Syria Right at the Trump-Putin Summit
James F. Jeffrey, Barbara Leaf, and Dennis Ross
Monday, President Trump will confront a charged agenda in a summit with Vladimir
Putin. North Korea, Iran, Ukraine/Crimea, and a host of contentious bilateral
issues offer little apparent ground for a common approach by Washington and
persists of a possible deal with Russia on Syria. Yet caution is required, for
no decision is more likely to affect the course of events in the Middle East in
the coming years than the question of how long to retain U.S. forces in Syria.
And there can be little doubt that any deal Putin proffers will hinge on
withdrawal of U.S. forces—the very ones that have been critical to destroying
the violent jihadist homeland in Syria. Seven years on, the terrible civil war
there draws inexorably to a close, alongside the U.S. campaign to crush the
Islamic State, or at least this phase of it.
no mistake, these small U.S. forces have an outsize significance for both our
friends and enemies. At modest cost and risk, they offer substantial benefit to
U.S. national security. Carefully integrated into a larger strategy, a small,
nimble U.S. force presence offers a powerful obstacle to two threats—a
regenerated Islamic State, and Iran's effort to use Syria as a power projection
platform in the heart of the Arab Middle East and against Israel.
closest regional allies lost faith in the Obama administration because of its
perceived disengagement from the Middle East. Yet once again, and perhaps more
profoundly, the issue of U.S. commitment to its allies—and to broader
stability and security—is being widely questioned. Why? Because of the Trump
administration's hesitancy on Syria and the widening gap between its rhetoric
and the reality of its Iran policy. Reimposing sanctions on Iran is easy but
will be insufficient to reverse the gains Tehran has made on Middle East
battlefields through the IRGC and a growing army of proxies. Indeed, there is a
growing suspicion in the region that this administration does not have the
stomach to complete the hard work required to limit Iran's destabilizing
is ground zero for that effort, especially as Tehran accelerates its campaign to
construct a permanent defense and intelligence architecture there. Iranian aims
conflict squarely with Israeli security, and the IDF has repeatedly taken action
to blunt Syria's transformation into a platform for attacks against the Jewish
unchecked, Iran's deepening involvement in Syria would also reheat Sunni
extremism on the embers of the civil war. The Assad regime's Iranian-backed
crackdown had a terrifying bellows effect on Iraq, fostering a caliphate that
spanned two countries, waves of international terrorism, attacks within the
United States, and foreign fighter recruitment at a pace that threatened to
paralyze police and intelligence services around the world. We cannot risk a
return to those days by prematurely withdrawing American troops.
agony will not be quelled—nor its potential to destabilize Jordan, Lebanon,
and Europe with violence-propelled surges of refugees—by the current
"peace of the grave" approach taken by Moscow and Tehran. The chaotic
brutality of the Assad regime's effort to retake southwestern Syria, assisted by
Russian airpower and foreign fighters provided by Iran and Hezbollah, is a
chilling reminder if one is needed.
this is not an inevitable outcome. Ironically, we have the stronger allies and
the means to counter the Iranians and their proxies in order to shape a
different future for Syria. As presented in
a new study by The Washington Institute, we can do so by taking the
First, maintain a U.S.
military presence—sized to the task and complemented with a no-fly/no-drive
zone to prevent the Islamic State's regeneration—to deny these areas to
Iranian-backed forces supporting the weakened Assad regime, and to prevent an
Iranian "land bridge" to the Mediterranean.
Second, work out an
understanding with Turkey in the north that would permit the United States and
its allies to exercise control over 40 percent of Syria's territory, including
the country's most resource-rich tier.
Third, with our Gulf
allies, target banks providing credit to the Assad regime, Iranian support to
proxies in Syria, and Assad cronies who facilitate Iranian investments in Syria.
Fourth, ask our
Gulf partners to provide assistance to northeast Syria and to promote its
economic well-being. That will require not just donating assistance, but also
finding alternative markets for the area's oil and agricultural exports.
Fifth, emphasize the need
for full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which offers a
pathway to a political outcome in Syria.
And lastly, convey to
Moscow that we will back Israeli strikes against Iranian/Shia militias in Syria,
essentially forcing the Russians (and Damascus) to choose between keeping the
Assad regime in power or allowing Iran, Hezbollah, and other foreign Shia
proxies to remain in Syria.
Getting U.S. strategy right on Syria is critical to our national security. It does not require a large, long-term U.S. ground force; indeed, as in Iraq, our military forces should be tailored to the evolving requirements before us. But we have ground to make up, since Iran and Russia got there before us. Their legacy lies in Syria's ravaged landscape and millions of refugees, a situation that could easily resurrect a host of violent extremists. In that context, a disordered Syria dominated by Iran offers dire repercussions for the region—and the U.S. homeland—absent a forthright U.S. decision to play the cards we have.