced by the recent bad news out of Syria: the ISIS assault on a prison housing suspected ISIS fighters. The attack launched a 10-day battle waged by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with participation from U.S. and British troops. Eventually, they prevailed and regained control of the facility. Hundreds (mostly ISIS fighters/prisoners) died in the fighting, but there are reports that hundreds of prisoners escaped.
It was the largest battle since March 2019 when the SDF and its patrons took the last of the territory ISIS held in Syria. Since then, ISIS has been operating as a clandestine insurgency.
The Lead Inspector General reports that I used to manage continue to report that ISIS is working to rebuild and resurge. The reports have mentioned that ISIS was looking to conduct prison breaks to help refill its ranks.
This bad news is a wake-up call that the status quo in Syria is precarious and untenable. The United States and the international community need to take some difficult steps to put Syria on a path to an end state that people can live with. There are no good options, just degrees of bad.
Syria has been a conundrum since the Arab Spring kicked off in 2011. President Bashar al-Assad watched other Arab rulers fall and brushed aside calls to step down. He unleashed a vicious campaign that included chemical attacks and other war crimes against his people to maintain his grip on power. Russia and Iran came to his support.
The Trump administration’s policy in Syria had three pillars: defeat ISIS, resolve the civil war in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (which calls for a political transition and free elections), and drive all Iranian forces and proxies out of Syria. When President Trump left office, ISIS was degraded and largely contained, the UN process was paralyzed, and Iranian forces were metastasized in Syria.
That promoted the Biden administration to conduct a policy review, and late last fall it quietly articulated a pragmatic, minimalist set of U.S. interests in Syria: keep troops in Syria to pressure ISIS, maintain ceasefires among the armed groups in the country, increase the humanitarian response, and support Israel’s right of self-defense.
Critics on the right and left have argued that narrow set of interests simply triages the situation and fails to address the underlying conditions. That is true. The Biden administration is conceding that the UN-led effort to negotiate a political transition in Syria is all but dead. The odds that Assad will be removed from power and tried for his crimes are close to zero. Removing Assad would require an Iraq-style invasion that would unchain Russia and Iran. It’s notable that those who argue on moral grounds Assad must be removed and tried have not presented any viable means of doing so.
Several Arab countries reached the conclusion that Assad is here to stay and started normalizing relations with Assad. President Biden has not opposed those efforts.
While I agree that Biden is right to dial back ambitions in Syria, his approach of maintaining the fragile status quo is flawed and risks a paroxysm that could benefit ISIS.
The presence of U.S. forces in eastern Syria is contingent upon the ongoing deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. While the Iraqi government has welcomed the U.S. deployment since the rise of ISIS in 2014, there are many factions in Iraq, particularly those backed by Iran, that want the United States out. The Iraqi political landscape continues to be fluid and volatile. The country has yet to form a new government after the October 2021 elections, and there is no guarantee the next government will want U.S. troops to remain in Iraq.
Plus, Assad will not tolerate an indefinite U.S. troop presence in Syria. While the current situation has benefitted him by outsourcing the fight against ISIS, which has allowed him to consolidate resources to contain the Syrian opposition, eventually Assad (with Russian and Iranian backing) will move to retake eastern Syria and its oil resources.
Therefore, the United States cannot count on being able to maintain forces in Syria indefinitely and must map out a transition plan that avoids creating a security vacuum in eastern Syria that ISIS can exploit. The United States cannot afford another Afghanistan-style precipitous withdrawal from a terrorist haven.
Unfortunately, a negotiated, managed transition is currently far more difficult to achieve than a year ago. Russia is the key player and broker for a stable transition in Syria. Should the United States have to take aggressive measures to respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, that will prevent any efforts to collaborate on a way forward in Syria anytime soon.
This brings us back to my op-ed that I mentioned at the top of this dispatch. For now, one thing that the international community can do is get the foreign ISIS fighters, supporters, and family members out of Syria. It’s not going to be easy, but people have been putting it off long enough. Doing so will reduce the risk of prison breaks and reduce the potential for increased radicalization.
Much more will need to be done, but it’s long past time to move from triage and containment to solving some of the underlying problems and conditions that allow ISIS to regenerate.